Sustainable cities: Key to future development and governance

Samuel Mann/Flickr/cc

The world’s cities are at an historic inflection point.

The stage was set in the last decade, with the population of the world’s cities and urban areas growing to past 3 billion — representing, for the first time in the planet’s history, over half of humankind.

We have since witnessed a crescendo of conferences, articles, books and new university programmes focused on the challenges and opportunities of this Century of the City.

Most recently, the global urban community launched a vigorous campaign to include a specific city-focused goal in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) being fashioned by the United Nations to replace the expiring, 20-year-old Millennium Development Goals.

The current global debate is unlike any we’ve seen before. A new discourse is emerging around intra-generational equity across all countries. The existing Millennium Development Goals largely focused on poor people in poor countries. The SDGs, on the other hand, challenge the status quo, as they focus on intra-generational equity for all people in all countries, along with addressing questions of global environmental change and of intergenerational equity to protect our children’s future.

“Final approval of the urban SDG will mark historic, global recognition of the role that cities and regions will play in the millennial urban transformation of human culture, economy and polity that will take place in the 21st century.”

Nearly 40 years after cities first appeared on the United Nations agenda at the 1976 Habitat I conference in Vancouver, a new holistic urban goal was proposed by a designated U. N. committee in July 2014 — namely, to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, productive, resilient and sustainable.”

That language now makes up the proposed Goal 11, part of a set of goals that will be presented for ratification at a U. N. summit in September. Final approval of the urban SDG will mark historic, global recognition of the role that cities and regions will play in the millennial urban transformation of human culture, economy and polity that will take place in the 21st century.

Such a change has been made possible by an immense tide of urbanization that first rose in early industrialized countries in Europe and North America. This tide has subsequently swept through Latin America and, over the last few decades, taken East and Southeast Asia by storm. Soon it will rise in South Asia and Southern Africa.

The SDGs and the urban goal in particular set the stage for national, city and regional governments to focus their energies on creating hundreds of millions of meaningful new jobs. This work will need to be marked by decent conditions, universally available education, health care, housing and basic services — which in the 21st century include clean energy and phone and Internet access.

Sustainable urbanization provides us the opportunity to transform the lives of over 2 billion urban residents who are poor and are currently living in, or will potentially live in, slums and informal settlements, if current modes of mal-development continue unchecked.

“Raising the urban floor”, in terms of access to work and living and working conditions of all citizens across the world, can be underwritten by the tremendous growth of the global economy, even in an era of relative economic slowdown. Yet hard questions around inequality, justice and just “how much is enough” will need answers, innovative responses, consistent policies, legal and institutional reform, and strong focus on implementation and building agency among the poorest and most vulnerable.

Resolving wicked problems

I believe historians may well mark 2015 as a turning point in the world’s resolution to deal with a range of “wicked” problems of development that have challenged us since the mid-19th century. There is a coming-together of four major events this year that bring with them significant elements of this complex puzzle — which cities now lie at the heart of.

This process started with the U. N. World Conference on Disaster Risk Management, which took place in Sendai, Japan, in March. It will continue in July with a key conference in Addis Ababa on how to finance development and the SDGs over the next 15 years. Then in September, the Special Summit on Sustainable Development will bring together heads of state from across the world in New York. And finally, in late November the 21st session of the Conference of Parties (COP 21), the final round of climate negotiations and target-setting, is scheduled for Paris.

When these processes kicked off in 2012 with the Rio+20 conference, cities were relegated to the periphery of the debate. But as the search for transformative solutions became imperative, the role of cities and citizens across the world has slowly emerged. In 2015, urban areas are seen as central to the solution and the transformation of development and governance as we know it.

So what’s left for 2016 and beyond? If we’re to hope for real progress around the SDGs, it must be a clear focus on implementation, implementation, implementation …

But with a new cast of actors. Over 2,000 city and regional governments, social movements, citizens and civil society groups, enterprises, universities and research institutions — all need to be empowered and work alongside the 193 U. N. member countries and their national governments in the lead-up to Habitat III in Quito in October 2016.

I strongly suspect that this is the beginning of a new turn in global, national and regional governance. This change will likely bring about new focus on fiscal and financing arrangements, agency and authority, culture and community — as the synergy between nation states, regions, cities and citizens starts to be realized.

This will not be without contest. But there are few choices in a world that will have 5 billion people living in cities in just the next few decades.

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Aromar Revi

Aromar Revi is the director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS).