by Robin Hambleton
16th October 2020

Taking place on 31 October, UN World Cities Day 2020, the seventh global celebration of cities and local communities, aims to attract international interest in the important role of local actions and initiatives in promoting social, racial, economic and environmental justice. In his new book, Cities and Communities Beyond COVID-19, Robin Hambleton explains how local leadership is going to be critical in changing our future for the better.

The theme of this year’s World Cities Day is ‘valuing our communities and cities’. It is a particularly good choice, given that the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated the vital role of kind people showing care and compassion for their neighbours.

Indeed, there has been a spectacular upsurge in community-based caring and social support. Across the world we encounter heartwarming stories of how local communities have responded with great speed to the disruption in local food supply chains, taken steps to protect the most vulnerable in society and are continuing to engage in all manner of creative, problem-solving activities at the local or hyper-local level.

The pandemic has resulted in the death of well over one million people, and the scale and intensity of human suffering is difficult to comprehend. However, as well as delivering widespread distress and misery, the virus is spurring a rethink about how we live our lives.

This awful contagion has brought home to many people that we are highly interdependent. The pandemic has shown that the ‘What’s in it for me?’ mindset, an attitude that has dominated market-oriented approaches to public policy since the 1980s, doesn’t actually work once it is recognised that we are part of a single organism.

There is growing recognition in social movements like Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter as well as in society at large, that the post COVID-19 calamity demands that a new dominant mindset needs to become the lodestar for the future, one that asks ‘How do we solve these problems together?’

This idea – that radical change for the better is now possible – is the central theme of my new book, Cities and Communities Beyond COVID-19: How Local Leadership Can Change Our Future for the Better.

What is the nature of the COVID-19 challenge?

The first point to emphasise is that city and civic leaders do not face a single ‘COVID-19 challenge’. Rather they are confronted with at least four major challenges at once: an extraordinary health emergency; a sharp economic downturn arising from the pandemic; a global climate change emergency; and a disastrous growth in social, economic and racial inequality.

The central challenge societies now face is, then, not the public health crisis, nor is it the frightening collapse of economic opportunities for so many people. Alarming as these shocks are to our way of life, the much bigger challenge is to develop arrangements for governing societies that can not only address these pressing public policy issues in a creative way, but also prevent disasters of this kind from happening in the future.

The central argument I am making here is that to improve societal and environmental resilience, we need to strengthen the civic capacity of localities. In short, we need to bring about a significant expansion in the power of place in the modern world.

Inclusive cities are leading the way

The good news is that there are many examples of cities around the world that are demonstrating how collaborative, inclusive civic leadership can break new ground.

Take Copenhagen. Already recognised as the healthiest capital in Europe, Lord Mayor Frank Jensen and his colleagues are now aiming for the city to be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital in 2025 – yes, that’s in five years.

Interestingly, the city is promoting cycling as an effective way of responding to the COVID-19 emergency. City leaders know that, while the city already has more bicycles than cars, much more can be done. Their strategy recognises that cyclists incur less risk of infection and that promoting cycling is a good strategy for reducing obesity levels in the population – a core risk factor in relation to COVID-19.

Here in Bristol, UK, my home city, Mayor Marvin Rees has developed a One City Approach to city governance that has developed an entirely new way of energising civic leaders in the city – from in and outside the state – to work in a strikingly collaborative way on solving the problems now facing the city.

This has led to a plethora of new initiatives – from providing free school meals to needy children during the holidays, through the imaginative Period Friendly Bristol Initiative, designed to bring period dignity to the many women and girls in the city denied access to menstrual products, to the development of a new economic recovery strategy for the city.

Mayor Rees has explained how he has used the New Civic Leadership framework I set out in my last book, Leading the Inclusive City, to guide his approach to city leadership in Bristol. I use this framework again in my new book as it provides practical insights into how to deliver progressive local leadership and imaginative public innovation.

Confronting ‘place-less power’

The key task that now faces societies across the world is to confront ‘place-less power’. By place-less power I mean the exercise of power by decision makers who are unconcerned about the impacts of their decisions on communities living in particular places.

The forces of globalisation, which have resulted in a remarkable growth in the number of multinational companies operating on a global basis, have provided the engine for this expansion in place-less policy making, and the consequences for social, economic and environmental justice have been dire. For example, we are now experiencing rapid deforestation, unprecedented biodiversity loss and startling increases in global warming precisely because too many multinational companies have adopted exploitative models of behaviour.

Across the world we can see that local people living in particular communities and localities have responded to the COVID-19 emergency with care and compassion to friends and neighbours. We need to listen to these local voices and realise that place-based caring and collaboration provides the way forward for societies, not the ruthless pursuit of private profit at all costs.

As the UN Concept Note on World Cities Day 2020 explains: ‘… it is more important than ever, to consider how diverse urban communities can be better recognized, supported and their qualities maximized in new ways that move beyond token engagement or minimal support’.

Robin Hambleton is Emeritus Professor of City Leadership, University of the West of England, Bristol, and Director of Urban Answers. 


Cities and Communities Beyond COVID-19: How Local Leadership Can Change Our Future for the Better by Robin Hambleton is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £7.99.

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