Building more resilient cities to endure COVID-19 and future shocks

An integrated approach to city resilience and how urban leaders can better prepare for natural and human catastrophes

Despite the multiple challenges caused by COVID-19, it presents an opportunity for urban leaders to learn the right lessons from this crisis to build long-term societal, economic and environmental resilience against recurring natural and manmade catastrophes.1 The world’s cities are acutely vulnerable to these shocks: COVID-19 is the most damaging event so far in an intensifying pattern of emergencies, with around 95% of all reported cases worldwide in urban areas. Looking ahead, the UN estimates that almost two-thirds of cities with more than 500,000 residents are at high risk of exposure to floods, droughts, earthquakes and other natural disasters.2

Around the world, various cities have already demonstrated how a pro-active, coordinated response to the pandemic yields immediate results in terms of virus suppression and lays the foundations for long-term resilience. Boston, Helsinki, Riyadh, Singapore and Vienna are standout examples.

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"Cities are at the forefront of the impacts of COVID-19. Those cities that have invested in developing capabilities to deal with all stages of the threat cycle: sense, defend, respond and recover have demonstrated their resilience in dealing with the socioeconomic effects of the pandemic. Cities should adopt an integrated approach, working with all stakeholders to enhance their preparedness for future shocks."

Hazem GalalPartner, Cities and Local Government Global Leader

Our city resilience framework: from short-term to emergency planning and responding to long-term shock-proofing

City resilience framework

Our framework gives cities the tools to manage the immediate threat of COVID-19 and build long-term resilience across society, the economy and the environment. It includes a series of enablers in areas such as repurposing existing facilities, smarter data analytics, the development of alternative emergency funding options and more effective cross-sector citylevel governance.

Adopting smart city technologies can help cities provision for critical services and enables citizens to seamlessly carry on their interactions. This will be critical to strengthening cities against future shocks and threats. At the same time, effective navigation of the threat management cycle will depend on pursuing the appropriate sequence of responses, which the framework below sets out.

resilient-cities smart-2

Lessons learnt from cities in recovery

COVID-19 presents a unique opportunity for cities to learn from their experience in combatting the virus to be better prepared for future emergencies. The pandemic’s unprecedented impact on every aspect of urban life has provided compelling data and information about how to improve crisis responses and recovery strategies.

Our five selected cities - one in the US, two in Europe, one in the Middle East and one in Asia have all adopted effective and innovative measures which demonstrate how our framework can be applied in the current crisis to build long-term resilience against future threats. Given that the COVID-19 situation is highly dynamic, statistics and measures highlighted from these four cities are snapshots of specific points in time.

"Helsinki’s mission is to be the most functional city in the world. The strategy is based on a holistic leadership model, where each and every aspect of the city management and functions is build better by following the idea of functionality."

Jan VapaavuoriMayor, City of Helsinki


The US city of Boston, with a population of around 710,000, was not prepared for the pandemic and has suffered accordingly. Nonetheless, Boston provides a good example of how engagement and collaboration between all stakeholders is essential to mitigate and ultimately manage emergencies. In academia, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative has run classes for city officials on subjects such as emergency preparedness and response. In the private sector, Uber is among the companies that have delivered free meals to healthcare workers. Meanwhile, the NGO Feeding America has supported the management of Boston’s food supply chain during the crisis.

In addition, Boston illustrates how cities can use COVID-19 as an opportunity to engage with the public to build a more resilient environmental infrastructure that is better able to withstand future shocks.


To tackle the COVID-19 crisis in Helsinki, Finland is adopting a three pillar functional city approach - smart city, inclusive city and sustainable city.

The first of these three pillars is a smart city whereby the foundation of effective and efficient service delivery is underpinned via innovation and digital technology. An inclusive city forms the second pillar whereby community is at the heart of areas such as the design and delivery of public services, policymaking together with the prioritisation of budgets and areas of investment. Lastly, the sustainable city pillar focuses on a target to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035. In parallel the focus lies on improving the quality of life, strengthening energy security and enhancing mobility. These pillars form the foundation of Helsinki’s city recovery plan.

In addition, Helsinki’s financial autonomy played a critical role in responding to the pandemic and in the recovery efforts. Helsinki’s right to decide the revenue sources, specifically tax rates and flexibility to spend responsibly on public services provided the city with the required financial resilience throughout the pandemic.


With approximately 25%3 of the Kingdom’s population and home to one of the busiest airports in the region, Riyadh was extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 requiring the government to take swift actions.

Digital health initiatives led by Riyadh Health Affairs4 played a vital role in fighting the pandemic and curbing the spread of COVID-19. This includes ‘Your Medicine to Your Home’4 which provides patients with medication delivery. The ‘Seha’ app provides remote medical consultations and contact-tracing technology through the ‘Tabaud’ app.

Riyadh benefits from the Kingdom’s fiscal support where a $61 billion economic stimulus package was provided for the private sector5. This includes $18.6 exemptions, SME support packages and Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority injecting $13.3 billion into the banking sector. The Saudi Custom Authority allowed postponement of customs duties of payment as well as numerous tax related measures, including extending deadlines for filing tax returns and easing payment requirements for a limited period6.


Singapore was vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 at the start of 2020 due to the high volume of tourists visiting during the Lunar New Year festival period that began two days after Singapore detected its first COVID-19 case on January 237. Singapore’s efforts to contain the virus were set back in April as the infection rate peaked resulting in an extension of the partial lockdown8. Government took decisive action to raise citizens’ awareness of covid-19 impacts by leveraging its strength in technology and data analytics.

A state-run WhatsApp group provides citizens daily updates on confirmed cases, an advanced data tool and contact tracing mechanism identifies potentially infected individuals who may require quarantine. In March, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced a S$48bn ($35bn) “Resilience Budget” which included S$20bn ($14.6bn) in loan capital for companies, property-tax rebates, and deferred corporate tax payments for three months to help ease cash flow, lower costs and increase access to credit9. Singapore illustrates how to support businesses through the first wave of a crisis and ensure supply chain resilience, another key challenge addressed by our framework by working with its neighbouring countries to maintain the supply of essential goods.


Austria’s capital, with a population of around 1.9 million, has also been hit badly by the pandemic. Yet Vienna holds lessons for other cities in two areas of crisis management and resilience building. Firstly, the city authorities have been imaginative in developing and repurposing multiple establishments such as hospital and housing units to create emergency infrastructure and free up resources. Secondly, municipal and community leaders have initiated a range of “life after the crisis” measures to strengthen communities against future shocks: for example, neighbourhood phone networks organise daily help for vulnerable older or isolated residents with no family support.

With Austria being among the first European countries to ease lockdown restrictions, Vienna’s smaller retail businesses (stores up to 400 sq.m) started the journey by re-opening with social distancing measures and requiring masks paving the way to cautiously reopen the city.


Why COVID-19 must be the catalyst for cities to build long-term resilience against future shocks

Despite its devastating human, social and economic cost, COVID-19 can spur urban leaders to build long-term resilience against future shocks, including a potentially imminent second wave. The pandemic is both an opportunity for cities to draw the right lessons to become more resilient, and a warning about the perils of not acting now. In the next 100 days of recovery programmes, cities must take the correct measures, as outlined in our framework.

Critically, these measures must be designed and implemented with one eye on the immediate potential threat of another COVID-19 wave and one eye on their adaptability for multiple external shocks. Thus, infrastructure planning and projects should incorporate social safety nets for vulnerable groups and envisage how they can be swiftly identified and located in an emergency. Infrastructure should also be "green" to ensure environmental resilience.

"Cities that started building smart city capabilities have been able to use their solutions to better sense and manage their cities virtually during the pandemic."

Biju KadapurathDirector, Smart Cities

In economic recovery programmes, a balance has to be struck between re-opening too fast and risking a second wave and moving too slowly and failing to kick-start growth. The key is flexibility and agility. Urban leaders must have policies and protocols in place that will allow cities to operate in multiple modes, from full-crisis lockdowns through phased re-opening to an eventual return to normal activity – but always with the potential to go rapidly into reverse gear. According to the OECD, COVID-19 accelerated the shift to a new urban paradigm towards inclusive of green and smart cities.

Our framework shows how cities can navigate this perilous journey in the wake of a catastrophe by harnessing smart city technologies, from mobile phone tracking apps to locate and suppress infections to data analytics that enable real-time monitoring and management of essential services and infrastructure. At each stage of the journey, there is a relevant watchword: sense the approaching threat; move swiftly to defend and reinforce vulnerable points; respond by implementing structured, informed decisions; and recover after identifying key assets and data indicators that trigger recovery measures.

COVID-19 is a reminder that cities should partner and collaborate with national governments to ensure a consistent set of policies and coordinated actions. While most cities can count on the national government’s support during major emergencies, that’s not always the case, even in developed countries. Cities must become more self-reliant and innovative, enlisting all stakeholders in crisis response and recovery planning.



3) Future Saudi Cities Programme - Saudi Cities Report 2019
4) Kingdom of Saudi Arabia - Ministry of Health Portal :
5) Initiatives and services introduced by Saudi Arabian government authorities to support businesses during the emerging COVID-19- Ministry of Investment, KSA.
6) The Fiscal Response to COVID-19 in Saudi Arabia; by Nader AlKathiri, Abdulelah Darandary, Ryan Alyamani. KAPSARK; July 2020.


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Hazem Galal

Hazem Galal

Cities and Local Government Global Leader and Global Smart Mobility Co-Leader, PwC Middle East

Tel: +971 4 3043393

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