Pandemic Response In The News

Post-Pandemic Cities: Recovery, Transition, and Renewal

This article first appeared on Diplomatic Couriers website. MMC engages in content partnerships with several organizations, and cross-posting does not indicate an endorsement or agreement.

On October 21-23, mayors from around the world, convened by the Global Parliament of Mayors, gathered virtually in Palermo, Italy to chart a path forward for leadership in the post-COVID era. They were joined by international organizations, non-governmental organizations, universities, think tanks, industry, and other stakeholders. City networks and platforms such as the Global Parliament of Mayors both power and reflect an important development in global governance: the emergence and maturation of cities and urban areas as actors, voices, and problem solvers on the global stage. In Palermo, participating mayors debated critical policy points, shared experiences and lessons, and identified key policy actions around five themes: Cities, Urban Areas, and Climate Migration; Global Governance; Urban Pandemic Response; Rethinking Urban Economies After COVID-19; and Culture. The policy briefing for the debates, which can be found in full here, were provided by international organizations, leading scholars, and practitioners alike.

As the member states of the United Nations affirmed in the New Urban Agenda, there is no addressing global challenges without enabling action by cities and in urban areas. And as global urban leaders, like the GPM and its colleague networks, have affirmed, there is no transforming our cities for the future without collaboration with local stakeholders.

In the spirit of World Cities Day and advancing conversations, highlighted below are key points from each thematic brief and debate from the Palermo Summit.


In a warming, urbanizing world, cities are the main sanctuaries for the growing number of people affected by climate and environmental change. Cities, as hosts to many migrants, have a mandate and a responsibility to provide for the needs of their residents, including migrants, and to support newcomers’ long-run integration. At the same time, by adapting their infrastructures and institutions to growing service demands, cities can benefit from the cultural diversity, economic prosperity, and social dynamism that newcomers offer. As cities play an increasingly central role in addressing the environmental crisis and in welcoming the growing number of migrants, national leaders and the international community must enable cities to seek solutions that deliver on this responsibility. Governments and international organizations must recognize that migration is increasingly an urban phenomenon, notably, by empowering cities to plan for manageable migration and relocation of those at risk due to climate disasters.  

Migration induced by conflict or disaster is neither recent nor fixed. The number of displaced persons has substantially grown in the past three decades with 82.4 million people, or more than 1% of the world population, forcibly displaced by 2021. In the face of these unprecedented circumstances, many governments have increased border enforcement, encampment, and criminalization of migrant populations.

Although population displacement is often the result of a multicausal relationship between environmental, political, economic, and sociocultural drivers, the climate crisis has proven to be an ever more pressing factor. Storms, floods, wildfires, droughts, and other extreme weather events forced 55 million people out of their homes in 2020.

In the absence of global leadership and locally identified protection programs, some cities and nations are facing complete destruction, with developing countries and vulnerable communities being hardest hit by the environmental crises.

Many cities are in the most affected regions, such as coastal and dry areas of Africa, coasts of Mexico and the Caribbean, river systems of Asia and low-lying islands in the Indian and Pacific oceans, regions collectively home to hundreds of millions and are already experiencing extreme weather conditions. As a result, movements within, to, and from urban areas are producing a demographic dynamic with implications for all facets of urban planning and governance.

The climate will continue to change even as the international community commits to reduce emissions and use renewable energy on a greater scale. As such, cities must build resilience and advocate for inclusive adaptation programs by linking local knowledge and global resources through locally-situated leaders.

Thanks to the advocacy of the IOM, MMC, C40, and the GPM, it is now widely recognized that people at risk of climate disasters will find their way to and through cities. The Mayoral Roundtable on Migration is now included in the official forum where international migration policies are debated and discussed. As a result of the ongoing efforts of local leaders, at an official side event of the United Nations High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (UN HLPF 2021) held in July 2021, mayors from around the world came together with representatives of national governments and UN officials to discuss the pressing challenges related to these population movements in the context of environmental change. However, there is significant progress yet to be made to elevate local voices and enable local actions.


As identified in the New Urban Agenda, effective urban governance is a critical driver of sustainable development. Given the globalized nature of the planet’s most pressing challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and migration, local leaders must not only work within their own cities, but also build partnerships with governmental and non-governmental actors at, national, regional and international levels. Managing these multilevel and multisectoral partnerships can strain municipal resources that are already stretched. However, these partnerships also offer new avenues for mayors to drive global initiatives and implement transformative change.

COVID-19 has demonstrated that mayors have unique expertise in developing and implementing local solutions with diverse stakeholders as well as articulating the needs of their communities at national, regional and international levels. There are, however, many barriers to effective urban governance. Local authorities often have limited legal or policy authorities to design and implement substantive change. Additionally, even prior to the pandemic, the budgets of many cities were in decline. This has been exacerbated by reduced tax revenue and additional expenditure during COVID-19, which has especially affected cities in the global south. Cities have made significant progress in elevating their voice internationally, often through transnational city networks and initiatives such as the Global Parliament of Mayors (GPM). Yet, a 2019 global survey of 47 cities found that 78% of city officials saw inadequate funding as a barrier to city diplomacy. This issue is also affecting city networks. According to a 2020 survey of 200 networks, 24% saw budgetary decreases in the last few years.

Powered in large part by transnational city initiatives, cities have strengthened their multilateral governance processes. Through initiatives such as the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments and the Mayors Mechanism of the Global Forum on Migration and Development, cities are moving from outside advocates to institutional participants in major multilateral forums. They are no longer mere implementers of top-down policy decisions, but also leaders in global policy. Despite this progress, more needs to be done to advance the role of cities in global governance.

With the increasing role of urban governance in confronting global problems and crises, three key priority areas emerge for mayors: (i) reinforcing national-local collaboration, (ii) building global multi-stakeholder partnerships, and (iii) engaging with diverse stakeholders to enable an inclusive and resilient recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Firstly, cities should seek to reinforce national-local collaboration to more effectively deliver public services, allow for more local autonomy, and identify local solutions to achieve national goals. The 2019 GPM “Resolution Empowering Cities to Cope with Global Challenges” noted forcefully that democratic governments should “allow cities and urban areas more freedom to act on systemic challenges.” UN-Habitat and the African Centre for Cities have jointly noted the need for better interinstitutional hierarchy and coordination between national and local governments to optimize the delivery of public services while simultaneously recognizing a need for greater autonomy of local governments to allow the provision of decentralized services. During the pandemic, dialogue between national governments and cities was crucial in early-stage national responses, and later in allowing decision-makers to integrate cities’ needs in the design of legal and financial instruments at the national level.

Secondly, cities should build on their progress in establishing global partnerships to better coordinate the efforts of transnational city networks, and enhance direct engagement with the private sector and international organizations. The GPM has previously observed that as more mayors and urban leaders participate in city networks, they increase their influence on global governance. Nevertheless, in the context of stretched resources at the municipal level, there is a need to maximize the impact of city efforts through coordination among networks. Furthermore, the GPM Durban Declaration pledged a closer partnership with elected city leaders and city networks in making, implementing and enforcing global frameworks. Additionally, cities have an opportunity for closer collaboration with the private sector and institutions which remain an underutilized partner in global multi-stakeholder collaboration.

Lastly, COVID-19 has highlighted global interconnectedness and the need for global governance mechanisms that reinforce preparedness, resiliency, and crisis management. The pandemic has also underscored the need for mayors to ensure that the needs of vulnerable groups are prioritized in this planning. The economic and social crisis has often hit the most vulnerable the hardest. This highlights a need to adopt a more place-based and people-centered approach to urban governance and community engagement to ensure an inclusive recovery. In previous resolutions, the GPM has suggested that equity should be at the forefront of efforts to achieve the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals.  more should be done to close the gap in equity.


The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical role that cities play in protecting public health, not just of their citizens, but of national and global populations. Every city is unique, but their resilience to pandemics and other health threats depends on a well-prepared healthcare system. In this age of pandemics, public health institutions must be designed, managed, and equipped to address urbanization in the twenty-first century.

Cities are on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic, and mayors are working tirelessly to protect their populations. Urban residents are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 due to a number of factors including crowded living conditions, reliance upon public transport, economic participation, types of employment, and exposure to national and international travel. In cities, there are significant disparities in access to health services, risk communication, and community engagement that result in unequal health and economic outcomes.

To best protect their populations, city leaders must promote equitable access to vaccines once available.  While vaccination is important, the efficacy of other proactive measures should not be discounted, and those must also be driven by an equitable approach. The virus and lockdown measures have disproportionately affected those who were already vulnerable, particularly people with existing health conditions, poorer communities, and those with precarious employment or living conditions. These risks and vulnerabilities should be reflected in local policies for health protection and promotion. Vulnerable groups should be placed at the heart of plans for pandemic response and recovery, and mayors are uniquely positioned to lead these efforts.

While cities often cannot negotiate their own vaccine access agreements, they can support national efforts with efficient and equitable vaccine delivery. Cities must ensure that vaccine distribution prioritizes the most vulnerable, including health workers and sociodemographic groups at higher risk of disease or death. Their voices and platforms are crucial for advocating at national and international levels to ensure the equitable vaccine distribution in countries that are under-resourced. Moreover, city networks play an important role in sharing experiences, providing technical support, and communicating local needs to the global community, through vaccine equity statements, grants and technical assistance, and network commitments.

Public health measures—such as wearing masks, practicing physical distancing, and adequate indoor ventilation—are extremely effective at protecting people in the absence of or in conjunction with vaccines. Some local authorities may use their legislative powers to introduce and enforce such public health measures. Cities can also support one another by sharing success stories and lessons learned to encourage the adoption of good practices between peers.

Local government officials are often trusted more than officials at higher levels of government. Mayors are thus well-positioned to address misinformation, as well as the global ‘infodemic’ of damaging vaccine myths. In a pandemic, accurate information saves lives. It is especially important to understand if there are specific population groups that are negatively affected by COVID-19 myths and are discouraged from receiving their vaccine. Community engagement should also be a priority in the pandemic response. City leaders and health officials must listen to their communities to understand and address fears around vaccination and other concerns about following COVID-19 advice.

Finally, city leaders must ensure that the influence of social determinants on health is reflected in pandemic response strategies. Inadequate housing, lack of water and sanitation, food insecurity, economic instability, and the inability to produce medical records all undermine people’s opportunities for better health. Poorer communities have already been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, from both health and socioeconomic perspectives. The impact of entrenched social inequalities undermines the success of public health programs.

In the absence of a vaccine, recognizing and addressing some of these social determinants of health will strengthen citizens’ protection against COVID-19. It will also contribute to a stronger recovery from the environmental, economic and social consequences of the pandemic, and foster resilience against future threats. The pandemic has underscored the importance of cities in responding to national and global public health challenges. At the same time, it has also highlighted opportunities to build back better at the local level, ensuring that citizens remain at the heart of urban design and decision-making.


The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the face of the world. After four decades of global economic integration and attempts for supernational modes of regulation, governments suddenly looked for ways to reassert domestic  control. The global pandemic has not been managed by global governance. Indeed, the persistent inequality between continents has been highlighted. Health policies have been “nationalized,” all while cities and local governments received limited resources to manage a crisis that was unevenly distributed and concentrated in the most densely populated areas.

At the economic level, the most striking feature was the uneven access to resources and the incapacity of the world market to provide for needs in the right place and time. Medical resources, like masks and vaccines, and medical providers, like hospitals and specialized doctors, did not reflect global economies, but rather local means and resources. The confinement of populations also led to a new thinking on localizing basic needs, provisions, and production capacities. This agenda has only been strengthened by ecological challenges and the climate crisis. These problems, and their related policy solutions, have helped reorient economies around shortened production and distribution chains, and the use of local resources, re-use, and recycling. The restrictions during the crisis have also increased the attention to what is deemed “essential” versus “luxury,” what had to be maintained and safeguarded and what was at risk, and what would be the focus of recovery plans. A new attention was drawn on a “local economy,” relatively autonomous from global competition. But what can we truly do with our own means? What is the realm of local agency?

Two shifts can be seen within the field of urban economic analysis. On the one hand, there is the insight that only a part of the urban economy is involved in continental or global competition. Our hospitals or schools are not directly “competing” with hospitals and schools worldwide. Our butchers and bakers might be competing with global value chains in their respective sectors, but are mainly confronted with local purchasing power. Research indicates that in most cities surplus value production in reproducing and servicing local daily lives accounted for almost half or more of local GDP. Growth models should concentrate more on that segment.

What are the basic needs of our population and how do we build a sustainable economic model to match them? The new urban economy must be rightly “placed” in the city. Most cities are looking for the right combination between the “productive city,” the “consumption city,” and the “livable city.” Major industries have left city centers, all while modern urban planning remains based on “zoning” and concentrating productive activities in specified industrial areas. This, coupled with de-industrialization causing unemployment mainly among unskilled labor, has complicated the transition to tertiary economies and increased the tension between productive activities and urban living conditions.

With a return to economic production and reproduction in local contexts, a new emphasis on integral urban planning has arisen, making a clear view on the local urban ecosystem necessary. Such an approach supersedes the classic divide between urban and rural, as a new symbiotic relationship and contract can be made. Sustainable planning needs a clear-cut analysis of spatial and territorial characteristics and opportunities. Mapping the economic activities within a territorial urban development plan allows for locating the foundational economies near residential zones, just as local economic activities require the mobility of commuters and goods and local urban planning.

The new urban economy must be carried by a development coalition. The dynamics of the global economy have delocalized various economic actors. Multinational companies, financialization, and virtual platforms are in search of places, producers, and customers without necessarily being integrated in local economic circuits. They are sometimes closer to an extractive economy than of a development model. A local economic policy needs to integrate entrepreneurial energy in synergy with other urban development plans and ambitions: movement of goods, healthy food, strong education, clean air, inclusive health policies, energy-friendly housing, and a focus on closing social opportunity gaps.

The market economy remains the main engine in producing wealth and capital accumulation. This private-driven activity is an important part of the urban economy, especially in distribution, service, and the commercial sectors. Yet public services and public investment are another important agent in the urban economy. Furthermore, cities provide for the important sector of informal and voluntary activities vital to the living conditions (and sometimes, survival) of large parts of the population. Urban economic policies would benefit from a better coordination of these three important actors: private industry, the public sector, and civil society. They should become partners in a development coalition situated in a mixed economy as driving forces in multiscalar and multipolar development plans. In the end, empowering cities is necessary for a sound economic transition to a more sustainable world system.


International, national, and local leaders, as well as organizations, cities, and nations are discovering that culture is of substantial importance. Culture generates a stable sense of belonging and also a dynamic platform for change. There is a vast but under-acknowledged bank of evidence speaking to culture’s power and potential, including a literature review by the WHO of 3,000 studies and an evidence base created by the European Union, as well as hundreds of studies in specific cities. Culture matters, in other words, for the economic and social recovery of our cities.

Culture is a necessary and renewable resource, the fourth pillar of sustainable development. It is often, however, overlooked. The obstacle, in part, has been the word itself. Culture means two opposite things. One meaning is a heritage of shared beliefs, practices, and places, something to be protected rather than tampered with. This is the sense used by most decision makers who are trained in the social sciences, which privilege patterns over disruptions. The other sense is dynamic and familiar to artists and humanists who disrupt patterns and generate new relationships. One understanding is fixed, making culture either an obstacle to development or a fringe area for decoration and leisure, vulnerable to budget cuts. The other is edgy, experimental, and jealous of personal freedom. This difference in meaning causes a blind spot for both mayors and creatives who see past one another when collaborations are urgently needed to adjust outdated attitudes and behaviors that currently block development toward the SDGs.

Today, in a post-pandemic world, we have an extraordinary opportunity to bring these visions together into bifocal projects. Shared beliefs and practices need to be refreshed and updated, as mayors know; and artistic interventions need to take stock of their practical effects, beyond personal satisfaction. Otherwise, we waste the creative resources that make us human. Collaborations will make us better citizens who foster security, physical and mental health, economic equity, and care in both senses of loving and taking responsibility for society. In sum, the power of art can energize cities across all dimensions.

When the general population is engaged in collective and creative activities, it builds human and social capital, new personal skills, and admiration for fellow citizens. For example, in 1995, newly elected Mayor Antanas Mockus of Bogota, Colombia, intentionally provoked his city driven by despair, violence, and corruption. “Time to bring out the clowns,” he said, adding that it’s a “good idea.” Twenty pantomime artists replaced twenty corrupt traffic police to shame irresponsible pedestrians and drivers. The shared laughter broke an apparently solid pattern of lawlessness. In the first year, there were 51% fewer traffic deaths. Many participatory arts initiatives followed, along with tax reform, transparency, and infrastructural development. But art was the icebreaker. Within two administrations, homicides were reduced by almost 70%, while tax revenues increased by 300%. This was “cultural acupuncture,” an approach developed from Jaime Lerner’s “urban acupuncture” for Curitiba, Brazil. Mayor Mockus added participatory art making and accomplished astounding results.

As part of a mayor’s toolbox, participatory arts can play a significant role in addressing the global challenges of the SDGs. “Had I understood the power of arts to change behavior and to drive prosperity,” observed Jose Molinas of Paraguay, “I would have made very different decisions as Minister of Development.”


Cities, Urban Areas and Climate Migration Team

• Foroogh Farhang, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

• Christopher Richte, the International Organization for Migration

Governance Team

• Raghu Ramkumar, Lean Doody, Floris Akkermans, ARUP

• Daniel Pejic and Michele Acuto, University of Melbourne

• Aziza Akhmouch, Sena Segbedzi, and Soo-Jin Kim, OECD; City of Mannheim; Metropolis

Urban Pandemic Response Team

• Dr. Nathalie Laure Roebbel, Head, Urban Health, Social Determinants of Health

• Susannah Robinson, Technical Officer, World Health Organization

• Dr. Rebecca Katz, Director, and Matthew Boyce, Senior Researcher, Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security

Local Economies Team

• Prof. Dr. Eric Corijn, Free University Brussels, member Advisory Board GPM

• Doris Sommer, Director of the Cultural Agents Initiative

• Ira and Jewell Williams, Professors of Romance Languages and Literatures and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University

• Charles Landry, Member Advisory Committee GPM


Subscribe to our newsletter to receive our latest news and updates.