Should we be looking to cities for leadership in a post-COVID world?

This is the question the Good Society Forum explored at our recent webinar with Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol (UK), Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr OBE, Mayor of Freetown (Sierra Leone); Ufuk Kâhya, Deputy Mayor of Hertogenbosch (Netherlands) and Professor Sheila Foster, Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University and Chair of the Global Parliament of Mayors Advisory Committee.

We know more than half of the people in the world now live in cities and by 2050 that number is expected to rise to 68%. Cities and concentrated urban centres are where wealth and power are concentrated in most countries, but also where inequality most visibly manifests. It is no surprise then to see the highly infectious COVID-19 transmit most freely and do the most damage in these densely populated spaces. But as nations across the globe contemplate re-opening public spaces and lift travel restrictions, how does a government go about re-opening an entire country?

According to Marvin Rees, the first thing it should not do is undertake a one-dimensional approach for a whole county. Mayor Rees highlights an important challenge facing political leadership today: COVID is “not landing equally”. Both the virus and the measures installed to combat the social and economic consequences — furlough schemes, stay at home orders, current and future redundancies — are hitting the poorest, and often those from minority communities, hardest. This was echoed by all panelists in their country contexts, stressing the impact of COVID on existing fault lines of inequality. With infection rates differing in different cities and regions, the key to successful recovery requires a collaborative national and regional approach.

Deputy Mayor Ufuk Kâhya provided a positive Dutch perspective, with Mayors of the 25 largest cities across the Netherlands meeting as frequently as weekly with the Prime Minister and Government officials to discuss the optimal implementation of national policy. The same however could not be said of the other country contexts with Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr describing some of the challenges of working with a national Sierra Leonean Government run by a different political party than that which governs Freetown, which has resulted in the expedited need for an independent city-wide plan; whilst in the UK, the Government rejected outright the idea of a phased regional approach and even surprised its devolved nations with a change in messaging to “stay alert” from “stay at home”, which they subsequently rejected.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not simply a national health service crisis, as many governments around the world have understandably positioned as their early messaging to ensure the availability of intensive care unit (ICU) beds. It is also a social and public health issue, as Mayor Rees emphasises, which does not involve specialist medical interventions. Rather it is about good quality housing, good quality education, and good social connectivity among many other policies that happen at the point of local and place. Understanding such local complexity and nuance is something only local leaders can grasp.

A recent More in Common report, focused on how Americans are coming together to face the common threat of COVID, found an increased sense of gratitude for mayors and governors. Professor Sheila Foster explained that despite a failure of leadership at the federal level, there was “striking cooperation between mayors and governors at the state level”, with mayors often getting ahead of their governors with shelter in place orders and prompting them to follow suit — as was the case in San Francisco, California; New York City, New York; and Columbia, South Carolina. Local leadership has been found to be incredibly important when there is a crisis that does not respect local and state boundaries, because mayors are from their communities, they are visible, and they are accountable to their local populations.

COVID is yet another complex challenge that the world faces, joining a long line that includes migration and climate change, inequality, democratic legitimacy, and food scarcity. What we have been able to witness in a short amount of time is a contextualised nimbleness and dynamism from city leaders that national governments are simply unable to produce. Freetown is the most densely populated city in Sierra Leone; the notion of enforcing two-metre social distancing rules is not feasible and so city leaders have proactively produced 120,000 masks and handed them out to residents. 35% of its residents live in slum communities with access to food a daily struggle, and with national restrictions putting that further at risk, the city has kickstarted urban farming to ensure food sustainability. Meanwhile in Hertogenbosch, the city identified young people at safeguarding risk that fell out of the Government’s policy of allowing into school only children that have both parents designated as key workers, and so the city created their own daycare services for those young people.

“Global governance needs to move onto its next iteration”

“Global governance needs to move onto its next iteration”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was the sentiment our panel gravitated to. City leaders are not just local leaders, they are global leaders with global populations and are already making global impact, often due to national governments’ inability to do so. We can see through the work of the C40, the Mayors Migration Council, the EU Committee of the Regions and the Global Parliament of Mayors that city leaders are taking substantial actions against complex issues transcending national borders. We have seen through their responses to COVID-19 that city leaders are uniquely placed to build structures and spaces that can inject the dynamism required to combat some of our most pressing challenges. It is the hope that national governments will also be able to see that, and perhaps most crucially be willing to finance local governments to achieve such ambitions, especially in this time of economic crisis, even if it means not maximising their own electoral ambitions in the process.

The full webinar is available on YouTube.

By Nizam Uddin, Co-Founder and Co-Host at Good Society Forum

The Good Society Forum is a community of change-makers around the world with a common quest to building the good society.