This article was originally published by Rosemary Kalapurakal (Working for sustainable, inclusive and just development. United Nations and NGO experience) and is republished with permission.

I’ve got sustainable urbanization on my mind @UNDP, as we sift through how best to support cities in the context of achieving the #SDGs. Why?

The changing size, speed and shape of cities

In short, the trajectory of poverty eradication and sustainable development increasingly depends on what’s happening in cities.

Why it matters

People are attracted to move to cities because of the opportunities they offer, so urbanization is good news. But a whole lot could – and does — go wrong when cities get too big, too quickly, too haphazardly. Here’s a sliver of issues that we’re chewing on as we ponder sustainable urbanization:

  • The world is getting warmer. As we sweat through the hottest summer on recordacross the world, the threat that climate change poses for life in cities is especially dire, with a disproportionate effect on the poorest and most vulnerable who had little to do with creating this mess in the first place.
  • As negative externalities multiply, we’re having to take us to take an almost Maslowian look at even the most basic needs. Clean air is beyond the reach of all citizens of 14 Indian cities that are among the 20 most polluted in air quality. Entire cities are confronting the prospect of “Water Day Zero” – from Cape Town to Mexico City, Beijing to Bangalore, Jakarta to Sao Paulo, with demand for water outstripping the rate of population growth. And mountains of waste produced by reckless and unsustainable consumption in turn pollute air, water and soil.
  •  As people and poverty concentrate in cities, so too does vulnerability to disasters and disease. Poor and uncoordinated urban planning threatens lives, livelihoods and economic, social and environmental assets. This compelling article on Dhaka’s sewage problemtook me back to my own experiences growing up in #Kochi during the monsoons. My colleague @MandeepDhaliwal has written eloquently of car accident victims who are not seen in the context of inadequate street infrastructure, of slum-dwellers who suffer without quality housing or water and sanitation, of migrants who are denied access to health and other services because of their residency status.
  • And who can forget inequalities that surface and boil over in urban contexts? Beyond income inequality, I worry about widespread gender and urban issues. As citizens, women face unique challenges to their ability to take advantage of the opportunities offered by cities, from access to credit, employment and livelihoods; safe and reliable transportation and public spaces, violence; engagement in the public sphere and the labour market. As leaders, their space is even more limited: around 20% of councillors and just 5% of mayors globally are women.
  • The future of work and livelihoods is shifting, as advances in technology move with dizzying speed through cities. The kinds of jobs and skills required needed could change “on a scale not seen since the transition of the labor force out of agriculture in the early 1900s in the United States and Europe.” And what of the informal sector accounting for 44 percent of urban employment? (In some cities, this is as high as 80 percent!) As the excellent @MarthaChen notes, urban informal workers continue to run up against a harsh regulatory environment that does not recognize them as legitimate actors.

Where does that leave us? SDG11 and beyond

Last month’s High Level Political Forum that brought countries together to check on how we’re doing in terms of overall progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, also took a good hard look at the urban goal: SDG 11, to make cities safe, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable. The UN synthesis report on SDG 11 is a worthwhile read, and also provides an almost lyrical analysis of the linkages between SDG11 and other goals (“urban areas are the strings that connect all SDGs.”)

This means that our commitment to an integrated, indivisible set of SDGs necessitates a deep-dive into the sub-national. UNDP’s Sustainable Urbanization strategy lays out the key policy issues, focusing on Sustainability, Inclusiveness and Resilience. Now we are moving to weave together a stronger portfolio of work that makes the link between national and local leadership, provides integrated policy advice and programming support for sustainable urbanization. Some elements we’re exploring include the following:

1. Broadening partnerships. The 2016 New Urban Agenda (NUA) functions as an excellent blueprint for building sustainable cities that are engines of prosperity and centres of cultural and social well-being while protecting the environment. We will be working with @UNHabitat to leverage their expertise on helping cities become inclusive and affordable drivers of economic growth and social development. Networks of cities and local governments, private sector and civil society will be ever more critical to inform joint action and knowledge that help develop policies, capacities, and knowledge about what works around the world.

2. Speaking of, our radar needs to be attuned to new, innovative solutions that abound –for challenges such as managing waste (my pet obsession), energy, mobility and social integrationurban living labs for improved urban governance, and financing Smart Citiesare likely to be increasingly a part of such solutions – to enhance efficiencies of electrical and transport grids, water management, capacities of municipal governments, enabling citizen engagement, and providing more efficient basic services. Smart approaches are also being explored to map slums and slum dwellers for improved service delivery and engagement, support the informal economy.

3. Adopting a more deliberate, systematic sub-national focus in our SDG implementation support: While we have focused much of our work at the national level, and rightly so as a start, it’s time now to take a deep-dive into local complexities, especially in selected cities. This requires capacities to engage diverse actions in different localities, identify populations that are left behind, and help elaborate and apply integrated solutions, including through new forms of financing. We also need to be able to harness the power of big data: the world now produces, in just two days, the amount of data collected between the dawn of humanity and 2003. This could mean unprecedented opportunities to understand cities and help plan change for the future.

4. Supporting city-level SDG reporting is also key. I am especially proud that my adopted home, New York City, was the first city in the world to submit a “Voluntary Local Review” of its progress in July, modeled after the Voluntary National Reviews that are part of the formal SDG follow-up architecture. Its report sees the connection between the SDGs and the city’s vision to create the fairest big city in America, one that is inclusive (“a place for everyone”), environmentally just, and bold about climate leadership. Similarly, Cities Alliance points to pioneers in local of on local approaches to monitoring progress, ranging from an Monitoreo CDMX, an online tool collecting data on a set of SDG indicators in Mexico City to Marunda Urban Resilience in Action (Cordaid, Indonesia) that enables slum dwellers to map vulnerabilities and develop plans, which also informs national SDG indicators and action plans.

5. Reviewing key programmatic areas through an urban lens, such as:

–  Improving governance and Smart Cities, addressing planning, political, administrative and financial governance, as well as political and fiscal decentralization;

–  Looking at migrants and refugees, since cities are where the majority of migrants live. (Including working with cities to look at how best to provide essential public services for all their residents, although cities could not participate in formal negotiations around migrationunless invited to do so by their national government.)

–  Reviewing social protection and other urban social policies through a life-course approach, especially looking at ageing ( by 2020, the global population of people aged 60 and over will outnumber children younger than five years for the first time). Cities need to take action now to be able to address future population structure, and the economic and social pathways for a smooth transition

–  Supporting urban-rural linkages, looking at patterns of production, commerce and migration between urban, peri-urban and rural areas. This also means focusing on secondary and tertiary cities that support markets and supply chains, administration, and function as centres for creativity, learning, culture and business development .

–  Being more systematic about urban risk and resilience – reviewing the wide range of inter-dependent economic, environmental and social risks. It is critical that we adopt a more systematic awareness of these risks and their impacts on specific population groups, as well as how to mitigate them.

There is much to build on, and much more in terms of uncharted territory to explore ahead! To channel John F. Kennedy, we will neglect our cities to our peril, for in neglecting them, we neglect the world.

By Rosemary Kalapurakal


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