Cities: where public health and climate experts must meet

In this third report in our series on lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, we discuss the importance of greater interaction between people working on public health crises in cities and those managing the risks of climate change and disasters.

Article, 24 July 2020
A large sign in a street

A sign sets out COVID-19 safety protocols introduced by local government in Muntinlupa City, Philippines (Photo: Minette Rimando, ILO via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Beyond COVID-19: grassroots visions of change

This article is part of a new IIED series that brings together forward-looking responses on specific themes in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic, drawing on our partners’ insights and providing a platform for voices from the global South.

Here, IIED principal researcher Aditya Bahadur and independent climate policy researcher Anmol Arora look at the importance of  achieving a joined-up approach to risk management in urban settings.

Given the impact that climate change and disasters have on health in cities, there are growing calls for the two disciplines to connect. And this closer collaboration has become more urgent during the COVID-19 crisis: there is much that could be gained from the two communities working together.

Sharing lessons, tools and approaches will lead to a more comprehensive approach for managing the many simultaneous risks that cities have to face.

Lessons from urban resilience

Pandemics managers can gain from an understanding of how the community of people working on urban resilience has benefited from engaging with a wide variety of stakeholders and from securing sustained political attention.

Many urban resilience initiatives include actors spanning universities, civil society organisations, international organisations, local governments and citizens’ groups, all working towards equitable responses to climate and disaster risk. In contrast, the response to COVID-19 has been fairly top-down, with national and subnational governments leading the charge directly and minimal participation from civil society actors.

Future pandemic responses could employ more inclusive models of risk governance.

It is also crucial that city leaders make sure any responses continue beyond times of emergency. Transnational associations of city leaders, such as the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, the World Organization of United Cities, C40 and ICLEI have contributed to making tackling climate change consistently a political priority.

For instance, the World Mayors’ Summit that C40 organises every year has been a catalyst for change. While city leaders around the world have been activated to manage the COVID-19 crisis, will urban health and pandemic preparedness remain a political priority after the crisis abates? Similar leadership platforms can help ensure this.

Lessons from pandemic response

On the other hand, certain tools and approaches being employed to manage COVID-19 could inform efforts to manage climate and disaster risk in cities.

For example, the pandemic has created an opening for ‘mainstreaming’ the use of big data in risk management, and the urban resilience community must capitalise on this opportunity, while being aware of the privacy and ethical issues. A good illustration of using big data is aarogya setu (Bridge to Health), the platform developed by the Indian government, which uses dynamic data streams to determine if municipal wards should be ‘locked down’ to reduce the risk of transmission.

And the manner in which the private sector (hospitals, hotels, pharmaceutical companies) has been drawn into responding to the COVID-19 crisis holds a lesson for the urban resilience community, which has struggled to capitalise on the potential of this sector.  

Some of the biggest hotels in India have been linked with hospitals to help care for patients with mild symptoms and in the UK, hotels have housed the homeless to ensure that they are isolated.

A similar range of arrangements during floods, heatwaves and cyclones could help save lives too.

The way forward: joined-up risk analysis and response

There is a credible case to be made for greater engagement between these two communities of practice. A good example of where this works is the Mayor’s Office of Risk and Resiliency in New York that considers the threat of climate change in conjunction with other risks spanning security, health and financial shocks and works with a varied group of stakeholders to build resilience.  

This joined-up approach for risk management is essential for ensuring that cities not only function but flourish through an increasing number of interacting shocks and stresses.


Read more

Our collection about coronavirus examines some of the emerging impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the people and places where we work.