A Movement for Sustainable Cities and Regions in the 21st Century

A Movement for Sustainable Cities and Regions in the 21st Century

Cities are places of hope and dreams, places where people go when they seek a better life, education, and access to opportunities. Cities are the epicenters of our global society; they are the foundation of our collective economic reality. Cities are the bastions of human political activity, places where decisions are made that impact the lives of billions around the world. Nevertheless, as much as cities are the engines of humanity’s progress, they are also driving us towards the precipice. As the world’s urban population continues to climb, the environmental destruction that begins in cities and spreads to other regions is increasing at an unprecedented rate. The dangerous effects of climate change, of unsustainable development, and of consumption patterns that have turned the planet and human beings into means to turn a profit, are all making the earth unsafe for future generations. 

Thus, as an era of sustainable development dawns with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda at the UN, which includes the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and SDG 11 to “Make Cities and Human Settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable,” it is more critical than ever that the international community turns its attention to cities.  By operationalizing SDG 11 and the New Urban Agenda, the outcome document of the upcoming UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in Quito in October 2016, we can ensure a future free from climate change, free from environmental degradation, and free from the injustice engendered by our current paradigm of human development. 

As part of this effort to make SDG 11 a reality and to increase the political will around its implementation, on 28 September 2015, on the sidelines of the Sustainable Development Summit, the Communitas Coalition Secretariat and its core partners - ICLEI, nrg4SD, the Tellus Institute, and UN-Habitat – convened a high-level multi-stakeholder gathering of the Urban SDG Campaign and the World Urban Campaign in collaboration with the Ford Foundation, the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) of Germany, the Global Task Force of Local and Regional Governments, Cities Alliance, and the UN-Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

A gathering of this magnitude, where key stakeholders, like governments at all levels, high-level representatives of the UN System, civil society, philanthropy, and private sector leaders all representing critical constituencies and sections of society, are brought together to bring energy and attention to the importance of cities in the context of sustainable development can only mean one thing: The beginning of a movement.  This movement has sprung forth from this event and will gather the necessary political will to turn SDG 11 and the New Urban Agenda into true vehicles for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.  This movement has the necessary drive, knowledge, policy experience, partnerships, and grassroots energy.  It is bound together by the fervent belief that, in the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, “Our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities.” 

From the deliberations and discussions at the event, a number of key messages emerged. Primarily, based on the extensive number of constituencies that participated in the event and in sustainable development processes more generally, it is clear that cross-sectoral multi-stakeholder partnerships are critical for operationalizing sustainable urban development. Without the political buy in of key groups, including local and regional authorities, philanthropic organizations, and the private sector, the SDGs cannot be achieved. This truth was revealed as early as 1992 in the outcome of the Earth Summit, when UN Member States acknowledged that lasting sustainable development requires the participation of actors and stakeholders beyond just national governments. 

Another key message revolves around the fact that SDG 11 is integrally linked with the other SDGs and its achievement requires an integrated approach that addresses the range of social, environmental, economic, and institutional concerns of the full set of SDGs. As has been made clear by the reality of urbanization globally, growing cities mean growing dangers to our collective future, but growing cities also mean new opportunities to transform societies and achieve sustainable development.  Sustainable urbanization and urban development underpin the entire 2030 Agenda since the demographic reality of cities cannot be ignored. The goals and targets of the agenda need to be seen through an urban lens that takes seriously the need to go beyond the artificial silos that prevent an integral and holistic approach to development. 

A third key message from the event is about the mobilization of resources and states that sustainable urban development is a key source of employment and economic growth but requires adequate financing to deliver its potential.  Cities generate 75% of global economic output, are centers of innovation, employment opportunity, and culture, and provide a range of basic services.  Yet the question of financing sustainable urban development remains to be properly addressed at the international and national levels. 

Local and subnational/state governments across the globe are responsible for the provision of housing, public services, and utilities such as water and sanitation, transport, waste management, etc. that are essential for a livable and just community, yet often lack the resources to adequately maintain and update existing infrastructure.  Moreover, many cities face the costly struggle of adapting to increased vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters. The revenue and expenditure share of sub-national authorities is not commensurate with the financial burden these realities impose on them.

Cities are home to about half the world’s population and three quarters of its economic output, and these figures will rise dramatically by 2050.  Truly, the transformation envisioned by the sustainable development agenda requires that attention be paid to cities as the core of a more sustainable future.  Principally, this event helped showcase this critical reality.  More importantly, this gathering of so many stakeholders constituted a key turning point in terms of successfully implementing SDG 11 in an integrated approach with other SDGs, as well as of localizing the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.  A more sustainable future depends on the movement that was born on 28 September 2015, a movement that understands the vital role of cities in ensuring a world that is safe for future generations.  

The following is the full list of the key messages from the event:

  1. Sustainable urban development will only be a reality on the ground if inclusive, multi-stakeholder engagement is empowered and enabled, involving all levels of government, grassroots and non-governmental organizations, the private sector, as well as academic and philanthropic institutions.
  2. Sustainable urban development is a key driver for human development in the 21st century.
  3. SDG 11 is integrally linked with the other SDGs and its achievement requires an integrated approach that addresses the range of social, environmental, economic, and institutional concerns of the full set of 17 SDGs.
  4. The power of urban development to trigger transformative change needs to follow a two track approach – long term planning combined with short term action.
  5. Place matters: sustainable urban development requires integrated geospatial planning based on an inclusive process.
  6. Sustainable urban development is a key source of employment and economic growth but requires adequate financing to deliver its potential.
  7. Effective governance is the backbone of sustainable urban development.
  8. Cross-sectoral multi-stakeholder partnerships are critical for operationalizing sustainable urban development.
  9. Consider establishing an Intergovernmental Panel on Sustainable Urbanization (IPSU).
  10. Monitoring and review of progress of SDG 11 implementation is critical.

For more information, please read our full Key Messages paper, as well as our Outcomes Report from the event.  You can also watch recordings of the entire event!  Click here for part 1, and here for part 2.

Article by Christopher Dekki, Communitas Coalition

Photo Credit: www.telegraph.co.uk