The urban impact of COVID-19 has been sobering, but the mayor of Lima, Peru, sees it as an opportunity to transform the way we look at city life in favor of a green future

By Jorge Muñoz Wells, mayor of Lima, Peru

An aggressive virus has transformed our lives. The best response is to rethink our cities and adapt to what, in Peru, we are calling this “new coexistence” that will continue to impose COVID-19 on us for some time.

We face serious problems, but also great challenges, all of them unprecedented. People, business, government management at all levels and society in general face constant change towards scenarios unthinkable five months ago.

The World Bank estimates that the global economy will contract by 5.2% in 2020, despite historic levels of spending by national governments. Cities account for 80% of global GDP, meaning they will bear the brunt of this loss.

Meanwhile, another no less important factor in this new coexistence is the quality of the air we breathe and its relationship with the virus. According to the World Health Organization, more than 80% of people living in urban areas are exposed to harmful air pollution, a factor that has been linked to higher risks of complications and death from COVID-19.

Cities of the future

In the long period of confinement, we were able to breathe fresh air and see the return of marine species and birds on the Lima coast, something not very usual for us. This destructive pandemic has offered us, against all odds, an unprecedented moment to collectively rebuild and reimagine what cities will look like in the future.

The impact of the pandemic gives us a blueprint for insulating against future public health emergencies and protecting our city-dwellers from the worst effects of climate change. From that perspective, we can gain insight into the common challenges that mayors face around the world and how our priorities diverge in the global north and global south.

Leading economists agree that a low-carbon, sustainable recovery will not only help combat climate change, but will also increase resilience and produce the best possible economic outcomes. Therefore, we must seize this opportunity to address the staggering economic fallout of the pandemic, and take steps to mitigate the ripple effects on the health of families and communities for untold years to come.

Green recovery in cities

By addressing the climate crisis in an inclusive way, cities of all sizes can be essential economic engines for jumpstarting national economic recovery.  National governments have to generate new investment horizons and aim for green recovery in cities.

For instance, in Europe, cities have instituted measures to expand public spaces for more outdoor activities, leading to less traffic and air pollution. Cities are setting aside dedicated cycle lanes to allow for exercise and safe transport.

In Peru, the impact of COVID-19 has exposed deficiencies and inequalities that have been with us for years or decades. It has also revealed major structural problems that, after the great shake-up of this pandemic, will have to be addressed in order to give them a definitive solution.

One of them, the most visible in many of our societies, is informality, in all its manifestations. 70% of people hold informal jobs. This has played against us throughout this pandemic, hindering, for example, the proper distribution of subsidies granted by the national government.

About 10 million people live in Lima, the capital of Peru. That represents a third of the total population of the country. Like other regions of Peru, Lima was under a long period of confinement or quarantine, which lasted for more than four months. However, in May, the process of resuming activities began within the framework of the economic reactivation plan of the national government. This includes four phases, and we’re now in the penultimate one. We continue, in parallel, our fight against the virus, because it’s not yet over.

The Municipality of Lima, after the declaration of the national state of emergency in the country as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, began to be part of that fight. We guaranteed the essential services of the city—public transport, security, solid waste collection, cleaning and disinfection, as well as inspection—and articulated efforts with the national government for the welfare of citizens, to keep them away from the slightest risk of contagion of the virus. The challenges and difficulties are permanent and we have risen to the challenge of these circumstances.

Green vision for Lima

Green recovery for Lima is focused on bringing services closer to the most vulnerable populations with the vision of a green, prosperous, and fair city for everyone. Through the execution of 46 km of emerging bike paths, the municipality has a vision of the implementation of sustainable infrastructure as a way to stop the spread of COVID-19.

We continue to make progress towards our goal of planting two million trees at the end of our four-year term in 2022, increasing green areas for the improvement of the environment and health of our population—something that’s much needed in this context.

Lima is one of over 10,000 cities from different parts of the world that comprise the Global Covenant of Mayors. We are a unified voice standing ready to partner with national governments and international institutions to solve both the global economic and climate crises through local climate commitments, innovative financing models, and a focus on sustainable infrastructure. 

We have a great opportunity to bet on economic growth with sustainable development. Therefore, we are going to work to close the investment gap, to finance climate-smart urban infrastructure projects that will not only fight against climate change, but will also increase the resilience, livability and health of our cities, now and in the coming years.

We are in the middle of the fight against the pandemic, but that does not prevent us from projecting ourselves into the future, strengthened and with the spirit and determination to return to our greatest objectives.

This post was first published on the World Bank blog as part of a series on smart urbanisation.