Building Sustainable Cities: A Theme of Convergence in the Post-2015 Debate?

Sustainable cities may not be the most popular topic in the post-2015 debate but it is essential to global development. Anyone who has experienced rush-hour traffic in São Paulo, Mexico City, or Nairobi can attest to the importance of managing urbanization. Member states that met last week at the seventh session of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG) are already planning for shorter commutes as well as a host of other measures aimed at making the world’s cities more efficient, productive, and inclusive places to live.

That’s a good thing. Currently half of the global population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to grow to 70 percent by 2050. With more and more people living in cities, we need collectively to ensure they can continue to provide for our needs well into the future. As the presenter, Executive Director of UN Habitat John Clos, argued during the OWG Session 7 debate, “the only way to avoid urbanization is to avoid development.”

Cities are recognized as critical engines for economic development.  They produce most of the world’s wealth, innovation, and human interaction. They generate opportunities for decent employment, serve as networks linking people and ideas, and are hubs for services. As cited in Atlantic Cities, a McKinsey Global Institute report projects that by 2050 "economic output in the 600 largest cities and metro areas will grow $30 trillion, accounting for two-thirds of all global growth." On the other hand, drawbacks of cities range from creaking public transport and crowded slums to excessive pollution and a lack of green space. Generally, member states agree on the need for effective and sustainable urban planning.

Sustainable urbanization is also important for economic and social justice. People-centered urban planning is critical for poverty reduction and reducing inequality. There is a need for strategies that ensure universal access to basic urban services and improve connectivity. As CIC’s Molly Elgin-Cossart wrote recently: “an important objective of infrastructure is connectivity – to better connect individuals, especially those from traditionally marginalized groups, to the services they need to thrive...” Improved connectivity also helps cities become more resilient and prevents them from becoming a home to the frustrated, marginalized, and disenfranchised – a potential source of conflict.

Although member states may agree on the importance of sustainable urbanization, as the saying goes, “the devil is in the detail.” A potential forward-looking goal in the post-2015 agenda will need to consider targets that are cross-cutting and address urban services, transport, energy, sanitation, access to water, and improved housing. The post-2015 agenda should also integrate decent employment, productivity, and quality of life, especially for slum dwellers. For this goal to be met, national ownership of the post-2015 framework will be critical. Effective urban public policies that incentivize cooperation at all levels of government (federal, state, and municipal) are necessary to take action. The means of implementation and allocation of funds will also be a critical component of these discussions.

Ultimately, this debate also highlights the importance of global partnerships. There needs to be a balance between public and private investment in sustainable cities. A key question that was raised by an OWG delegate was how to engage the automotive industry in mass transportation projects. There are clear limitations of what markets can do for sustainable cities and sustainable transport, which is why governments need to take a lead driving the agenda forward and providing a framework in which the private sector can operate.

One caveat in the urbanization discussion: we cannot forget smaller municipalities. Urban planning is just as relevant to small and medium cities in rural areas. As was pointed out in the OWG discussions, without a national urban policy that also addresses villages and small and medium cities, making these places more livable, efficient, sustainable, and inclusive, people will naturally migrate to megacities increasing pressure on services that are already struggling to cope with demand.

The importance of creating policies that will contribute to sustainable cities is widely recognized by developed and developing countries alike. The challenge will be prioritizing targets that will generate the most impact. With perhaps 6 billion people living in cities by the middle of this century, if the right targets are chosen, their impact could end up being one of the most tangible outcomes of the post-2015 agenda.

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Jan 14, 2014
Global Development