Addressing the multiple challenges of cities and their inhabitants requires a systemic approach that focuses on the most vulnerable who need to be provided with opportunities for a better future.
It is not only up to mayors and city officials to implement novel approaches and pave the way for others to come.
It is crucial for national governments to offer cities steadfast support in this endeavor and continue to be a reliable backbone for progress.
By Simone Sandholz, UNU-EHS
The UN 2024 Summit of the Future will be held under the name, ‘Multilateral Solutions for a Better Tomorrow,’ and will “turbocharge” the implementation of the SDGs by 2030. While multilateralism is undoubtedly necessary for addressing global challenges, local, municipal, and urban levels are not addressed – although that is where actual implementation takes place. Such an approach also neglects the huge power of cities as drivers of global climate and sustainability action.
Over the past years, urban actors and networks have been actively pushing action on SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities) and other Goals, forcing governments to rethink their levels of ambition. Major urban initiatives have emerged, such as the SURGe initiative on urban resilience for the next generation, launched during UNFCCC COP 27, or Breathe Cities, focusing on improving health and reducing pollution in cities. During the last UN Climate Change Conferences, mayors have been among the most vocal people, passionately advocating for increased and more substantial action.
Despite these developments, cities are too often seen as a problem rather than a solution. Around 75% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions come from urban areas. Reviews of the current status of the SDGs, and particularly SDG 11, have revealed how far we are lagging behind in achieving the Goals. Some positive trends have even been reversed, casting doubt on the possibility of meeting the 2030 deadline.
Yet, none of this is a purely urban problem. More than half the world’s population already live in cities, and in regions such as Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), the figure is already at more than 80%. Any urban action therefore affects a large part of the national population, and cities and their (lack of) sustainability do not only influence the immediate environment, but have national, and even regional, impact. The challenge is to think beyond administrative boundaries and societal groups.
With growing impacts from climate change and natural disasters like floods or heatwaves, pressure on urban areas and tensions will increase for several reasons:
- More people will move to cities to escape areas that are no longer habitable or farmable, increasing urban populations. Often they will only be able to afford living in slum-like conditions, adding to the total – and still growing – number of around 1 billion slum dwellers (2020).
- Urban marginal settlements are often located in unfavorable locations, such as flood-prone riverbanks, where residents are exposed to higher levels of risk. Vulnerable dwellers have little capacity to cope or prepare.
- Some cities already witness trends of “climate gentrification,” with richer parts of urban society forcing poorer people out of locations that become more desirable under climate change. For instance, more elevated hinterland areas are becoming more attractive than coastlines that have long enjoyed popularity.
- Urban land-use conflicts will likely intensify. For instance, an increase in promoting Nature-based Solutions (NbS) for urban risk reduction and climate adaptation will require space for implementation. This includes fragile floodplains or slopes occupied by the most vulnerable or lush park-like retention areas popular with the rich.
- While tensions are rising between societal groups, opportunities to exchange views, develop joint ideas, and co-create more inclusive urban spaces are seldom part of decision-making processes.
Addressing the multiple challenges of cities and their inhabitants requires a systemic approach that focuses on the most vulnerable who need to be provided with opportunities for a better future. This means we must envision a future that does not merely replicate the current state of affairs that has led to the triple planetary crisis. It is important to think of the built space together with the social space to enable interaction, exchange, and the joint development of visions for the future that encompass all societal groups and provide equal opportunities for all. While this might sound unfeasible, it follows the paradigm of leaving no one – person, space, or city – behind, and we must rise to the challenge.
New and innovative urban planning approaches have attracted global attention. Sponge cities can absorb rain, avoid flooding, and release water during dry periods. Originating in China, they have made their way into many cities in other countries. The 15-minute-city is another increasingly popular planning concept that would allow urban dwellers to meet most of their daily needs within a short walk or bike ride. It became popular in Paris, but is being adapted and implemented worldwide.
It is not only up to mayors and city officials to implement these novel approaches and pave the way for others to come. Challenging dominant urban planning paradigms is a complex task that is bound to encounter obstacles. To facilitate urban transformation, appropriate policies and measures must be implemented at different spatial scales. Global agendas must be localized, ensuring that urban actors are not left to grapple with difficult decisions on their own. For example, such decisions include the shift to more bike lanes and green areas instead of parking lots, where and how to build to mitigate flood risks or urban heat islands, and what participatory planning approaches to implement. It is crucial for national governments to offer cities steadfast support in this endeavor and continue to be a reliable backbone for progress.
* * *
Simone Sandholz is Senior Researcher and Head of Urban Futures and Sustainability Transformation Division, UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS).