Rethinking cities in the COVID-19 recovery
Roadblock near Geneva road sign. Coronavirus disease quarantine or lockdown in Switzerland conceptual
Posted on 31 Aug 2020
Categories: Focus on
Study for a British university degree in Geneva

From surviving to thriving

For months, the soul of Geneva was hardly recognisable. The pandemic changed the character of cities – and with it our definition of normal. But how are cities bouncing back and shaping a ‘better normal’?

Geneva, the multilateral centre, went from connecting the world to isolation. A pause has been forced on the bustling international hub – with personal diplomacy no longer possible, the buzzing airport at a halt and the shrieks of peacocks echoing in the deserted corridors of the Palais des Nations. Switching-off the iconic Jet d’Eau was yet another symbol that Geneva was not its true self. 

“As we are working towards a more effective multilateralism, including local actors is a must.”

In fact, in dense urban areas like Geneva, the COVID-19 crisis was felt particularly strongly and hit the most vulnerable groups of society hardest. Geneva, being among Switzerland’s early hotspots of the pandemic, faced drastic economic repercussions: with the cancellation of the multi-million francs International Motor Show, the closure of many businesses and hotels for several months and the suspension of in-person international conferences. However, the damages in Geneva are still minor in comparison to the economic and human toll other cities are forced to pay.

“The UN’s first Forum of Mayors will provide a platform to learn from the diverse range of local solutions.”

Coronavirus quarantine

Global solutions must include local actors

While Geneva is witnessing the crisis, it also provides the solutions to navigate out of it. The most pressing challenges to humanity require multilateral responses; and where else to find those other than in Geneva? As our world is growing increasingly urban – with some 75% of the population already living in cities in Europe, North America and Central Asia – cities will become even more engaged in addressing humanity’s key challenges. The 75th anniversary of the United Nations is a strong reminder to work towards a more effective multilateralism; and including local actors is a must.

“The pandemic provided a real-world testing ground for what cities could look like.”

Real-world testing ground for urban visions

The COVID-19 did not only confront cities with unprecedented challenges but also with unknown opportunities. We started to experience a new urban life: from better air quality to increased biodiversity in cities to empty streets giving space to cyclists and pedestrians. In fact, Geneva was among those cities converting parts of the roads normally reserved for car traffic into pop-up bicycle lanes. Metropolises like Paris and Berlin put in place similar measures, thus reshaping urban mobility in a rapid pace.

Ironically, while self-isolating at home, we also moved closer together. We stood up in solidarity every evening to recognise the critical work of frontline workers who kept our societies functioning – mainly female workers. The pandemic provided a real-world testing ground for what cities could look like. We witnessed an overnight transformation of almost everything we knew about our urban life.

As the lockdown slowly came to an end in Geneva, life began to boogie again to the familiar rhythms of summer, with sun-lovers gathering at UN Beach and cheerful crowds occupying Geneva’s street bars. We returned to a new normality.

Geneva’s actions to feed into an international dialogue

While we as individuals are experimenting with our personal recovery plans, also local governments use the current momentum to turn the recovery into a real opportunity for shaping healthier and more resilient cities. The City of Geneva introduced a series of measures in response to the crisis: rents have been reduced for those vulnerable groups living in social housing. Subsidies for cultural institutions have been maintained regardless of whether events had to be cancelled. A solidarity plan has been introduced for isolated or vulnerable people over the age of 65, which includes meal delivery services and a help phone line. Companies in Geneva have been supported by waiving the collection of rents.

Sportive slim woman on bicycle in mask concept flat

 is much to learn from these diverse range of local solutions. The UN’s first Forum of Mayors will provide a platform for exactly that: bringing city leaders from Europe, North America, Central Asia and the Caucasus together to exchange their experiences in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. With the mayor of Geneva, Mr. Sami Kanaan, moderating the exchange, the aim is to mutually learn how to build back better. 

“If we manage to build stronger bridges between the local and the global, we will emerge from this crisis stronger.”

The COVID-19 pandemic might once be remembered as a time where we experienced rapid transformation. A time where we channelled all political and personal efforts to achieve a common goal. We will need to mobilise similar efforts, if we want to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within the remaining ten years. We must recognise that local actors are key partners in this endeavour – both as frontline fighters and generators of innovative solutions. If we manage to build stronger bridges between the local and the global, we will emerge from this crisis stronger – we will move from surviving to thriving.

* Elise Zerrath works in the Urban Development, Housing and Land Management Unit at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.