Sustainable cities depend on collective responsibility and action

Published on 30 July 2018

Cities do not just happen. They are located in a historical context, and in an increasingly complex global policy environment. The question of how cities can and should be governed is a complicated one. By its nature, achieving sustainable urban development lends itself to varied entry points and encourages action by multiple stakeholders who may share a general commitment to the values and principles of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but may not agree on priorities or emphasis. Such tensions fuel the politics of cities themselves.

In tracking progress and strengthening follow-up on commitments towards the SDGs across all global agendas that speak to sustainable urbanisation it is critical to ensure that interconnections and synergies are adequately considered. Just as the complex nature of the urban question encompasses many interconnected parts – so must the science, research and tools we use to inform action and assess change.

The International Science Council, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and the Cities Alliance, together with the Global Challenges Research Fund brought together a diverse set of key urban actors on the side-lines of the High-Level Political Forum at the United Nations (HLPF2018). In addition to equipping member states and local actors with the appropriate tools and guidelines to successfully implement urban frameworks at the local and national level, the meeting provided an opportunity strengthen a global cohort of thought leaders focussed on realising the SDGs in cities.

Three main messages emerged from the ‘Realising the Sustainable Development Goals in Cities’ workshop on 10 July:

Cities and towns are not immune to failure

Some cities grow while others stagnate. Growth, investment in the built environment and even the expansion of skills implies inevitable changes and political turmoil between the winners and losers.

Advancing urban development demands addressing complex questions such as,

  • Who are the most marginalised?
  • How do we describe and understand their everyday realities and power struggles?
  • How do we measure who is thriving, just surviving or failing in cities?
  • And what actions, actors and technologies should be prioritised to reduce these exclusions?’

Urban spaces, processes and institutions are gendered, unequal, segregated, and racialized. Over time inequality gets locked into spatial forms and institutional systems in cities – but also underneath them – in the labyrinth of buried infrastructures in the subsurface. But local actions of at-risk and vulnerable groups can also lead to innovation, and often are the catalysts that drive urban transformations. Understanding and navigating within this type of complexity requires interdisciplinarity – the natural, physical and social sciences need to come together with the arts and humanities, but in ways that are actionable and legible to local change makers.

The urban question is universal

Ours is an urban future: one where cities’ pathways are interconnected and shape global economic, political and ecological patterns without regard to territory or jurisdiction. Failures anywhere in the world will delay progress on the SDGs, so the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development demands common custodianship of urban development, with a collective responsibility to monitor who in the city and which cities are being left behind. The rise of urbanisation and the task of meeting the urban SDG Agenda is not confined to the poorest parts of the world, although weak capacity and rapid urban expansion in Africa and Asia pose particular challenges – as well as presenting the greatest sites of opportunity. The cumulative impact of cities, whose metabolisms defy the delineation of administrative and political borders, is the global challenge that no one can afford to ignore – not least those wishing to deliver on the promises of the SDGs.  

Success depends on commitment at all levels – local, national and global

Governance of cities tends to comprise layers of contested authority, formal and informal, that have accreted over time without alignment, co-ordination. The global shift from a mainly to a predominantly urban planet offers the opportunity to reset the power dynamics at all levels of government that will allow successful delivery of sustainable urbanisation. Policymakers need the tools to redress these implementation challenges. The academic community is leading on initiatives to develop a suite of those tools. For example, the International Council for Science is developing approaches to mainstream SDG implementation within national urban frameworks (such as Climate Agreement and the Sendai Framework), acknowledging the complexity of the urban question and how it is represented across a multitude of different global agendas. 

The inherent complexity of the urban issue is very clear. There is no single process, no single outcome, no single city, but a multitude of different endeavours by a host of different actors navigating diverse politics and institutions that will eventually lead to sustainable urbanisation.

But this starts with you – what does change towards sustainable urbanisation look like on your street? Your neighbourhood? Your city?

Charles Ebikeme is Science Officer at the International Council for Science

Sue Parnell is a member of the African Centre for Cities

Jaideep Gupte is Challenge Leader, Cities and Sustainable Infrastructure Portfolio, Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and Fellow of the Institute of Development Studies


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