History shows that when disasters and crises strike, cities often bounce back stronger and more resilient than before. The great Chicago fire famously gave rise to skyscrapers. Infectious disease outbreaks led to public health policies and modern sanitation. The devastation of World War II catalyzed unprecedented investment in housing and infrastructure.

As the pace of the COVID-19 pandemic slows, many cities are experiencing a moment of rethinking. They’re openly questioning how best to organize urban recovery, transition and renewal in a world in which disruption, uncertainty and crises may be the new normal.

As part of the 2021-2022 WRI Ross Center Prize for Cities, WRI asked the urban community to step forward with exemplary approaches answering this defining question: How can cities and communities thrive, inclusively, in turbulent times?

The five finalists from 260 submissions across 155 cities in 65 countries all faced crises in their own communities. But through innovative people-centered responses centering on the most vulnerable residents, leaders helped their cities become more resilient, equitable and better prepared to withstand future shocks.

Together they provide powerful examples of how cities can respond to uncertainty, disruption and crisis.

Revitalizing Barranquilla, Colombia, Through Green Spaces

An urban green space in Barranquilla, Colombia overhead shot
An aerial view of one of the city parks recovered through Todos al Parque (Everyone to the Park), an initiative transforming the city by ensuring that all residents have access to green spaces within an 8-minute walk of their home. Photo by the City of Barranquilla. 

Ten years ago, Barranquilla faced economic stagnation. About 43% of its residents lived in poverty, with many subject to poor health, crime, low public trust and environmental degradation. Existing parks and public spaces were often under-utilized and run-down, providing little benefit to citizens.

Since 2011, the mayor’s office of Barranquilla created Todos al Parquean urban parks program that re-generated 202 parks and built 48 new ones with resident participation. Today, 93% of Barranquilla’s households can access green public space in less than an 8-minute walk.

These parks serve as vital community hubs, providing neighbors with new places to play, meet and exercise, particularly in low- and middle-income neighborhoods that previously lacked these amenities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the parks also hosted pandemic-related services like testing and vaccination sites, as well as opportunities to gather while adhering to social distancing guidelines.

Barranquilla has become Colombia’s first “BiodiverCity” and leads a network of eight South American cities seeking to incorporate nature-based solutions and biodiversity into their planning.

Community-built Resilience in Iloilo City, Philippines

A new housing development in Iloilo, Philippines made with light bricks and red roofs is ready for residents
A new housing development constructed by Homeless People’s Federation Philippines, Inc. in Iloilo. The project was community-driven through all its project stages including planning, housing design, procurement, construction management and overarching project development. Photo by Homeless People’s Federation Philippines, Inc in Iloilo City. 

Over the past 20 years, Iloilo City has faced a housing crisis brought on by rapid urbanization and natural disasters.

In 2008, Typhoon Fengshen flooded 80% of the city. This exacerbated the challenge of housing the city’s large numbers of informal settlers. Government flood-control projects often left these communities resettled far from their previous homes and without safe housing.

In response, a coalition of civil society groups led by the Homeless People’s Federation of the Philippines (HPFP) worked with the city government to implement Participatory Housing and Urban Development in Iloilo City, bringing together a set of progressive and innovative community-led housing strategies. Together, they successfully created housing solutions without evictions or distant relocations for almost two-thirds of the city's 27,000 urban poor families.

The municipal government donated undeveloped land located within city limits. Community groups then organized informal households using different strategies to provide safe housing. This self-organizing included setting up collective savings groups to finance housing construction and upgrading and collectively purchasing land for new developments.

Through the process, the urban poor gained permanent representation in the city’s formal planning processes. The city is becoming a place where future natural disasters are anticipated and planned for in an inclusive way, where building up the city's protections against floods and storms does not displace people, but gives them new opportunities for a more secure future.

A Rapid Response with Lasting Impacts in Odisha, India

A mural of a mother and father bird lingering over their nest and babies
One of the many murals created through MUKTA’s urban public works program. Other low-carbon public works projects included storm water drainage improvements, rainwater harvesting and the creation of community centers. Photo by The Housing & Urban Development Department of Government of Odisha. 

India’s 21-day nationwide lockdown at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic created an acute unemployment crisis among the urban poor as economic activities ground to a halt almost overnight.

Within mere weeks, the Housing and Urban Development Department of the Government of Odisha launched the Urban Wage Employment Initiative (UWEI) to create income opportunities for 700,000 urban poor, informal and migrant laborers across all of Odisha’s 114 cities. Existing community groups, slum dwellers’ associations, and women’s groups organized job seekers to perform 22,500 low-carbon public works projects, including drain desilting, rainwater harvesting, community centers, sanitation activities and public space development.

Workers collaborate to construct a new building
As part of India’s COVID-19 response, the Department of Housing and Urban Development of the Government of Odisha pioneered an innovate mass employment scheme (MUKTA) for migrants, informal works and the urban poor. Photo by The Housing & Urban Development Department of Government of Odisha. 

The program has since become a permanent urban employment program that’s been replicated across three other Indian states. The Indian government held the project up as a national exemplar.

Turning Paris, France, into a “15-minute City”

People walk and bike along the Seine in Paris, France
The 15-minute city concept, embraced by the Mayor of Paris, France brings all necessary amenities within a short distance from people’s homes and prioritizes walking and biking. Photo by the City of Paris. 

Like many large cities in the world, Paris was struggling with the need to reduce emissions while increasing residents’ quality of life. The COVID-19 crisis compounded the need for a compelling guiding vision for the future of the city.

In 2020, Mayor Anne Hidalgo doubled down on her plan to turn Paris into a “15-minute City.” Originally developed in 2016 by Professor Carlos Moreno, this vision entails a low-carbon, hyper-local vision of city living, where carbon-intensive travel is significantly reduced and residents can meet all their needs within a short distance from their homes.

Mayor Hidalgo’s 15-minute city policy portfolio includes a huge expansion in cycling infrastructure, urban parks, closing school streets to cars, participatory budgeting and decentralized decision-making. Since 2020, the city made permanent more than 1,000 km of temporary bike lanes created during the pandemic.

Embraced by city networks and mayors around the world, the 15-minute city has become a global movement and is inspiring cities in France and countries around the world to make similar reforms.

Changing Lives through Transport in Peshawar, Pakistan

Women and children ride a public bus in Peshawar, Pakistan
Zu Peshawar (Let’s Go Peshawar) in Pakistan is providing a safe mobility solution for vulnerable groups including women and transgendered, connecting them to life-changing opportunities. Photo by TransPeshawar. 

For many years, Peshawar’s residents struggled with the city’s chaotic, polluting and inaccessible transport options, made up primarily of diesel buses and private vehicles.  Users with disabilities and mobility challenges were not able to get around the city. Unsafe stations and lack of reserved seating made the system intimidating for women, children and transgender people.

Between 2017 and 2020, TransPeshawar restructured the local bus industry, scrapped old vehicles and built a state-of-the-art bus rapid transit (BRT) system. Stations and buses are now accessible for those with disabilities and feature reserved seating and priority boarding for members of vulnerable groups. Female ridership increased from 2% to 20% of trips, opening up new educational and professional opportunities for women. TransPeshawar replaced old polluting vehicles with 220 diesel hybrid-electric buses, which operate along 59 km. TransPeshawar also built bike lanes, bike parking facilities and a bicycle sharing system integrated with the BRT payment system.

Peshawar’s experience shows how a world-class mobility solution can unlock life-changing opportunities for previously marginalized groups and create a city that is safer and healthier for everyone.

Thriving Together in Turbulent Times

Over the last two years, urban experts and practitioners were propelled to the frontline of the largest public health crisis in living memory. Lockdowns shut down city life, existing inequalities in cities widened dramatically, and the vulnerability of urban systems—transport, housing, logistics, municipal finance, jobs, etc.—were exposed.

But the cities above show that there is a way through public health and other crises—and, through the right approaches, cities can come back better. With innovative interventions, cities can positively affect a kaleidoscope of beneficiaries—including the urban poor, women, children, transgender people, migrants and informal workers—and become stronger, more resilient and inclusive.

The 2021-2022 Prize for Cities celebrates inclusive approaches to tackling uncertainty, disruption and crisis. Stay tuned for an upcoming series profiling the Prize for Cities finalists. From five finalists, a grand prize winner will be selected by an independent jury and announced in late 2022.