Did You Miss World Metropolitan Day?

Stephen DeAngelis

October 16, 2020

According to the website United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), “[World Metropolitan Day] is celebrated yearly on October 7th, marking the anniversary of the Montréal Declaration on Metropolitan Areas (2015). It is a unique opportunity for communities from across the world to come together to make visible the metropolitan reality: the growth of the world’s urbanized areas beyond the jurisdictional boundaries of municipalities, generating complex urban systems where the world’s greatest transformations take place. Led by CIPPEC and Metropolis, the World Metropolitan Day campaign calls local and regional authorities across the world to organize an event on October 7th to bring together the representatives of the different levels of government that operate in the same metropolitan area, and promote open discussions about the pressing issues that they face together, as part of a metropolitan community.”[1] The focus on metropolitan areas, rather than on cities proper, is important because social challenges seldom stop at city lines. The most recent, the COVID-19 pandemic, is a case in point.  In fact, the pandemic had some pundits questioning the future of cities.

COVID-19 and the case against cities

“In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic,” writes science journalist Jeremy Hsu (@jeremyhsu), “some U.S. leaders and pundits pointed to hard-hit cities such as New York, Milan and Wuhan as proof that population density was to blame for coronavirus hotspots.”[2] Chandran Nair (@Cnomics), founder and CEO of the Global Institute for Tomorrow, adds, “All cities have gone through the ebb and flow of social distancing and lockdowns, with regulations repealed as cases decline and hurriedly re-imposed when cases return. … Megacities — cities with large and growing populations, often exceeding ten million — in developing countries have struggled to protect their residents and keep their economic engines running. It is an indication of the flaws inherent in an economic model focused on rapid and widespread urbanization. Megacities are not the future because they thrive on cheap labor and government policies fuel this abuse.”[3]

Arguments against urban living, raised during the pandemic, have been studied and the results are interesting. Hsu explains, “One of the biggest predictors of infection rate was metropolitan size — a factor that the researchers see as reflecting the number of metropolitan area counties that are closely linked by community, transportation, housing and economic relationships. And the implication that this kind of connectivity among communities may play a significant role in the spread of the novel coronavirus was strengthened in a follow-up longitudinal study. It showed that larger metropolitan size was linked to higher infection and mortality rates over time, whereas higher population density (without that confounding factor) was linked to lower infection and mortality rates over the same period.” In other words, World Metropolitan Day has the right idea: Different levels of government that operate in the same metropolitan area need to work closely together to solve common problems.

On the other hand, Nair’s concerns can’t be dismissed out of hand. While it’s true that cities can better use resources and provide more people with better services. Nair notes, “In growing economies, mass urbanization will remain the focus, as it is still seen as the best, if not the only, vehicle for economic development, moving people from the ‘unproductive’ countryside to the more productive cities. By emptying rural hinterlands with its demand for low-paid workers, this urbanization ultimately leads to more unstable, more damaging, and more unequal economies.” So what is the future of cities?

The future of cities

Oscar Chamat, Research and Policy Officer at the Metropolis Secretariat General, writes, “Now more than ever, urban spaces and the metropolitan scale are playing a central role in proposing solutions to the complex situation our societies are facing.”[4] No one seriously believes cities are going away; although, there has been some movement away from cities during the pandemic. Journalist Robin Harding (@RobinBHarding) argues cities are simply too resilient to disappear. He explains, “Urban doom has been prophesied many times before, for example after the 9/11 terror attacks in New York, but video conferencing over fast internet connections makes it seem more plausible this time around. ‘NYC is dead forever,’ according to former hedge fund manager James Altucher. But while the fear is understandable, it ignores the vast gains in wages and productivity fostered by cities, which arise in ways that teleworking cannot replicate. Sell up and move to the countryside at your peril. The city will be back.”[5]

After hearing arguments from both sides about the future of cities (or lack thereof), Chloe Demrovsky (@ChloeDemrovsky), President and CEO of Disaster Recovery Institute International, interviewed Michael Berkowitz (@Berkmic), Founding Principal of Resilient Cities Catalyst and the former President of 100 Resilient Cities, to obtain his views on the subject.[6] “Berkowitz observes that ‘the rate of urbanization is not declining globally’,” Demrovsky writes, “and that when we finally ‘break transmission of the virus … we will need cities as generators of wealth, innovation and culture to help us out of the post-Covid recession’.” In spite of his optimism about the future of cities, Berkowitz does believe they need to change to become more resilient. “City leaders will need to focus on ‘meeting the basic needs of their most vulnerable, developing good governance with multiple stakeholders at the table, promoting diverse and equitable economies with a solid middle class jobs base, supporting cohesive communities where neighbors check on neighbors and all underpinned by sustainable multiuse infrastructure’. Berkowitz adds that ‘all of those capacities help cities respond to, recover from and grow in the face of risk and adversity’. By doing so, they build resilience. The challenge will be to deliver this support in the face of an eroding tax base and budget shortfalls.”

Concluding thoughts

Harding reminds us why cities are so important to the world. He writes, “Large cities allow for a multitude of specialist services and a better matching of workers to jobs, and companies to customers. … {However, it is not] just about work: for education, medicine and even romance, the pool is deeper in the big city. Finally, cities promote innovation. There are various studies of technology clusters that show how inventors tend to live near one another. … Another reason to live in the city is the amenities of art, music, food and theater. … The strengths of the city will reassert themselves and everyone will trudge back to the office. In the city, they will enjoy productive lives and dream, just occasionally, of how sweet it would be to work from home in the countryside.” Demrovsky adds, “With an improved strategy for resilience, the future of cities really can be bright. Our leaders need to stay focused on the vision to help us get there.”

Footnotes
[1] Staff, “World Metropolitan Day,” United Cities and Local Governments, 7 October 2019.
[2] Jeremy Hsu, “Population Density Does Not Doom Cities to Pandemic Dangers,” Scientific American, 16 September 2020.
[3] Chandran Nair, “Megacities Are Not the Future. They Are Inhumane and Unsustainable,” Time, 28 August 2020.
[4] Oscar Chamat, “Why World Metropolitan Day is a time to rethink the future of the city,” Smart Cities World, 12 October 2020.
[5] Robin Harding, “Cities are too resilient to be killed by Covid,” Financial Times, 29 September 2020.
[6] Chloe Demrovsky, “Why Cities Will Bounce Back Post-Coronavirus,” Forbes, 14 October 2020.