Many cities faced serious obstacles to providing basic services even before the advent of COVID-19. More than 700 million urban residents have no access to piped water, and more than one quarter of the world’s urban population lives in informal, haphazard settlements lacking the most basic infrastructure and services. Asia alone is projected to require $1.7 trillion per year in investment until 2030 to address infrastructure needs.
Cities require a range of basic infrastructure and services in order to be viable: sanitation systems, power grids, roads, public transportation, housing, hospitals, and schools. Particularly in developing countries, cities face considerable challenges in providing this infrastructure, and accelerating development is essential to alleviate poverty and improve liveability. Establishing robust infrastructure and services is also necessary to boost resilience in the face of challenges like climate change and rising sea levels.
The capacity of urban infrastructure is often overwhelmed by the cascading effects of rapid urbanization, sprawl, and demographic shifts - and the COVID-19 pandemic has only more clearly exposed gaps in many urban healthcare systems for both the rich and the poor. While no healthcare system could realistically cope with a pandemic of such magnitude comfortably, managing hospitals on the premise of full efficiency but with no excess capacity has worsened the pandemic in some cities.
Weak urban governance and capital constraints can exacerbate these issues. As a result, cities from Australia to China, and from Europe to North America, have begun to rethink what is possible. New conceptions of sustainable urban forms include so-called compact cities, where high residential density and efficient public transportation are emphasized, and eco-cities specifically designed to curb carbon emissions. Some places have been able to harness technology and the non-governmental sector to address their issues.
The Australian social enterprise Pollinate Energy, for example, has offered solar-powered products including water filters and clean cookstoves in Indian slums; six years after its founding, Pollinate Energy had provided tens of thousands of products to more than 20,000 families. Meanwhile the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has financed dozens of infrastructure projects collectively worth about $4 billion in developing countries since it was established in 2016 - including a public train line in Bangalore, and slum upgrades in Indonesia.
China is meanwhile pushing its Belt and Road initiative, which is funding large infrastructure projects throughout cities on a massive scale including highways, ports, and IT systems, in a bid to strengthen ties with other countries in Asia and further afield.