Sustainability officers respond to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis with renewed determination

This piece originally appeared in Cities Today.

In Turku, Finland, sustainability meetings and events have gone virtual, reaching much larger audiences. The City of uMhlathuze, South Africa, has developed a programme to promote more home-based businesses. Oakland in the United States has established a new food systems ordinance to encourage more urban gardens.

Far from bringing programmes to a standstill in 2020, sustainability officers from around the ICLEI network and world have responded to COVID-19 with a much-needed sense of urgency, recognizing that beyond a public health crisis, the virus is negatively affecting everything from essential needs to quality of life.

Nontsundu Ndonga, Deputy Municipal Manager for City Development and Sustainability with the City of uMhlathuze, feels that COVID-19 poses “looming disasters in the form of ecological collapse, climate change and a myriad of development challenges.” Consequently, Ndonga says uMhlathuze has initiated several new circular and green economy activities, including recycling projects, an indigenous nursery, organic farming and transformative riverine management.

In response to current high levels of unemployment, the municipality has made it easier for residents to set up home-based businesses. And it is addressing food security through its One Home, One Garden programme where citizens are encouraged to grow their own vegetables, fruits and herbs both for sustenance and to trade with other families.

Similarly, in Orlando, where 40 percent of Hispanic families with children struggle with food insecurity, Chris Castro, Director of the city’s Office of Sustainability & Resilience, says: “We’re amending our zoning and land development codes to enable more urban agriculture” and “we’re launching a new food recovery network to rescue edible food and deliver it to the individuals who need it the most”.

Helping to oversee these efforts, Orlando has also appointed a new Chief Equity Officer and has worked to establish the East Central Florida Regional Resilience Collaborative that’s designed to ensure the region is better prepared to withstand future shocks.

Food security becomes central

Food security and resilience of supply chains are key concerns shared by Tu My Tran, ICLEI’s Head of Sustainable Mobility, who says that in many parts of the world, COVID-19 has negatively impacted what she describes as one of the most overlooked areas of planning: urban freight.

“In the Philippines fresh produce from the countryside wasn’t reaching urban centers because there were so many checkpoints that delayed freight transport into cities in lockdown,” she said.

Tackling this challenge head on, Pasig City, a suburb of Manila in the Philippines, came up with the innovative idea of setting up mobile farm-to-market shops on wheels. While Pasig city kicked off its initiative using vans, nearby Valenzuela City deployed a similar solution that was literally a better fit for its narrower roads — making food deliveries using e-tricycles.

In hindsight, both initiatives yielded multiple benefits: offsetting the income loss of market vendors, while reducing the number of overall deliveries required and contributing to less crowded streets and reduced air pollution.

“They’re both good examples of people working together to respond to a crisis,” observes Tran.

Perhaps the least anticipated outcome of COVID-19, Tran says, has been the global surge in the popularity of biking as a means of active transit. This is true even in car-centric cities like Rome, where she notes that traditionally “if you commute by bike, the perception is that you cannot afford a car or vespa”.

But now, with public transit taking a major hit in the Italian capital, as in most other cities around the world (due in large part to health concerns associated with the virus), Rome made the bold decision to accelerate the rollout of 150 kilometers of new bike lanes and introduced ‘bike boxes’ in major intersections where cyclists are prioritized over cars. As a result, more residents can opt to use bicycles as a means of transit.

Active mobility is safer mobility

Cycling and active mobility is also on the rise in Essen, says Sebastian Schlecht, an architect and strategic manager for the city’s Department of Environment, Mobility and Sports. So much so, the city has made a commitment to reaching an equal 25 percent share of mobility between walking, cycling, public transport, and cars by 2035.

Schlecht says this goal provides the city and its residents with “a much clearer path to strengthening climate action and reaching our GHG emission reduction goals”.

However, despite the city’s renewed interest in cycling, he admits that with the onset of winter, residents are eschewing both bikes and public transit in favor of cars.

“And because we still don’t know how the COVID-19 recovery will unfold, we recognize that it’s going to be hard to get people using public transit again,” he commented.

With the current lockdown and travel restrictions in place, residents are spending a lot more time in their homes and working remotely where possible, resulting in less strain on the public transit system at least for now. And if there is one benefit to be gleaned from all of this, Schlecht says, it’s that “people are seeing the space in front of their homes as something more to experience and not only for transit,” signaling a heightened appreciation of having more livable, higher quality neighborhoods.

It’s a storyline Schlecht says is tied to the universal need for greater community resilience. “Low emission, low noise, just neighborhoods, more localized cycles of food, energy, goods and transportation, and a high performing urban nature are all important things we need to take into consideration… to better prepare cities for the future in climate change conditions as well as in a pandemic – and to become a part of a global solution,” he said.

Virtual meetings to become the norm?

When it comes to sharing best practices with respect to everything from climate action to citizen engagement, in the pre-COVID era sustainability leaders depended more on face-to-face meetings, public forums and conferences as platforms for knowledge exchange.

Yet ironically now in our virtual new normal, where online broadcasts and events have supplanted real world ones, Lotte Suveri, a project specialist with the City of Turku, says she’s connecting with more peers than ever.

“Generally speaking, having meetings and workshops online has been more efficient and inclusive, enabling a wider group of professionals to take part in our circular economy roadmap work. It has also been easier to join webinars from around the world to learn about climate and circular economy solutions from other cities,” she says, including the Turku Climate Forum the city produced last year.

“I think this will be the new normal… not needing to travel far or to other countries to share knowledge.”