- The global pandemic from COVID-19 in 2020 revealed the vulnerabilities of cities due to their dense infrastructure and living conditions, resulting in high exposure to infectious diseases.
- The livable cities agenda has taken on even greater urgency as ADB and its financing partners support developing members in their economic and social recovery from the pandemic.
- Financing partnerships are crucial in helping ADB’s members adapt to a crisis, strengthen urban and social infrastructure, and embark on a green recovery for long-term sustainability.
The ADB Strategy 2030 Operational Priority 4 seeks to make cities more sustainable, resilient, and competitive. The strategy sets out directions and approaches for ADB and its partners to undertake and help developing members build livable cities. The livable cities agenda prioritizes the following:
- improving coverage, quality, efficiency, and reliability of services in urban areas
- strengthening urban planning and financial sustainability of cities
- improving urban environment, climate resilience, and disaster management of cities
COVID-19 Reveals Cities’ Vulnerabilities
Over the decades, the development efforts to achieve sustainable and resilient cities were built around the enduring challenges of urban services like sanitation, water, infrastructure, and disaster mitigation.
The year 2020—when a global health crisis brought many cities to a grinding halt—sheds light on a vulnerability inherent in cities: public health during a pandemic. When governments were tracking the transmission of COVID-19 as the infections rose in an unprecedented quarantine scenario, a pattern emerged: the concentration of high infections in cities.
Cities became the epicenter of COVID-19 infections due to density, population flow, crowded living conditions, and transport infrastructures. In India, the three states with the highest number of cases are also the most urbanized: Delhi, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu.
Cities drive economic opportunity and deliver more than 80% of the global GDP. If current trends continue, 70% of the world’s inhabitants will be city dwellers by 2050. This projected growth makes it critical that we learn from, and avoid the mistakes of, the first global pandemic of this century.
Building climate-resilient cities may have become more challenging, as member countries prioritize economic recovery post–COVID-19. Before COVID-19 struck, countries in Asia and the Pacific, especially in Southeast Asia, had prioritized urban climate resilience. Today, some of these countries are struggling to recover from the economic shock of the pandemic and are thus prioritizing economic resilience. For example, Indonesia plans to recover from the pandemic by strengthening its supply chains to enhance food security by expanding its food estate program, which may have adversely affected the environment.
Partnerships to Rebuild Cities
ADB’s partners have supported the livable cities agenda that addresses such issues as water and sanitation, transport services, climate change and disaster resilience, and urban and financial planning. In 2020, cofinancing for 421 projects with livable cities components were committed. Of these, five are COVID-19 related. These include a regional project to help developing members in South Asia strengthen their economic recovery plans from COVID-19 and adjust their long-term development strategies; rapid response to help hundreds of thousands of vulnerable households in Philippines' Metro Manila during a national quarantine designed to limit the spread of the virus; and another regional project to mitigate the risks of virus transmission and ensure safe working conditions in public buildings by deploying efficient, clean, and smart centralized air-conditioning systems.
Another way for ADB to partner with others to address the livable cities agenda is through the Urban Financing Partnership Facility (UFPF), which supports the development of Asia’s cities especially on pollution, uneven growth, and urban poverty. In 2020, UFPF’s cumulative commitments to various projects in ADB’s operations reached $146.4 million. For more on who contributes to the UFPF.
At the onset of the pandemic, ADB worked with Johns Hopkins University through the Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund (UCCRTF), one of the trust funds under the UFPF, to map out COVID-19 cases using a platform called Spatial Data Analysis Explorer. Using this platform, ADB identifies appropriate locations for COVID-19 testing centers in Metro Manila, Philippines. The UCCRTF also cofinanced a project in Bangladesh that supports COVID-19 efforts to purchase and distribute personal protective equipment, establish hygiene protocols, and conduct online training for medical health personnel.
Water is critical to achieving a sustainable, livable city. ADB’s Water Financing Partnership Facility (WFPF), established in 2006, explicitly addresses this vital issue and provides an effective vehicle for partners to combine their efforts. During its first phase of operation that culminated in 2020, the WFPF helped deliver 109 investment projects in 20 countries, equivalent to $9 billion investments. This is projected to help approximately 120 million people ultimately. So far, about 44 million have already benefited from completed projects.
In 2020, the WFPF cofinanced 10 technical assistance projects amounting to $4.4 million to support ADB’s work on increasing water and food security and promoting citywide inclusive sanitation in various developing members including Bangladesh, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Nepal, Pakistan, and the People’s Republic of China. WFPF’s next phase of operation from 2021 will be guided by the ADB Water Sector Framework 2021–2030 under preparation. Read the WFPF’s 2020 annual report.
As economic recovery from the pandemic takes priority for most countries, ADB and its partners work together to ensure that developing members take the opportunity to accelerate their progress toward environmental resilience. In 2020, some 23 projects with urban development components also have climate change and environmental sustainability elements built into their designs.
While cities can draw lessons from others on how to respond to a crisis, such as a pandemic, not all countries can do so with the same capacity. In 2020, several projects contributed to achieving livable cities through strengthening governance—for example, more effective public sector management.
The partners who cofinanced the greatest number of projects with elements for livable cities are the Republic of Korea, via the Republic of Korea e-Asia and Knowledge Partnership Fund, and Japan, via its funds for poverty reduction and high-level technology.
The Work Ahead
As the importance of sustainable and resilient cities becomes even more apparent, ADB responded by publishing COVID-19 and Livable Cities Guidance Note. The guide will help developing member economies respond to the impact of COVID-19 as they take forward urban initiatives.
ADB and its partners have an opportunity to recalibrate their investments to better plan and build livable cities post–COVID-19. The principles which will guide this vital work are varied but can be condensed in key areas of focus, for example: (i) enhance social protection measures for the most vulnerable groups; (ii) effectively use technologies and digital solutions; (iii) revisit urban planning to strategically incorporate lessons from the pandemic; (iv) strengthen the financial sustainability of local governments and build capacities of urban institutions and other stakeholders; (v) focus on healthy and environmentally sustainable cities; and (vi) build resilient cities, enabling them to absorb shocks and stresses due to pandemics, disasters, and climate change.