How are city networks responding to COVID-19 and what lessons can be drawn for city climate action?

The COVID-19 pandemic has generated urgent and significant challenges for city authorities and citizens. At the same time, the crisis raises new and renewed social, economic, and public health questions and opportunities for sustainable urban development. As the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy (GCoM) Research and Innovation Technical Working Group develops a strategic framework to advance city climate action at a regional scale, understanding and responding to the pandemic at a local level must be part of this process.


Temporary bike lanes in Vancouver, Canada, April 2020 (Photo by Dylan Passmore licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 / Cropped from original)

In response to an unprecedented crisis, city authorities are innovating by necessity. Measures to contain virus outbreaks have cascading impact across geographical scales and systems that generate context-specific challenges for cities: from the displacement of migrant workers in New Delhi[i] (India) and the decline of international tourism income supporting produce markets in the Pacific Islands,[ii] to insufficient sanitation systems in Nairobi’s informal settlements[iii] (Kenya). The crisis is new territory for many cities lacking shared understanding between governments about effective responses. City roles and responsibilities within multilevel governance frameworks differ between regions[iv] and can constrain city agency. Emergency governance innovations have nevertheless been identified[v] in new decision-making and citizen engagement processes and rethinking of existing infrastructures.

Barcelona (Spain) instituted “consensus-based decision-making” among over 200 stakeholders (the Barcelona Deal[vi]) to inform its recovery strategy. Bogotá (Colombia) has sought to empower its citizens through transparent communication[vii] of information as well as undertaking social research to understand the needs and priorities of constituents and build “co-responsibility” and trust. Gautang (South Africa) is facilitating coordinated multilevel governance through flexible emergency budgeting for rapid response to localised vulnerabilities.[viii] The role of technology is also apparent; Seoul (South Korea) is recognised for its successful adaptation of existing surveillance capacity and big data[ix] for virus contact tracing[x] as well as its approach to open information.[xi]

City networks are synthesising and distributing knowledge and insights from and for city practitioners. United Cities for Local Governments (UCLG) and partners have developed resources on city responses such as those referenced above.C40,[xii] ICLEI[xiii] (Local Governments for Sustainability), and EUROCITIES[xiv] provide centralised platforms for topical and best practice resources and commentary for city stakeholders, while GCoM’s internal Regions Portal circulates these and other resources and online events through a COVID-19 communication channel.

These resources include city data trackers. To date, Cities for Global Health[xv] has documented 651 initiatives across 34 countries in 103 cities, the National League of Cities and Bloomberg Philanthropies[xvi] has tracked 2,667 policies located in 521 cities in the USA, and 678 city initiatives across Canada have been captured by the Canadian Urban Institute.[xvii]UN-Habitat is surveying citizens[xviii] globally to understand COVID-19 impacts and responses with 1,842 respondents across 113 countries and hosts a City Index[xix] that quantifies city readiness and response.

Part of the knowledge sharing role of city networks involves convening city decision-makers. UCLG, Metropolis, and UN-Habitat host Live Learning Experiences[xx] where local and regional government exchange concerns and measures are undertaken in response to COVID-19. For example, cities are acting to ensure sufficient access to food[xxi] among poor and isolated communities as well as students, health, and informal sector workers. In doing so, cities are negotiating their role in the food system while attending to wider concerns of food justice and solidarity, women’s right to the city, the regeneration of natural environments, and maintaining public services.

Likewise, C40 has convened a Mayoral Taskforce[xxii] of 11 cities globally, chaired by the Mayor of Milan, to drive economic recovery that “improves public health, reduces inequality and addresses the climate crisis.” This initiative highlights how cities and city networks globally are looking towards transformative recovery from the pandemic to advance existing climate goals. “Green Recovery” has crystallised as a key policy agenda and advocacy platform – mobilised by GCoM[xxiii] – as governments roll out economic stimulus packages at risk of reinforcing fossil fuel dependencies and social inequalities and injustices.[xxiv]

Finance and other resources remain a critical concern[xxv] for cities to act on climate change with heightened spending on essential local services at the same time as loss of revenues. These challenges highlight a need for collaborative capacity building and coordination across levels of government, financial institutions, and other domestic and international stakeholders making decisions about post-COVID stimulus packages. This kind of coordination is illustrated by State Government funding provided to the City of Melbourne (Australia) to pay otherwise unemployed workers in revegetation[xxvi] while contributing to the city’s greening targets.

In some ways, city responses to the pandemic have broken with “business as usual.” To improve public space and mobility, city authorities across North America, Europe and Oceania[xxvii] have reclaimed road space to expand cycling lanes. In Europe, North and South America,[xxviii] city authorities are housing the homeless and vulnerable and subsidising and safeguarding rental housing and utilities. Other cities, particularly in the Global South, may face more enduring challenges[xxix] of energy access,[xxx]sanitation,[xxxi] and waste management.[xxxii] While public transport and urban density have drawn concern about their (perceived) role in virus transmission, unfolding reporting[xxxiii] and research[xxxiv] cautions against such conclusions.

There is nevertheless a broader sense that citizens’ expectations, priorities, and imaginaries for the built environment, the role of (local) government, and urban life may be shifting – not only around things like access to green space and flexible and safe working conditions, but concern for marginalised communities, affordable and universal housing, the value of charitable and public services, and grassroots organising. These social currents provide a political imperative and opportunity for city authorities to respond to community needs and priorities to ensure all citizens can thrive in a low-carbon world. Mayors[xxxv] globally are already committing to these goals.

Ultimately, climate action must respond to the COVID-19 context and take a systemic and resilient approach. Climate change interventions must acknowledge and address the immediate and emerging needs of citizens and diverse communities as well as the vulnerability of critical infrastructures. The intersections of public health and the (built) environment clearly demonstrate the importance of a systems approach and the need for feasible, attractive, and engaging steps forward. Sustainability advocates should consider lessons in public communications at the science-policy-community interface.

To deliver an integrated response, “Green Recovery” policy measures will benefit from decades of climate research which has developed a tradition in systems thinking.[xxxvi] The turn towards reclaiming public space and reinforcing local value chains make visible the connections between the built environment, green open spaces, mobility, production and consumption, labour and food, and how these connections constitute new city habits and solutions. By drawing on these insights and recognising how culture and media shape policy narratives, we can make the case for healthy, economically viable, and ecologically sustainable cities. The intersections between structural measures and tailor-made implementation demonstrate how local and national governments can both gain from better cooperation.

With the ambition to bridge systemic challenges and impact-driven climate action plans, GCoM’s Innovate4Cities initiative[xxxvii] embraces collaboration between various stakeholders using science and research, innovation and technology, and city-level data access as necessary levers. Understanding the interconnectivity and interdependency of systems on the public agenda today will help us shape steppingstones towards the liveable and sustainable cities of tomorrow.

We acknowledge Paolo Bertoldi, Steven Bland, Firdaous Oussidhoum, Pourya Salehi, and Maryke van Staden of the Research and Innovation Technical Working Group of GCoM, Jorn Verbeeck, and Julie Greenwalt for the discussion that led to the development of this paper.

Paris Hadfield is a Research Fellow in Urban Innovation with the Connected Cities Lab at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

Dr Rachel Huxley is Director of Knowledge & Learning at C40 Cities.

Dr Cathy Oke is Special Advisor, Innovate4Cities, Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy (GCoM) and Enterprise Senior Fellow in Informed Cities with the Connected Cities Lab.


[i] Aljazeera. (2020). Coronavirus lockdown: India grapples with migrant workers' exodus. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/coronavirus-lockdown-india-grapples-migrant-workers-exodus-200328151304900.html

[ii] Sherzad, S. (2020). Impacts of COVID-19 on the food systems of Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) and responses. http://www.fao.org/in-action/food-for-cities-programme/news/detail/en/c/1278570/

[iii] United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. (2020). Kenya’s informal settlements need safe water to survive COVID-19. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/COVID19_RighttoWaterKenya.aspx

[iv] de Losada, A. F. and Abdullah, H. (Eds). (2020). Cities on the Frontline: Managing the Coronavirus Crisis. Retrieved from: https://dossiers.cidob.org/cities-in-times-of-pandemics/index.html

[v] Davis, D. E. and Willis, G. D. (2020). Emergency Governance for Cities and Regions. Retrieved from: https://www.uclg.org/en/media/news/within-framework-emergency-governance-initiative-uclg-metropolis-and-lse-cities-publish

[vi] Chamat, O. (2020, July 29). The Barcelona Deal: consensus building for COVID-recovery [Video file]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qVuOlmY0KA

[vii] Chamat, O. (2020, July 29). Bogotá Citizens' Culture: open COVID-19 communication and feedback [Video file]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJfqG5GzyO4

[viii] Gauteng City-Region Observatory. (2020). Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in Gauteng. https://www.gcro.ac.za/research/project/detail/responding-covid-19-pandemic-gauteng/

[ix] Seoul Metropolitan Government. (2020). Seoul’s “Smart City Platform for Mayor” to Lead Global Communication in the Age of “Untact”. http://english.seoul.go.kr/seouls-smart-city-platform-for-mayor-to-lead-global-communication-in-the-age-of-untact/

[x] Lee, H. (2020). These Elite Contact Tracers Show the World How to Beat Covid-19. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-25/these-elite-contact-tracers-show-the-world-how-to-beat-covid-19

[xi] Kim, M. S. (2020). Seoul’s Radical Experiment in Digital Contact Tracing. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/seouls-radical-experiment-in-digital-contact-tracing

[xii] C40. (2020). Cities, Coronavirus (COVID-19) and a Green Recovery. https://www.c40knowledgehub.org/s/cities-and-coronavirus-covid-19?language=en_US

[xiii] Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI). (2020). COVID-19 Resources. https://iclei.org/en/covid19_resources.html

[xiv] EUROCITIES. (2020). Live updates COVID-19. https://covidnews.eurocities.eu/

[xv] Cities for Global Health. (2020). Cities for Global Health. https://www.citiesforglobalhealth.org/

[xvi] National League of Cities. (2020). COVID-19: Local Action Tracker. https://covid19.nlc.org/resources/covid-19-local-action-tracker/

[xvii] The Canadian Urban Institute. (2020). CityShare Canada. https://citysharecanada.ca/what-is-cityshare-canada/

[xix] UN Habitat. (2020). City Index. https://unhabitat.citiiq.com/

[xx] United Cities and Local Government. (2020). Live Learning Experience #BeyondTheOutbreak. https://www.uclg.org/en/issues/live-learning-experience-beyondtheoutbreak

[xxi] United Cities and Local Government. (2020). Access to healthy food: lessons from a pandemic. https://www.uclg.org/en/media/news/access-healthy-food-lessons-pandemic

[xxii] C40. (2020). “No Return to Business as Usual”: Mayors Pledge on COVID-19 Economic Recovery. https://www.c40.org/press_releases/taskforce-principles

[xxiii] Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy. (2020). Over 10,000 Cities Worldwide Call on all Governments for a Global Green Recovery. https://www.globalcovenantofmayors.org/press/statement-global-covenant-of-mayors-mayoral-board-on-covid-19-green-recovery/

[xxiv] Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy. (2020). Call to address the root causes of social and racial injustice. https://www.globalcovenantofmayors.org/press/call-to-address-the-root-causes-of-social-and-racial-injustice/

[xxv] Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance. (2020). Statement from the Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance on the COVID-19 Crisis. https://www.citiesclimatefinance.org/2020/05/statement-covid-19/

[xxvi] City of Melbourne. (2020). Greening the city - 150,000 new plants and trees. https://www.melbourne.vic.gov.au/news-and-media/Pages/Greening-the-city---150,000-new-plants-and-trees.aspx

[xxviii] C40. (2020). Housing and COVID-19: How cities are supporting tenants, homeowners and homeless people. https://www.c40knowledgehub.org/s/article/How-cities-are-supporting-residents-in-the-formal-housing-market-during-COVID-19?language=en_US

[xxix] UN-Habitat. (2020). UN-Habitat COVID-19 Response Plan. Retrieved from: https://unhabitat.org/sites/default/files/2020/04/final_un-habitat_covid-19_response_plan.pdf

[xxx] C40. (2020). Realising the clean energy opportunity through city-scale COVID-19 recovery plans. https://www.c40knowledgehub.org/s/article/Realising-the-clean-energy-opportunity-through-city-scale-COVID-19-recovery-plans?language=en_US

[xxxi] C40. (2020). Upgrading informal settlements to reduce COVID-19 risk and strengthen cities’ recovery. https://www.c40knowledgehub.org/s/article/Upgrading-informal-settlements-to-reduce-COVID-19-risk-and-strengthen-cities-recovery?language=en_US

[xxxiii] Ardila-Gomez, A. (2020). In the fight against COVID-19, public transport should be the hero, not the villain. https://blogs.worldbank.org/transport/fight-against-covid-19-public-transport-should-be-hero-not-villain

[xxxiv] Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. (2020). Study: Urban Density Not Linked to Higher Coronavirus Infection Rates—and Is Linked to Lower COVID-19 Death Rates. https://www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2020/urban-density-not-linked-to-higher-coronavirus-infection-rates-and-is-linked-to-lower-covid-19-death-rates.html

[xxxv] C40. (2020). “No Return to Business as Usual”: Mayors Pledge on COVID-19 Economic Recovery. https://www.c40.org/press_releases/taskforce-principles

[xxxvi] Loorbach, D., Frantzeskaki, N. and Avelino, F. (2017). Sustainability Transitions Research: Transforming Science and Practice for Societal Change. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 42(1), 599-626. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318342038_Sustainability_Transitions_Research_Transforming_Science_and_Practice_for_Societal_Change

[xxxvii] Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy (GCoM). (2020). Innovate4Cities. https://www.globalcovenantofmayors.org/our-initiatives/innovate4cities/

Photo credit:

Passmore, D. (2020). DSC_9690. Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/dylanpassmore/49769948783/

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Paris Hadfield