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How should cities in MENA region plan their next development cycle

How should cities in MENA region plan their next development cycle

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the future development of cities in the MENA region is set to be significant

The Covid-19 pandemic has had dramatic impacts on the way people move around and share spaces in cities. Caution about viral spread could have long-term repercussions on behaviour and appetite for public transport and public space use in cities.

The current need for physical distancing and face-mask wearing may make way for increased fear associated with public spaces and gatherings in the future.

A Covid hangover that, if taken to the extreme, might see the end as we know it of public squares, conventions centres, CBDs, sports stadia, stations, airports, trains and buses. The risk is that the Covid after-effects will reshape our cities in ways that are unsustainable, unproductive, and more unequal.

That is one of several socio-economic imperatives that the new HSBC City reports suggest that the region’s largest cities will need to address as they look to build back better in the post-Covid era. The reports, which cover Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Dubai, Istanbul and Riyadh, observe that many cities are considering how to manage and organise urban spaces with new public health imperatives in mind.

Doubts are being raised about the appeal of cities in the next cycle. The risks associated with density, proximity, and global connections are currently much more widely asserted than the economic, social, and environmental benefits that cities provide.

This poses a collective challenge for cities and their civic and business advocates to emphatically communicate the essential role of cities in the post-Covid growth cycle, particularly the impacts that they have on social mobility, sustainable systems of land use, and innovative ecosystems.

As the reports show, to generate growth and revenues in the next cycle, we need to optimise cities; without them we will not have the growth economy required to finance public services for growing populations.

Global hubs from Asia to Europe to North America are now preparing for a whole cycle of change. One of the positive experiences of this pandemic is the increased sense of social responsibility. It is impossible to ignore the social and economic inequalities that have been revealed and magnified, and these will form a new key priority. Social responsibility will be increasingly linked to climate and planetary sustainability.

For instance, the lockdown experience will pave the way to a more local and sustainable economy and lower waste attitudes. Increased social responsibility may place more emphasis on impact investing and philanthropic investment in NGOs. It will also likely result in the prioritisation of universal access to healthcare, with renewed focus on inclusion and tackling
inequality. These social and environmental imperatives will shape key elements of the new normal. They will be picked up in cities and nation states in different ways, mediated
through cultural and political systems, but they will be traceable to Covid-19.

As cities and nations revise their budgets, in the context of increased digital economy and mobility, we may see new taxes, charges and levies applied to generate revenues and investment capital, as well as new PPP models, and revised approaches on wealth and corporate tax.

How effectively different nations and cities are perceived to have handled the different stages of the pandemic and transition has become subject to unprecedented scrutiny. Cities may be judged more by businesses on the competence and success of their crisis management. There is a new drive for healthy cities.

And for cities that manage the crisis well and are seen to succeed in optimising urban economies, while safeguarding public health and planetary wellbeing, there may be a boost of global confidence and enhanced reputation to enjoy.

Professor Greg Clark is the global head of Future Cities and New Industries at HSBC

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