Over the last decade, cities have increasingly been recognized as integral to resiliency. Home to a majority of the world’s population, cities are at the forefront of climate resiliency, as urban residents collectively face the brunt of environmental hazards. As jobs coalesce in urban areas, cities are at the forefront of economic resiliency, as they continue to attract talent and absorb disruptions. And with inequities persistent in both, cities are the forefront of social resiliency, where damage disproportionately posed to vulnerable populations is front and center.
Then a global pandemic hit.
“Talk about chronic stress and shock, to not just one area of the world,” said Councilman Oscar Narvaez, the chairman of Dallas’ first-ever Environment and Sustainability Committee, “but the entire planet, at the same time.” Narvaez recited a definition of resiliency as the city's capacity from all parties — individuals, governments, systems — to “survive, adapt, and grow” from any stress or shock. “Right now this is even more meaningful, and powerful.”
Narvaez was one of the first speakers for EarthxCities, a two-day event during the EarthX conference that focuses on building resilience in cities to face future realities. It wasn’t just the virtual setup that reminded viewers that the world we are now living in, where nearly a half of the Earth’s inhabitants are under some form of lockdown, had vastly changed. In a matter of days, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed society’s systemic cracks perhaps more than any event in modern history, and put cities on the defense in ways not seen in our lifetime. One does not have to look far for the new definitions that urban resilience has taken on in its wake.
But for climate advocates, the virus has also been a blaring call to arms. It is lending, they said, the most tangible evidence in decades that the current system isn’t working for the planet.
“Right now in my hometown, I can look out the window and see the cleanest skies of my lifetime— a product of everything we’re doing to stay safer at home,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcettisaid. “As we eventually emerge from this darkness and from this moment, we must act to preserve that sky, and build a greener, fairer, more sustainable future in Los Angeles and cities around the globe.”
Amidst the calamitous news cycle, people around the world are finding hope in the environment, which is on track to witness the sharpest dropin carbon emissions since World War II. A precipitous plunge in air and automobile traffic has noticeably erased pollutionfrom cities everywhere. Residents in India can seethe Himalayan mountain range for the first time in 30 years. And wildlife is returning to grazein their old habitats.
This temporary glimpse at a cleaner world, EarthxCities participants argued, reaffirms that the climate must be at the center of any pandemic recovery. “We cannot do the same thing that we did in the 1980s after the oil crisis, which was all about building roads and highways and focusing on fossil energy,” said Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante. “Now we need to put the ecological transition and ecological resilience on top of our priorities.”
Plante and other advocates said that cities must lead that fight, through measures like boosting public transit, building “green,” and smarter city planning. Examples streamed in from all over. Marina Robles García, the Secretary of the Environment of Mexico City, detailed the city’s push to revive its famed waterways. Philip K. Stoddard, the former mayor of South Miami, gave a tour of his carbon-neutral house. And sustainability experts discussed potential funding mechanisms to make urban climate action a reality in the virus’s predictably strenuous economic aftermath.
“I think you’ll see some real partnerships with the private sector, with all of its resources. I want to underscore that — compared to a city or municipality, the private sector has many, many more resources and a lot more flexibility,” said Anne L. Kelly, the head of Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy at the Ceres Policy Network. “I think those public-private partnerships can be valuable.”
But a defining theme of EarthxCities was ultimately people power. Facing a global crisis, urban communities are not waiting to fight back on their own terms. Neighbors are checking in on neighbors, and strangers are helping out strangers, all with an immense outpour of support for vulnerable ‘frontline’ workers. If there is any lesson to learn for the climate emergency, it may be this unprecedented solidarity on a human scale.
“It starts with people,” said Ben Schechter, the 23-year-old founder of the nonprofit organization Feed the Front Line. “All the systems we have, all the infrastructure we have, it’s all a product of individuals coming together, having their voices heard, being able to make an impact, and contribute.”
Written by: John Surico