A few days ago, while at home in Dubai and unable to travel due to the current pandemic, I was reminded by an article on the FT of Émile Durkheim’s term “collective effervescence”. The French sociologist used it to describe that sort of “electric” mix of feelings, emotions, and ideas released by people gathering together, a mix that is capable of “transporting us beyond ourselves”. As Aristotle famously said, “humans are social animals and gathering together to form groups and communities is what makes our nature, it is our quintessential vocation.

Not only. Cities in particular are “where people learn to live in a modern, open society. They are machines for creating citizens”, wrote The Economist in an article last June. But in recent months urban centres have become the epicentre of the Covid-19 health crisis, with 90 per cent of cases registered in cities. To prevent the spread of the virus, particularly in the most densely populated areas, we have been asked to isolate and refrain from our natural instincts to network, meet and socialise. This has been the case also in Dubai, my adopted home city, which enforced one of the strictest lockdown during the peak of the pandemic. Dubai thrives on being a multicultural and tolerant society and its economy is built largely on retail and hospitality. According to the Global Financial Centres Index, it sits just outside the top tier of the best cities in the world, based on financial, economic and quality-of-life measures. But like many other countries, Dubai too has suffered from a virus that attacked not only the health of its citizens, but also that of its economy.

The pandemic has laid bare both the opportunities and the obstacles that we face when we gather in big urban communities: while cities are undoubtedly engines of economic growth - urban economies account for approximately 80 per cent of global GDP, according to the World Bank - they are also destined to highlight some of the most difficult challenges and harrowing contradictions human societies face. Even before Covid-19 struck, urban centres around the world were under pressure due to climate related challenges, requiring major investment in critical infrastructure: water schemes, sanitation, roads and airports. For many cities, the COVID-19 health crisis “has expanded to a crisis of urban access, urban equity, urban finance, safety, joblessness, public services, infrastructure and transport, all of which are disproportionally affecting the most vulnerable in society”. (UN policy brief, July 2020).

The latest crisis shows - as argued also by the World Economic Forum in the article we publish this month - that the urban poor has been most affected by the pandemic and that if we want to continue to live in cities, we need to build a healthier and more just society. Cooperation at local level might be key to a sustainable, urban future. A study published on July 23rd by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation) states that with cities being at the frontline of responses to the COVID-19 crisis, they also “provide laboratories for bottom-up and innovative recovery strategies. COVID-19 accelerated the shift towards a new urban paradigm towards inclusive, green and smart cities.” It is a message shared internationally by local and regional leaders: the pandemic has reinforced the will to promote city-to-city cooperation, particularly with the aim of achieving more sustainable communities and people-centred approaches.

Some changes have already started to emerge. While public transport systems around the world have seen traffic and revenue plummet due to widespread lockdowns, several cities have encouraged biking and walking as safe alternatives to public transport: “The success of these initiatives – argues the UN in its brief – may encourage city governments to convert more roads for similar purposes, further improving mobility and safety”.

We all witnessed how the current pandemic has also accelerated the trend towards digitalization, with most of us asked to shift to remote work and online shopping even for essential services. Evidence that poor air quality in more industrialised cities have been linked to higher COVID-19 mortality rates might push policymakers to work harder on fighting air pollution and promoting decarbonisation. The crisis has also shown the importance of providing adequate housing to assure good hygiene: yet 24 per cent of the world’s urban population is now residing in slums, where the impact of the virus has had devastating effects. Like every crisis, the recent pandemic too might represent a precious opportunity to re-imagine our urban spaces, climate-proof our infrastructure, and tackle inequality.

Proper infrastructures and safe logistics choices are essential to achieve sustainable living. This is the biggest challenge but also the greatest opportunity for people ready to rely on imagination and creativity to design our future.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution”, as Albert Einstein wrote. Something that is true now more than ever.