Talking to a friend the other day, he mentioned that the biggest satisfaction he had in times of lockdown was to bake a good loaf of bread. He made me laugh, of course, but then I realised that there was something deeper to his words. Like my friend, many of us have been discovering new passions, and, more importantly, are starting to appreciate the more important things in life.
We have been gaslighted by decades of brand marketing brainwashing us to seek happiness by buying status symbols, and we might have lost sight of the fact that meeting our essential needs – human connection, access to food, safety, mobility – is what seems to make us happy. Yet millions of us are still not able to meet them.
What are cities doing?
Core human needs are the focus of the post COVID-19 reconstruction plan for Amsterdam – where I live. The city is basing their recovery plan on the Doughnut economic framework. While the current neoliberal system is putting the world on the brink of collapse by turbocharging production and consuming stuff “on credit” (from the planet and future generations), the Doughnut economic model aims at striking a balance between meeting society’s essential needs equally and fairly, within our planet’s limited resources.
Other cities around the world have been following suit; putting the environment and people at the core of their post COVID-19 plans. For example, C40, a network of cities taking bold climate action, recently launched the Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force and released a Mayors Pledge to ensure that their recovery plans do not trigger a rise in greenhouse gas emissions that would fuel the climate crisis.
Milan led the way by announcing the conversion of 35km of streets into areas for cycling and pedestrians, and limiting the speed of cars to 30kmph.
Paris revealed that in May they will introduce 650km of bike lanes taking away space from cars, while Bogotá introduced 76km of temporary cycleways to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Beyond safe mobility, during the COVID-19 crisis many cities have been feeling vulnerable in terms of food supplies. Since droughts, floods, food crises, health and economic shocks will increase in frequency and intensity in the future, it is important for cities to ensure fair access to food for their citizens, by shortening the food supply chain and increasing urban and peri-urban food production and distribution.
Learning from the tragic experience of the Ebola outbreak in the past, the city of Freetown in Sierra Leone has been promoting local food production during COVID-19.
Montreal recently reopened their community gardens, encouraging people to start farming this summer. Their food strategy aims at increasing food production in the existing gardens by 35%, as well as expanding in new gardening lots.
Pasig City and Valenzuela City in the Philippines introduced e-tricycles and vans to conveniently distribute food to their citizens and support market vendors during the crisis.
In Brazil, the city of Maricá more than doubled their existing basic income to offer extra support to low income citizens during these difficult times.
The city of Barcelona decided that the 12,000 tenants of the properties managed by the municipality would not pay rent for three months.
The city of the future
While we are in the midst of this pandemic, a powerful act is to start imagining what kind of city we might be living in when this pandemic slows down.
Imagine a city with little or even no cars but with efficient intermodal public transport, lots of space for bikes, pedestrians and kids to play safely in the streets.
Imagine a city where every park, balcony or roof top is an urban garden to grow healthy plant based food for all, served in public canteens and our homes.
Imagine a city with no commercial advertising trying to seduce us into buying planet harming stuff disguised in happiness.
Imagine a city with fewer shopping malls and more parks and playgrounds, with maker districts where we can repair our beloved possessions or buy handmade quality crafts that will last a lifetime.
Imagine a city where no one is left behind but all have access to essential services like housing, food, safe mobility, water and sanitation.
Finally, imagine a city where we can make bread at home and exchange it with our neighbour for Mandarin lessons, or repair a stranger’s mobile phone for the price of a thank you. Maybe real happiness won’t be bought in a shopping mall after all, but found and lived in communities, neighbourhoods and cities, where together with many enlightened mayors and organisations, we will bake the city of the future – safe, sustainable, fair and resilient.
Alessandro Saccoccio is a campaigner at Greenpeace International, based in the Netherlands.