How cities are seizing the moment to focus on climate and equity

There’s evidence that the pandemic is speeding economic conversions toward the goals of "green deals". (VCG via Getty Images)

Around the globe, in spheres of government, business, and civil society, a burgeoning consensus affirms that societal recovery from impacts of the coronavirus must occur in ways that are pro-environment and pro-equity.

A newly released report from the C40 Cities network aims to point out specific examples of this kind of recovery taking place, encouraging mayors to learn from each other as they implement policies that address residents’ short- and long-term needs while the pandemic continues. The group says solutions are available that also address two of humanity’s older, but no less urgent, crises: those of climate change, and of people’s inequitable access to the resources needed for a decent standard of life. Cities are a natural place to focus efforts, because they are home to more than half the world’s population, 90% of reported coronavirus cases, and “are where the future happens first,” according to the report.

“To build the future we want, the process of recovery must bring about meaningful change in the way we think about our societies and our economies. We must forge a new normal,” reads the “Mayors Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery”, published by C40’s Global Mayors Covid-19 Recovery Task Force. “A return to ‘business as usual’ would not just be a monumental failure of imagination, but lock in the inequities laid bare by the pandemic and the inevitability of more devastating crises due to climate breakdown.” The task force is chaired by Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala, and its recovery principles have been endorsed by over 40 mayors, representing cities on every continent.

By highlighting new, post-Covid governing practices in areas from mass transit to job creation to feeding the hungry, the task force hopes to demonstrate broad-based urban action against the backdrop of widespread calls to “build back better”. Whether it’s the United Nations asserting on Earth Day that “fiscal firepower must drive a shift from the grey to green economy”, or the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance writing an open letter to global financial leaders saying the same, or the rising profile of doughnut economics and the degrowth movement, the drive for a “green and just recovery” appears to have become conventional wisdom in many circles. The environmentalist and former US Vice President Al Gore, who chairs a $20 billion investment firm, now says that the “sustainability revolution” is “the biggest investing opportunity in the history of the world, and the biggest business opportunity in the history of the world.”

Just a year and a half after Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the concept of a “Green New Deal” in the US – meeting both scorn and acclaim – “green deals” are found all over. In April of 2019, both New York and Los Angeles unveiled their own Green New Deals. In December, before the pandemic, a continent-wide European Green Deal was announced. This June, Seoul made its version public. And there’s evidence that the pandemic is speeding the economic conversions these plans envision. (There’s also plenty of evidence that among the untold billions being spent on recovery are massive grants to fossil fuel industries, in the UK the US, and elsewhere.)

Former mayor of Toronto David Miller thinks mayor-led actions can and must gain momentum. “The cities represented in the task force, and C40 Cities generally, have taken real action against greenhouse gas emissions that has proven effective, and a way to address inequality and create jobs. What the world needs is to take these excellent examples and do more, quickly,” says Miller, C40’s director of international diplomacy. “The actions of C40 mayors to reduce emissions, through actions to clean electricity generation, lower emissions from buildings, clean transportation and waste management, show what is possible and have resulted in real emission reductions. Last year in Copenhagen, 34 cities announced their emissions had peaked. They have showed what is possible, and this should give hope.”

Leaders in New Orleans, Louisiana, share that drive. The city, located alongside the Mississippi River delta and the Gulf of Mexico, is one of the places in the world that is most quickly losing land into the water. Mayor LaToya Cantrell is a member of the Covid-19 Recovery Task Force, heading the committee focused on equity. While tourism dollars and jobs have been essential to the local economy, the recent tourism drought is driving the city to act on its pre-existing Climate Action Equity Report and create more green jobs, aimed at decarbonizing infrastructure, and blue jobs, which have to do with water management.

“We’ve been looking at ways we can really turbocharge these programs and inject more cash, more infrastructure, more trainees – to create essentially a Civilian Conservation Corps that is part of the post-Covid labor force,” says Camille Pollan, project director in the city’s Office of Resilience and Sustainability. It’s not yet clear whether any of the estimated $6 trillion in US federal stimulus money allocated thus far can be used toward such projects, says Pollan, so state and philanthropic funding is also being sought.

A place of unique vitality, New Orleans is also a place of inequality, which has been highlighted by the coronavirus’s impact. According to 2018 figures from the American Community Survey, the city’s population of 389,648 is 59% Black and 31% white, but today Black people account for 75% of the city’s deaths from the coronavirus, and white people 22%.

“Covid was really an opportunity to reexamine” the goals of the equity report, says Pollan, “and to say, these are really relevant to the inequities we’re trying to address.” When data began showing that Covid was disproportionately affecting Black and low-income residents, those with less health insurance, and respiratory issues, she says, “in some ways it was not surprising, but also a wakeup call that all these underlying issues need to be addressed.”

“We have one opportunity to get this right. We have the possibility to help all residents, versus just going back to business pre-Covid,” Pollan says. “We can seize the moment to develop transformational change.

“We know what we have to do to slow, stop, or reverse global warming. The economic engines can be moved to support that effort today, but not five years from now,” she says.

Karen Loew is a writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @karenloew.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.