Kearney: 2020 Global Cities Index – New priorities for a new world

Kearney: 2020 Global Cities Index – New priorities for a new world

Kearney: 2020 Global Cities Index – New priorities for a new world

As cities pick up the pieces and plan for life after COVID-19, we reveal how the pandemic has shattered the status quo, and outline the new challenges and priorities facing city leaders.

Executive summary

The 2020 Global Cities Report provides a snapshot of where cities stood as they entered the COVID-19 crisis. Incorporating the Global Cities Index (GCI) and Global Cities Outlook (GCO), this year’s results reveal intensifying competition for global status and future prospects in an increasingly fragmented and volatile environment.

Entrepreneurial cities on the rise

The most striking change in the GCI was Beijing’s rise to displace Hong Kong among the top five global cities, suggesting the impact of combining stability and growth with aggressive investments in human capital (see figure 1). Shanghai and San Francisco also made significant jumps, thanks in part to their scores on entrepreneurship and innovation, which now incorporate a new metric of the number of unicorn companies in a city. However, despite these surprises, those in the highest positions—New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo—retained the top four places. This enduring strength highlights the breadth of advantages needed to reach and stay at the top of the Index, and the self-reinforcing power of global city status.

2020 Global cities index top 10

Early signs of a global reordering

This year’s GCO paints a more dynamic picture (see figure 2). While London maintained its top ranking in 2020, most cities rose or fell fairly dramatically in the Outlook’s rankings. One example is Toronto, which climbed nine spots to take second place. For many of the rising cities, long-term investments in governance and economics have begun to pay off. This is particularly true of cities in China and the Middle East, which are rapidly catching up with their European and North American peers.

2020 Global cities outlook top 10

Thriving in a post-COVID future

Recognizing COVID-19 as a definitive turning point, we also outline its impact on global cities and the radically altered future they now face. The crisis has fueled a number of trends already creating tremendous strain on cities, from growing fiscal pressure and economic inequality to the effects of increasing deglobalization and environmental disruption. Meeting these challenges will require city leaders to reconsider many long-standing assumptions and priorities.

Our analysis suggests that to emerge from the current crisis stronger and more resilient, city leaders will need to reimagine what is next for their cities. In particular, they must drive progress in the following three key areas:

  • Urban value creation. To remain relevant and competitive in a post-pandemic world, global cities will have to deepen their focus on creating public value—that is, value centered on the common good across all sectors and segments of society. By doing this, city leaders have an opportunity to reverse trends that have undermined cities’ stability, equity, and value creation for decades.
  • Global city connectedness. The international flows of goods, ideas, and people that are so central to global cities are under threat from both the near-term fallout from the pandemic and the long-term trend away from a globalized international order. To sustain these vital flows in increasingly challenging conditions, city leaders must revitalize and expand their cities’ global connectedness in a variety of ways.
  • The transformation of urban space. Finally, city leaders have a responsibility to address the many challenges tied to physical space that have been so starkly revealed by the pandemic. They range from how to restart economies safely while complying with the need for social distancing, to addressing the environmental inequalities linked to poor health outcomes in lower-income neighborhoods. The overall aim should be to reimagine city planning in a way that makes the lived environment more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive.

For each of these areas, we outline specific priorities for action by which city leaders can drive immediate recovery in ways that will enable inclusive, long-term progress.

Different times, a different perspective

This edition of the Global Cities Report, now in its 10th year, comes in the wake of one of the most disruptive global emergencies in history: the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis has disrupted the entire operating environment to a degree that was previously unimaginable, and its impact has been particularly severe in our largest urban centers, calling into question their current and future status.

For this reason, our 2020 report is a departure from the norm. As usual, we present the Global Cities Index (GCI) and Global Cities Outlook (GCO), which together provide a comprehensive analysis of cities’ positions and prospects. Based on data captured largely before the virus struck, this year’s GCI and GCO paint a picture of where cities stood and where they were headed in a recent—but very different—past. With city rankings not yet incorporating the observed effects of the crisis—or the measures taken in response to it—this year’s report gives city leaders a reference point for assessing where they have come from as they prepare for a very different future.

As the pandemic heads toward its first anniversary, we also identify the major impacts we have observed on global cities so far and outline a series of trends and challenges that decision-makers will have to grapple with in response. Finally, we offer our perspective on three vital areas in which leaders must drive innovative progress. This includes the priority actions that will be necessary to ensure that the cities they govern continue to generate their unique economic, social, and cultural value—and indeed expand it.

What makes a city a global city?

The GCI assesses how globally engaged cities are across five dimensions: business activity, human capital, information exchange, cultural experience, and political engagement. The GCO, on the other hand, examines those creating the conditions for future status as major global players. This analysis covers four dimensions—personal well-being, economics, innovation, and governance—which are key determinants of a city’s ability to attract talented human capital, generate economic growth, increase competitiveness, and ensure stability and security, respectively.

The most recent rankings include 151 cities across all continents, compared to 130 in 2019, reflecting the increasing importance of emerging geographies such as the Middle East, China, and Central Asia.

New metrics to reflect changing global dynamics

As the world around us continues to evolve, so do the characteristics of global cities, and the 2020 GCI includes two new metrics:

  • The number of unicorn companies (privately held start-up companies valued at more than $1 billion): We can no longer consider a city global if it is not at the forefront of entrepreneurship and innovation. As a measure of that characteristic, this metric is now included within the Business Activity dimension, highlighting cities that thrive on pioneering residents.
  • The number of medical universities: As COVID-19 has shown, the well-being of residents, and access to cutting-edge medical knowledge and technologies, can make or break a city. To account for this, medical universities are now included under the Human Capital dimension as a measure of how globally connected its healthcare system is.

The 2020 GCI and GCO: cities on the verge of disruption

Global Cities Index results

For the fourth year in a row, New York City topped the Global Cities Index, followed by London, Paris, and Tokyo (see figure 3). The consistency of these results highlights the wide range of positive attributes a city must have to reach the top of the Index, and the difficulty of building such a broad platform of strengths. It also shows that for those cities able to do so, global status has so far been self-reinforcing. Even in a year marked by relatively low levels of business activity, New York City’s momentum across all metrics enabled the city to maintain its number 1 position.

Top 30 cities in the global cities index

A major shift at the top of the rankings, however, was Beijing unseating Hong Kong from its long-held top five position, which could prove to be a sign of further changes to come. While Beijing’s strong economic growth and human capital investments paid off, the political chaos in Hong Kong undoubtedly dampened its performance across all dimensions, with significant drops in business activity, information exchange, and cultural experience.

Four out of five stay steady at the top

New York City widened its lead over other cities on the Index slightly, receiving its highest score in human capital due to strong performance in number of international schools, international student population, and the new medical universities metric.

London, while still in second place, has had a falling score on the Index since 2017. Though the sharp drop-off in economic activity predicted after the Brexit vote has yet to materialize, so too have any new rules surrounding trade, which will not become clear until at least the end of this year.

Paris’s consistent performance in information exchange (in which it leads the ranking), cultural experience, and political engagement ensured the city’s solid hold on the number 3 position this year.

Tokyo continued its slow but steady improvement on the Index, demonstrating strong year-on-year performance in the business activity dimension. What will happen in the aftermath of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s exit from government remains to be seen.

Finally, Beijing’s new position reflects higher scores across most metrics. It ranked second in the business activity dimension, partly thanks to a number 2 spot on the new unicorn companies metric. Investments in education and the city’s rising status as a cultural center also led to a large jump in the human capital dimension.

Diverse leaders across metrics

Across the GCI’s 29 metrics, 24 different cities ranked first. Despite this diversity, the top cities ranked highly across all metrics, while many others only found success in a handful. In particular, the top three cities on the Index overall stood out across metrics, with London achieving the highest rating across four, while New York and Paris each landed at the top in three (see figure 4).

Leading cities across GCI metrics

Global Cities Outlook results

Having determined the year’s global leaders in the GCI, the GCO identifies cities on the rise—those creating the right conditions for future global status (see figure 5). This time, London maintained its top ranking, but from there all bets were off. Toronto jumped an impressive 9 places to the number 2 spot, driven by a large upswing in innovation and continued strong governance. Tokyo’s consistently high scores in personal well-being took it up 2 places to number 4, and Abu Dhabi jumped 13 places to number 7, driven by long-term investments in economic performance and diversification. The much more dynamic results of the GCO, in comparison to the GCI, reveal the fierce competition between global cities to advance their future prospects.

Top 10 saw significant changes

Economics and innovation lead the way

Cities that saw a rise in their outlook performance mainly improved in the areas of innovation and economics, where long-term investments were beginning to show results. Abu Dhabi and Dubai topped the economics metric in infrastructure, thanks to their openness to the private sector and robust engagement in public–private partnerships. Combined with increases in GDP per capita, FDI inflows, and foreign investments, this took Abu Dhabi to seventh place overall, and Dubai from 32 to 18. Others who gained ground include Chicago, thanks to increased private investments and university-sponsored incubators; Madrid, which jumped 14 places with improved scores in patents and FDI inflows; and Shenzhen, where patents and university-sponsored incubators also saw an uptick.

Precarious US positions

Though several US cities were prominent in the GCI, the GCO suggests that their outlook is uncertain, with most experiencing a drop across the dimensions related to personal well-being, economics, and governance. San Francisco and Boston, formerly two leading cities on the GCO, both lost ground, going from 3 to 11 and 7 to 15 respectively. New York City dropped out of the top 25, Washington D.C. and Houston fell from the top 30, and Los AngelesPhiladelphia, and Miami exited the top 50. It’s perhaps no surprise that these shifts occurred in parallel with the US’s withdrawal from international agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), indicating that American city leaders will face heightened challenges as they seek to reap the benefits of international flows of individuals, goods, and capital. In addition, a spring and summer of urban unrest across the United States has highlighted citizen dissatisfaction with many dimensions of city governance, and pressure on local governments is at an all-time high.

Pronounced regional trends

Divergent regional trends emerged in this year’s findings: cities in China and the Middle East made a rapid march on those in North America and Europe, even as North America looked poised to overtake Europe on the business activity dimension (see figure 6). China made significant improvements in its personal well-being, innovation, and governance scores, while the Middle East’s marked advance was led by the strong emphasis on national transformation and economic diversification in Gulf countries, as well as by continued strong performance in Israel. In Latin American cities, decreasing scores across every dimension drove a pronounced and continued decline, with results in innovation particularly poor. It seems that, despite government efforts, the economic benefits of the region’s stunning pace of urbanization have yet to be well distributed. Elsewhere, APAC and Africa remained relatively stable.

Chinese cities are closing the gap, North America leads in the region

New leaders across each dimension

Ten cities took the lead across the GCO’s 13 metrics, but this year new leaders emerged in each dimension, illustrating the sheer effort and determination across the globe and in cities at all stages of development as they attempted to improve their standing (see figure 7).

Leading cities across GCO metrics

The COVID effect

Depending on where you are in the world, we’re now anywhere from six months to almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, and the cities included in the 2020 GCI and GCO are at various stages of response and recovery. As they have begun to emerge from the depths of the crisis, the future of cities has become the subject of intense debate. Indeed, with pundits feverishly suggesting that the pandemic is “killing the attraction of megacities” and that they are “losing their allure,” many have begun to question whether the city can survive as a primary locus of economic and social activity. While these reactions are extreme, so too are the impacts global cities have already witnessed.

Emptied city centers

There’s no denying that many cities are much quieter places than before. Analysis from the New York Times found that roughly 5 percent of the city’s residents (mostly those in wealthy neighborhoods) left it in the early months of the emergency, while cell phone data from the Paris metro area shows the population shrank by nearly 20 percent. And as millions have abandoned shared working spaces for their living and dining rooms, the future of the office has become increasingly unclear. A recent survey from Gartner reports that 82 percent of company leaders intend to permit remote working of some kind as employees return to work, and nearly half (47 percent) will allow it full time. In turn, house prices have been affected: according to the housing website Zillow, listings in Manhattan have dropped by 4.2 percent compared with 2019, while in San Francisco prices are down 4.9 percent.

Of course, the urban impacts of COVID-19 go far beyond residents’ new behaviors and ways of working. International traveler numbers dropped off to almost zero for a period of time, and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has forecast that this year’s total global passenger numbers will be down 55 percent from 2019. In cities where tourism or cultural and performance events typically contribute to economic performance, this has proven particularly devastating. In other instances, for example in Tokyo and Dubai, the major boosts expected from global events (the Summer 2020 Olympics and Expo 2020) never materialized.

For all cities, the full ramifications of the pandemic will only be understood in the coming months and years, but key questions are already being raised. If jobs become less directly linked to cities, and increasingly move online or to the suburbs, will residents follow? What will become of once vibrant city centers if they are no longer considered safe to host major cultural events or as centers of employment? What does the future of consumer spending look like if cities are drained of international visitors and daily foot traffic? And what will be the extent of the economic “scar tissue” left behind?

While these developments pose significant challenges in their own right, they are by no means the only forces of change facing city leaders, as we will now explore. The net effect of these structural shifts, with the pandemic acting as an accelerant, is a new level of pressure on cities to evolve rapidly, or risk losing relevance on the world stage.

Under pressure: new challenges for global cities

Taking into account the cumulative effects of the pandemic and other influencing factors, we see the major topics of concern for city leaders now falling into five categories, all of which have added urgency and complexity to the task of formulating an effective response.

  • The cost of proximity. First, COVID-19 has altered the actual and perceived risk of precisely the kind of physical proximity and demographic concentration that defines cities. At the same time, as virtual interaction and remote working models become more viable, the balance of costs and benefits associated with urban life for residents and companies alike has shifted.
  • Fiscal breaking points. The economic dislocation wrought by the crisis has also placed tremendous budgetary pressure on many cities, adding to debt burdens that could constrain the power of city and local governments for years in many cases.
  • Global fragmentation. With trends toward localization and economic nationalism already gaining momentum before the virus began its deadly assault, the crisis has brought on a whole new set of barriers to global flows of commerce, investment, people, ideas, data, and technology. The premiums on self-sufficiency and strategic autonomy are now at an all-time high—as we saw when the need for medical equipment and resources soared in the face of broken supply chains and severe shortages. As international cooperation erodes, several of the central means by which global cities create value for their citizens, communities, and companies are also crumbling.
  • Urban divides. Cities are also facing a set of longer-term challenges made more complex by the pandemic. First is the persistent issue of social and economic inequality, now exacerbated by levels of unemployment not seen in many parts of the world for some 70 years. With automation increasingly rearing its head, cities—traditionally centers of economic opportunity—will also have to wrestle with its impact on employment, education, and training programs.
  • Environmental pressure. Finally, and for many cities the most pressing topic, is the ever-growing peril of climate change. Pollution, water scarcity, and exposure to increasingly frequent extreme weather events will demand that cities find new ways to become secure, resilient, and healthy places to live and work.

The choices cities make today will shape their trajectories for decades to come—and there’s limited time to deliberate over the right course of action. However, time and again, cities ravaged by disease, disaster, and discord have survived. While the steep decline of individual cities indicates that no urban center should consider itself immune to these threats, the steady historic increase in urbanization is evidence of their irreplaceable value. For example, although the Black Death killed some 40 percent of Europe’s population, cities had, on average, returned to previous population levels within around 200 years.

Creating what’s next

What is already abundantly clear in the emerging reality is that previous status will not be enough to secure continued global prominence. Instead, city leaders will need to make strategic choices and investments, which are likely to look very different from years past, if they are to emerge stronger and more resilient. While each city will necessarily adapt in its own way to cater for variations in geography, demography, and industrial strength—among other factors—we see the need for leaders to drive innovative progress in three vital areas:

  • Urban value creation. To structurally renew how cities create value for residents, businesses, and communities
  • Global city connectedness. To find new means of securing global flows of trade, investment, ideas, and people in a fragmented world
  • The transformation of urban space. To reimagine urban planning, using physical space and technology to make the environment more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive.

The future of urban value creation

Cities play a central role in advancing human progress and accelerating economic growth. At the core of their power are the benefits that emerge from clustering diverse groups of individuals, organizations, and resources—also known as economies of agglomeration. In cities, human and financial capital are concentrated, infrastructure is readily accessible, and deep specialization is possible, all of which enhance productivity. Innovation is also fueled by this proximity, and the ways in which it facilitates flow and exchange of ideas and gives residents a wide array of opportunities for participation, engagement, and commerce. To the extent that these benefits outweigh the costs of city living—such as higher rents, congestion, and other inconveniences—cities create value in ways that can’t be recreated elsewhere. However, their ability to do so is now in jeopardy. This is particularly true for global cities.

Global cities generate unique value thanks to three fundamental attributes. First, they are deeply embedded in global networks, the significance of which we address in more detail in the next section. Second, they are microcosms of the world in all its diversity. Third, they hold a level of global influence that enables citizens and businesses to make an impact far beyond the city itself. These characteristics now represent a double-edged sword. On the one hand, global cities are more exposed to current conditions because of their dependence on international flows and connections. On the other hand, they are in a position to rebound more quickly once international commerce regains momentum. For example, during the economic recovery from Europe’s Black Death, cities with better land and “trade potential” were able to become even more productive. Today, as deglobalization takes a deeper hold, the value of their far-reaching connections and resources is actually likely to increase as these links become more scarce.

Requirements and actions for city leaders

To remain relevant and competitive, global cities must not only renew but expand upon their unique value propositions—or their specific offering that attracts residents and businesses. This will require a deeper focus on creating public value—that is, value centered on the common good. In doing so, leaders have the opportunity to reverse trends that have undermined the stability, equity, and value creation possibilities of cities for decades. These trends include the swing toward short-term, reactive decision-making at the expense of long-term vision and investment, the capture of policy processes by interest groups, public administrations driven by personal agendas, and the tendency to consider value in purely financial terms. Given the openness to change that the current crisis has generated, there is now a rare chance to make the shift from fixing near-term problems to creating long-lasting public value. For example, by removing some of the inequalities exposed by the pandemic through investment in the physical environment, city leaders can help residents and businesses now, while creating jobs and other opportunities for the future.

Specific actions include:

  • Redesigning the urban value proposition. Rather than trying to return cities to the way they were, city leaders must now focus on the future they want to build. The first step is for public officials, residents, and local businesses to candidly assess the current situation, identifying immediate problems and long-term strategic challenges, and identifying the trends that will most affect the city. Based on this assessment, city leaders must drive a process of collaborative innovation to redesign the city’s value proposition in ways that are robust with respect to future uncertainty and compellingly reflective of the interests and aspirations of all stakeholders. With a shared vision established, and the size and scale of the task determined, challenges can be prioritized and an action plan developed. If this effort is genuine, practical, and transparent, commitment, investment, and momentum will follow.
  • Investing in future-oriented recovery. While there is no doubt that immediate public support is required to get citizens, businesses, and communities back on their feet, the large-scale, ad hoc relief efforts that have prevailed throughout 2020 are not sustainable, nor are they sufficient to achieve full recovery in the months and years ahead. In addition, with previous cases of emergency economic relief having been accused of benefitting the few at the expense of the many, the entire topic is now under heightened scrutiny.While conditional recovery aid is becoming more common, it can often be, in many ways, punitive and past-oriented. Now, rather than focusing on past behaviors, recovery plans and programs should focus on the future, and align the conditions for relief with cities’ long-term strategic goals in ways that benefit society as a whole. Given the constraints they are under, city leaders will need to determine which businesses, sectors, or mini clusters face the most severe threat, and how they fit into the city’s future value proposition. Support programs should be tied to business practices or models that steer toward this, while providing transition support to those that do not.
  • Creating markets that generate public value. While the central role markets play in value creation is well understood, government’s role in building markets that directly address public challenges in ways that create both public and private value is often overlooked. With resources and budgets under duress, city leaders will have to look for opportunities to fulfill this vital function wherever they can. Doing so will require collaborative input from all stakeholder groups to come up with new ideas to tackle the city’s most urgent needs and significant long-term challenges. Once these have been prioritized in line with the city’s future value proposition, city leaders, in partnership with the private sector, can design markets to address them.
  • Fostering civic capital. Restoring trust—among residents and between them and institutions—is another priority. This plays a crucial role in building civic capital—the values and beliefs that enable cooperation among societies, which has been proven to boost economic performance. A recent study found that exposure to epidemics reduces confidence in political institutions and leaders, especially among the 18 to 25 age group—a fact that highlights the urgency of the need to build civic capital. Among the wide range of evidence-based approaches to building civic capital are proactively cultivating open discussion and ensuring decision-making processes are transparent and inclusive. Technology can also help: tools such as digital ledger technologies are designed to build trust in electronic transactions, while online reputation systems add credibility to shared social platforms and communities. By integrating a focus on civic capital into the city’s value creation strategy, leaders can accelerate progress by unleashing the power of trust and cooperation.

Ensuring global connectedness

As we have established, international linkages are the lifeblood of global cities, constantly revitalizing and replenishing their resources. Yet since 2008, the world has been on a path of “slowbalization,” with international trade on the retreat for the first time since World War II. COVID-19 has dramatically accelerated this trend and diminished the cross-border flow of people. If multilateral cooperation continues to deteriorate, the very connections global cities rely on, which are central to economic performance and the ability to respond in times of crisis, will be increasingly threatened. What’s more, the pandemic has made it abundantly clear that cities will continue to be on the front lines when large-scale disruptions strike, leaving city leaders to drive the local response—often with tight resource constraints and uncertain national support. As a result, protecting cities’ global connectedness is vital if they are to combat their most significant challenges and create public value in a de-globalizing world.

Requirements and actions for city leaders

A first requirement is ensuring the continuity of the existing international networks and flows from which cities benefit, including the passage of goods, ideas, and people. In some cases, these will look and feel different, at least in the near term, having been altered to fit a new physically distant reality. Cities must also remain accommodating and attractive places to live and work for potential residents from all backgrounds, which means preserving their distinct local character, and giving careful consideration to the physical layout, which we explore further in the next section. Finally, many modern threats including COVID-19, climate change, and mass migration have a universal reach, but impact different locations in different ways, and at different times. This shows the importance of maintaining global dialogue and influence if city and local leaders are to advocate effectively for their own constituencies, have a say in crucial decisions, and gain access to broader support when crisis strikes.

To make progress in this area, city leaders should focus on:

Deepening engagement in global networks.

Becoming more deeply embedded in global city networks is perhaps the most practical and pragmatic way for cities to maintain essential global links. While there are a variety of different networks in terms of primary objectives, they all aim to enable city leaders to coordinate on important topics and drive change in their local contexts. Two primary types of networks are most valuable for global city leaders. Data and best-practice sharing networks center on pooling knowledge and experiences, sometimes by creating a dialogue on a specific topic, and exchanging insights and practices related to common challenges. This approach can prove incredibly flexible in times of need: for example, the C40 Cities network is committed to addressing climate change, however earlier this year it changed tack and established a COVID-19 recovery task force. Sharing data can be even more powerful. The European Virus Archive enabled scientists to quickly identify the coronavirus as one of the SARS family and develop a way to detect it in patient samples. As cities become smarter and more digitally enabled, they will be even better equipped to find global solutions that can be applied in their own areas. Elsewhere, global advocacy networks amplify important city-level issues that can only be solved with broader input, for example where city leaders lack the political authority to make necessary decisions. The ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) is one such city network. It and other networks like it have access to decision-makers at a range of international authorities and organizations such as the United Nations, giving cities a voice they would otherwise lack at a global level. This enables city leaders to help garner global-level resources for challenges of a global scale that are experienced at a local level—from pandemic outbreaks to extreme weather events.

Forging international economic partnerships.

Complementary economic partnerships between cities also deliver mutual advantages that augment traditional ways of generating economic value. Rather than traditional sister city relationships, which tend to be bound by political or cultural ties, partnerships based on economic well-being can help cities develop new specializations, spark market opportunities, attract foreign investment, support industry collaboration, and become more visible on the world stage, even where national flows are faltering around them. One example is the so-called trade and logistics corridor between Atlanta and Amsterdam. By sharing data and giving one another’s cargo shipments priority between Europe and parts of the US, these major coordination hubs aim to improve supply chain operations and efficiency, and gain further economic advantage. Arrangements such as these open up partner cities as gateways for foreign investment, supporting key local industries and workers, and boost their standing in global markets and industry value chains. However, they have to be carefully considered in the context of broader economic strategies. Partnership candidates must be rigorously analyzed for compatibility to make sure both parties benefit, any agreements and economic allowances must comply with national regulations, and once established, partnerships need continuous monitoring to make certain economic goals are met.

Guiding the transformation of urban space

Major events and disruptions have a habit of leaving their mark on our physical environment, and cities are no exception: New York City’s Central Park was designed to serve as “urban lungs” after it was ravaged by disease in the early 1800s, while the later introduction of London’s innovative sewage drainage and water purification systems came courtesy of a cholera outbreak. More recently, the SARS pandemic spurred Singapore and Seoul to invest in digital contact tracing systems, which have been used again to great effect in combating the spread of COVID-19. Again and again, we redesign our cities when new threats reveal their vulnerabilities.

As we have seen, the latest pandemic has triggered widespread changes in behavior and accelerated several pre-existing urban trends. People are spending more time online than ever, and remote working looks set to stay. The untethering of work from the office has led some to worry about the suburban sprawl that city planners have spent so long combatting. However, it seems that the idea of moving to the suburbs is already souring. While only 60 percent of US citizens reported that they wanted to continue living in the city in May’s Harris Poll, by July this had jumped back up to 74 percent.

The COVID experience has also highlighted some of the deep-rooted inequalities in urban centers, pointing to how they must change. Overwhelmingly, the people carrying out “essential services,” who are at greater risk from the virus, are of low-income and minority groups. They also live in more cramped conditions than wealthier residents, and are more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions related to lack of access to clean water or poor air quality.

Requirements and actions for city leaders

With the fabric of cities having unraveled so decidedly during the crisis, and unlikely to resume its former shape, leaders now have a compelling reason and unique opportunity to transform the urban environment into something more sustainable, more resilient, and more equal. With strategic investment of capital and political will in key areas, progress could be accelerated in a way that has not been seen before, by binding urban planning more closely with economic and social needs, and long-term trends such as climate change. However, city leaders must act quickly as the window of opportunity is narrow.

The key action points to address are:

  • Rebalancing density. The new need for increased physical distance is a vital theme and has sparked a requirement for more flexible and dynamic use of the urban footprint to accommodate all its needs. For many cities, this can be accomplished by updating regulations related to land use and zoning, in which development is restricted to commercial, industrial, or residential use, and so on. When too rigid, these can cause problems, for example in several US cities, where “single-family zoning” has hampered attempts to create smaller scale or more sustainable housing, driving prices up. By adopting a more flexible approach to zoning and encouraging more mixed-use development, cities can continue to build, while distributing space more equitably and ensuring physical distance is maintained. In Toronto, mixed-use zoning and development has guided the city’s development since the mid-1980s.
  • Localizing lifestyles. In addition, broader strategies to “localize” city neighborhoods will also help to distribute populations and reduce pressure on transportation systems, by shrinking the distance travelled by residents to reach work and other important locations. Two examples are Sydney’s “30-minute city,” designed to ensure all residents can reach one of three central areas by foot, bicycle, or public transport within half an hour, and “20-minute neighborhoods” in Portland, Oregon. City leaders should also take note of the recent shift to long-encouraged behaviors such as cycling and walking, and take advantage of the momentum in alternative forms of transport to make their cities more accessible and sustainable. This will require permanent new transportation networks, developed in consultation with residents to ensure universal access to cycling and walking paths, and new safety and security provisions to minimize accidents and injury. Not all development can be effectively mixed, but by engaging with their communities effectively, city planners can involve local residents in planning urban layouts that serve them best.
  • Rebuilding trust in public transit. While rebalancing population density is a long-term effort, cities need economic relief now, and that means getting residents moving more freely again. To do that, they will have to rebuild trust in public transport, and give people the confidence it is safe to use. Many cities have already taken action: in Paris, artificial intelligence has been deployed to measure compliance with the requirement to wear masks, and employers in New York City have been asked to allow flexible start times to reduce travel during peak hours. The next frontier will be real-time mapping platforms with comprehensive travel information, to help citizens minimize wait times and avoid crowds, and give providers and authorities the information they need to make transit systems even more flexible and resilient over time. The Transit app aims to do just this, and is already available in 200 cities, where those with contactless payment systems provide valuable data to feed the system.
  • Expanding green space. With COVID-19 lockdowns increasing awareness of the link between the outdoors and mental health, incorporating green spaces throughout cities has become more of a priority. In fact, new research from University of Aarhus in Denmark shows that childhood exposure to green space dramatically reduces the risk of developing a psychiatric disorder during adolescence and adulthood. However, there is evidence that more green space exists in wealthy areas, another physical manifestation of inequality that must be addressed.
  • Enabling universal digital connectivity. There are no two ways about it: for cities to remain viable in the post-COVID world, they must invest in digital infrastructure, making sure neither income nor location are obstacles to access. This is equally true for rural areas, which can also help relieve stress on urban centers. Seoul is perhaps the closest to achieving universal connectivity; 99.2 percent of its residents have Internet speeds more than four times faster than the world average. However, this was not an overnight job: it took decades of dedicated, long-term investment in infrastructure and R&D. If other cities can follow suit and, importantly, educate their populations about the importance of cyber safety and security, they will set themselves up for future innovation and opportunities, and be in a better position to respond to future challenges.
  • Designing for resilience. While 2020 has revealed the extent of uncertainty facing cities, one thing is certain: COVID-19 will not be the last crisis they come up against. In an increasingly volatile environment, it’s crucial for city leaders to plan and prepare for a wide array of potential disruptions and cater for these in the way they plan and develop urban spaces. This essentially means prioritizing adaptability—so that spaces can be used in diverse ways or retrofitted quickly when needed. Throughout the pandemic, there have been many creative and ingenious responses. For example, an architect in Rotterdam designed a micro-market that could be set up in any public square, allowing residents to shop locally and at a safe distance. But by planning ahead and designing flexibility into city features such as parks, stadiums, and even roadways up front, cities will be able to act more quickly in times of need, making them more resilient in the long run.

Where to next?

For global cities, the current crisis and emerging future demand significant adaptive change. Some of the fundamental factors that have historically enabled them to create value have been painfully disrupted, many of the connections between them are teetering on a knife’s edge, and the ways in which they use and allocate space require an urgent rethink. However, not only do the tools for tackling this new environment exist, but the pandemic and its aftermath have also created a rare openness to doing things differently. Seizing this opportunity won’t be easy, or a short-term affair. But if we can be certain of anything, it’s that cities will adapt and evolve, and that they have the potential to come back stronger. The proposals outlined in this report are intended to help city leaders take the concrete, practical action needed to create what is next for their cities and define what a global city now looks like. We look forward to seeing how they rise to the challenge, and what next year’s Global Cities Report will bring.

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