Opinion: A road map for accelerating sustainable urban transformation

A view of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by: Kibae Park / U.N. / CC BY-NC-ND

Rapid urbanization is the defining megatrend of our times. It is shaping the way we live and the future of development in the 21st century. By 2030, 60% of humanity will be living in cities. Cities produce more than 70% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and consume two-thirds of the world’s energy. There is an urgent need to prepare cities to face upcoming challenges.

Urbanization has direct implications for climate change, widening inequalities, population growth, aging, rising demand for resources and services, increased air pollution, and depletion of natural resources. The 10th World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, with “cities of opportunities — connecting culture and innovation” as the theme, facilitates a unique platform to bring various stakeholders, partners, and solutions to complex urban challenges.

The New Urban Agenda — adopted in 2016 during the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in Quito, Ecuador — provides the road map for sustainable urban development in our cities over the next 20 years. The 10th session of the World Urban Forum, happening this week, provides the platform for national, local, and regional governments, in collaboration with multistakeholders, to advance this agenda.

Here are four key areas essential to support the implementation of the New Urban Agenda:

1. Address spatial disparities

Income inequality, which has been rising in the last decades, is often higher in cities than the national averages. According to WHO, from Baltimore to London, life expectancy is up to 20 years higher for those living in the richest neighborhoods compared with those in the poorest ones. In the recent past, we have witnessed the dissatisfaction of people facing inequality all over the world, from the cities in Lebanon to Iran to Chile. If cities are not well planned, designed, implemented, and managed, poverty and inequality will be on the rise — as will be the protests and movements. We need a development approach that recognizes the complementary assets of urban and rural areas and that ensures positive socioeconomic outcomes throughout a rural-urban continuum and integrated planning to address spatial disparities.

For example, Sierra Leone has turned garbage into economic opportunity through skills training on waste management and recycling for youths across eight urban slum communities in Freetown. The local community associations have developed strategies for safe disposal or repurposing of plastics.

2. Improve the systems that shape cities

About 110 out of 169 Sustainable Development Goal targets require direct engagement of cities and local government authorities. Housing, transportation, and energy infrastructure for cities will be among the biggest commercial opportunities in the coming decades, but also one of the biggest challenges for governments balancing a range of constraints. Governments, local administration, and institutions will need strategic policies and investments to equip cities with efficient service delivery. Public institutions such as municipalities and local governments need to be transparent and accountable for cities to be inclusive, sustainable, and resilient. Bangladesh uses digital centers to enable access to public services — particularly by disadvantaged communities — in big cities such as Dhaka to rural areas across the country.

So far, the initiative ­— which began about 10 years ago — has saved Bangladeshi citizens nearly 2 billion days of time, more than $8 billion in costs, and more than 1 billion visits to government offices, according to the government’s public service innovation unit.

3. Focus on cities that may have more limited institutional capacities and resources

According to Cities Alliance, although smaller cities produce less than 40% of the global gross domestic product, they provide the resources and support needed for the operations and development of the world’s 600 largest cities. Few secondary and tertiary cities have the capacity to undertake integrated strategic planning, enhancing linkages, coherence across national and local planning, and budgeting instruments and processes.

4. Support locally led initiatives and join forces with other actors in strategic coalitions

Resilient cities offer a diverse range of employment and livelihood opportunities: more equitable access to resources, better protection against climate change as well as economic and environmental shocks, democratic governance, and peaceful settlement of disputes.

All of this cannot happen in isolation; multiple actors and interventions are needed. This requires forging alliances, partnerships, and coalitions for sharing knowledge, introducing innovative solutions, and adopting new technologies. Civil society, communities, youths, and local and municipal governments need to be in the driving seat at the local level.

The Samoan municipality of Apia, which has 80,000 people, started doing integrated planning to manage flood risk and increase resilience to climate change. Apia is prone to flooding during storm events and the rainy season. The initiative is improving drainage infrastructure and helping to climate-proof other key infrastructure to protect from flooding impacts.

Going forward

U.N. agencies are already working with national and local governments to design, develop, and promote inclusive and sustainable policies to address urban poverty, inequality, climate-induced disasters and migration, gender disparities, and lack of economic opportunities, among others. UNDP’s Climate Promise is our commitment to support at least 100 countries to enhance their nationally determined contributions by the end of 2020.

In partnership with other U.N. and intergovernmental organizations, we are working with countries to make their NDCs more technically robust and to include new ways that governments can step up and finance their climate actions, including by connecting with and scaling up initiatives already underway in their cities.

Cities are at the forefront of climate action. As we enter the “decade of action” — the last 10 years to make the Sustainable Development Goals a reality — a next generation of people-centric cities that balances sustainability with prosperity is required. The United Nations, along with partners, is stepping up with concrete actions to support national and local governments to face the current era of disruption to ensure that no one and no place is left behind.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Haoliang Xu

    Haoliang Xu was appointed U.N. assistant secretary-general and UNDP assistant administrator and director for the Bureau for Policy and Programme Support by the United Nations Secretary-General in July 2019. Previously, Mr. Xu was U.N. assistant secretary-general and UNDP assistant administrator and regional director for Asia and the Pacific since September 2013.