UN-Habitat report calls for cities post-pandemic to lead the way to a fairer, healthier future

30 March 2021 - SDGs


A new report on pandemics and cities from UN-Habitat, points the way to how hard-hit urban centres can reduce the impact of future outbreaks and become more equitable, healthy and environmentally friendly.

Unsplash/Mike Swigunski - An interconnected network of greenery across Medellín city in Colombia has significantly improved the lives of its citizens.


Cities and Pandemics: Towards a more just, green and healthy future’, launched on Tuesday, describes how urban areas have been at the forefront of the COVID-19 crisis.

“95 per cent of all cases” were recorded in cities in the first months of the pandemic, Maimunah Mohd Sharif, UN-Habitat Executive Director, said. Cities on the frontline

“Throughout this pandemic, it has been up to local governments and communities to move quickly and decisively to stop the spread of COVID-19 and ensure an effective response,” Ms. Sharif added. Despite these pressures, many local governments and community leaders responded quickly and effectively to prevent the spread of the pandemic and mitigate its effects.  The UN-Habitat report recommends actions for a sustainable recovery based on evidence from more than 1,700 cities.

Life and death inequalities It found that patterns of inequality, due to a lack of access to basic services, poverty and overcrowded living conditions, have been key destabilising factors in increasing the scale and impact of COVID-19.  Eduardo Moreno, Head of Knowledge and Innovation at UN-Habitat, said that due to the pandemic, an estimated “120 million people in the world will be pushed into poverty and living standards will reduce by 23 per cent”. 

“The conclusion is that income matters”, he added. According to the text, urban leaders and planners must rethink how people move through and in cities, using lessons learned from the last year of COVID-19. This includes an increased focus at the local level on planning neighbourhoods and communities that are multi-functional and inclusive. 


UN News/Vibhu Mishra : A view of the city of Bangkok, the capital of Thailand.

Planning, affordability The report explores how well-planned cities combining residential and commercial with public spaces, along with affordable housing, can improve public health, the local economy and the environment.  It calls for cities to be at the forefront of moves towards a Social Contract between governments, the public, civil society and private sector. 

The new social contract should “explore the role of the state and cities to finance universal basic income, universal health insurance, universal housing”, said Sharif.

For one real-world example, Claudia Lopez Hernandez, Mayor of Bogota, explained how in the Colombian capital, their new social contract prioritises women and children.  It is a “social contract that includes women, that provides them with time, with time to take care of themselves, with time to educate themselves, and with time and education skills to come back to the labour market”. 

“To have self-sustainable women is to have self-sustainable societies”, Hernandez explained. New priorities

The Report outlines how a new normal can emerge in cities “where health, housing and security are prioritised for the most vulnerable, not only out of social necessity, but also from a profound commitment to human rights for all.” 

This requires governments to focus on policies to protect land rights, improve access to water, sanitation, public transport, electricity, health and education facilities and ensure inclusive digital connectivity.

The Report recommends strengthening access to municipal finance to enable city leaders to build a new urban economy that reduces disaster risk as well as addressing climate change by developing nature-based solutions and investing in sustainable infrastructure to enable low carbon transport.  The Cities and Pandemics Report makes it clear that the way urban environments recover from the pandemic, will have a major impact on the global effort to achieve a sustainable future for all – in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.