An event on the sidelines of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) considered COVID-related challenges at the level of cities, local governments, and communities. Participants discussed ways to effectively incorporate innovative practices to support resiliency and address urban poverty and growing inequalities.

The virtual side event took place on 12 July 2021, and was organized by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in partnership with Habitat for Humanity International. Haoliang Xu, UNDP, highlighted the urgency of building sustainable and inclusive cities, noting that “inadequate housing is still a reality for 1.6 billion people across the globe, with 1 billion residing in informal settlements.” In addition to that, he said cities account for 80% of the world’s GDP and are responsible for more than 70% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Robert Muggah, Co-founder of Igarapé Institute and Principal at SecDev Group, called to re-think urban planning, building design, and the green economy. He advised cities and city partners to pursue nature-based solutions that consider digitization, carbon neutrality, and minority and migrant perspectives, for a more inclusive and economically productive future.

Sara Candiracci, Arup Group, expanded on aspects of a nature-based solution that city authorities should prioritize. She advised urban planners to focus on walkability, space for play, green space, multifunctional spaces, and city-wide digital interconnectedness.

Malaika Cheney-Coker, Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter, Habitat for Humanity International, underscored the severity of the global housing crisis and its impacts on SDG achievement. Cheney-Coker reported that housing has “a direct and indirect impact on 13 out of 17 SDGs,” and therefore is an area where multiple objectives can be accomplished, such as economic revival, development goals, and environmental targets.

Bringing light to pandemic-induced housing challenges unique to informal settlements, Smruti Jukur Johari of SPARC India and Slum Dwellers International said stay-at-home orders disproportionately disadvantaged slum dwellers. Sanitation and ventilation are among the health and safety challenges for slum dwellers that have been exacerbated because of the pandemic, Johari said.

Jonathan Reichental, Founder of Human Future and author of ‘Smart Cities for Dummies,’ cautioned against the dangers of a widening digital divide, and suggested making room for healthy market competition for telecommunication providers. This would reduce prices and drive innovation, he said.

Chiu Hao (Ted) Chen, Co-founder, CEO & Chief Product Architect at EverComm Singapore, explained how technology and youth networks were leveraged to mobilize youth engagement in decision-making processes and community support to facilitate a smooth COVID-19 recovery response in Singapore.   

Responding to questions from participants how how cities can gear their COVID-19 recovery actions towards sustainable development, panelists advised adopting resilience strategies that consider future risks, such as cyber security. Panelists added that resilience must be proactive and not just reactive.

The HLPF is an annual event that conducts follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs. Under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the 2021 HLPF session convened from 6-15 July. [ENB coverage of the HLPF] [Meeting webcast]

This article was authored by Rukiya Abdulle, MSc Candidate at the University of Toronto, & Generation 2030 and SDGs Student Associate, IISD.