11 Reasons the UN Should Make Cities the Focus of Its Forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals

Cities stand at the very center of each and every one of the biggest challenges the world now faces. 

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Last week I attended the seventh World Urban Forum in Medellín, Colombia, where more than 20,000 city leaders, urbanists, and planners from more than 160 countries met to discuss the future of cities across the globe.

While there, I called for the United Nations to make cities the centerpiece of its forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals, which are intended to replace the Millennium Development Goals that have guided its economic, social, and human development programs since 2000. In his closing remarks to the Forum, Joan Clos, the Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlement Program and former mayor of Barcelona, also called for cities to be at the at the forefront of the new goals, a point that was echoed by Eugénie Birch, a professor of Urban Research at the University of Pennsylvania and the chair of the World Urban Campaign.

"These SDGs," Birch noted, "are for all cities and human settlements, both in the advanced economies and the developing world. All of us need to address poverty and climate change, rich and poor alike."

The Medellín Declaration, which was approved and released at the close of the forum, called for an SDG that promoted an urbanization model that promotes "comprehensive and participatory planning;" "that puts people first and fosters social cohesion" and that fosters "gender equality and balanced land development; better urban resilience to climate change and other disasters; and safe, affordable transportation."

Unfortunately, a number of important countries, the U.S. and Canada among them, remain worryingly undecided about joining this widespread call for a city-specific SDG from countries as diverse as Germany, Colombia, and Ghana. Their reticence seems to be based on a worry that such goals would create artificial distinctions between rural and urban areas. These governments seem to believe that these issues, and the potential for reform, in cities and urban areas will be automatically covered by more general, nation-level goals on energy,  water, health, education, and jobs. Unsurprisingly, these are the same countries that lack clear urban policy initiatives at home, and have historically taken a non-spatial approach to economic policy.

I personally believe it is critical that the UN make cities a centerpiece of its new sustainable development goals. The reason is simple: It is cities, not nations, that are the fundamental economic, political, and social organizing units of our time. Effective city-building—which includes building new cities and revitalizing older ones—is the grandest of the grand challenges facing the globe in the 21st century. When all is said and done, cities stand at the very center of each and every one of the biggest challenges we face: climate, pollution and energy; jobs and economic opportunity; poverty and inequality; sustainability and resilience; curbing violence and ensuring personal safety and security; accelerating the spread of personal freedom, tolerance and democracy; and of course spending trillions upon trillions of dollars on infrastructure, housing and city services in the most effective way. A UN goal for cities could help organize the national and global effort to ensure that cities—the principal organizing units of the economy and our central agents of innovation and prosperity— achieve their fullest potential in the coming decades.

Shenzhen, a city in southern China, has boomed from a small fisihing village to a major urban center since the establishment of the special economic zone just over 30 years ago (Reuters/Bobby Yip).

If that doesn't convince you, below are the 11 biggest reasons why the UN needs to put cities front and center in its forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals.

1) Because we are an urban planet. Sixty years ago, just 30 percent of the world lived in cities. Today more than 50 percent do, and roughly 70 percent of the world’s economic activity is urban. More importantly, the pace of urbanization is accelerating. Cities are adding population at a rate of 60 million people per year. By 2050, 6.4 billion people—the equivalent of the entire population of the world today—will live in cities, according to World Health Organization projections. And, as Paul Romer and Brandon Fuller of NYU’s Marron Institute have predicted, by 2110, if current trends hold, their numbers could swell to nine billion.

2) Because billions of new urbanites will need to forge a path to opportunity and a better way of life. In the next century, 5.2 billion of these new urban residents, accounting for nearly all of this city population boom, will live in regions of the world that are currently less developed, according to Fuller and Romer. More than 600 new cities with populations of ten million each would need to be built over the course of the coming century to accommodate this growth, they explain. The manner in which they expand cannot be haphazard. Doing it right will ensure greater opportunity and living standards for the world’s new urbanites.

3) Because cities will need to become even more productive and generate much-needed jobs. The growing global urban population needs jobsCities in the advanced economies average about 25 percent higher productivity rates than their countries as a whole. But, cities and urban areas in the developing world can be as much as two, three, or even four times as productive. They are powerful growth engines. A goal can focus efforts to leverage these productivity gains where they exist and help more cities achieve them.

4) Because reducing inequality and achieving greater equity must be a worldwide effort. The World Urban Forum was focused on the need to increase urban equity around the world. The term “equity” has two important meanings. The first is to create and store economic value, say in a home or business. The second is to increase fairness. Cities are key to both. A new UN Goal for cities could help to create more inclusive models of growth whose rewards are distributed much more broadly than today.

5) Because poverty and slums are a global issue as well as a local one. Millions upon millions live in favelas and shantytowns around the world. By 2050, their populations could swell to two billion. By the year 2050, the slums of Mumbai may cover the same area as the whole of London today. While some slums function as "transitional" places where the poor gain a foothold toward a better life, others are multi-generational poverty traps that are remarkably resistant to efforts to improve them. When interventions do see positive results, they often result in heightened rates of in-migration, which exacerbates crowding and the strain on resources, starting yet another downward cycle. The spatial trap of slums will not be eliminated through abstract poverty eradication policies alone. A UN goal for cities can help identify what works and what does not, and help spread good ideas more quickly across the world’s rapidly expanding urban centers.

An Indian boy tries to fly a kite from a roof top in a slum neighborhood of Mumbai, India (AP/Rafiq Maqbool)

6) Because slum dwellers are ready to help themselves. Not all slums are the same; some are poverty traps; some aren't. We need to better understand what is specifically different about the latter and work to leverage their positive features. Slums are also composed of different kinds of neighborhoods, and their diversity can help drive their future development. Research by Luis Bettencourt and Jose Lobo of the Santa Fe Institute is finding that slum dwellers can be their own most powerful advocates and change-agents: slums are and can be transformed, their research suggests, if we arm their residents and neighborhoods with the right tools, listen to their insights, and build from and support them. But this cannot be achieved on an ad hoc basis; a new UN goal for cities can help identify and establish best-practices informed by the process of what actually occurs in slums to guide poverty reduction and economic development.

7) Because a global effort can help reduce prejudice, hate, and violence. Many parts of the world – the Middle East, Africa, the Caucasus – are being torn apart by religious and ethnic conflict. In other areas, crime and violence remain endemic problems. Urbanization not only brings economic development, it brings greater diversity and acceptance. As Ronald Ingelhart has shown, urbanization is closely associated with higher levels of tolerance and the adoption of more cosmopolitan values. In a world that is increasingly torn by tribal violence, cities are places where populations blend, and where people find better ways of living together.

8) Because cities play the central role in reducing climate change and improving the environment. Cities are ground zero in the fight against climate change. Built right, they have lower carbon footprints per capita and can better withstand the rising sea levels and intense storms that the changing climate has already unleashed. Built wrong, they can lead to more auto-dependency. These aims cannot be met only be setting space-blind emissions targets. They require smart planning and design in advance of growth.

9) Because better research and data-gathering is needed to make cities more effective, so that we can establish a true "science of cities." Science and clear-eyed data analysis enabled dramatic improvements in agricultural yields and health outcomes in the emerging world. We all want better cities, but we are in many ways still flying blind. There is virtually no systematic or comparable data to compare the must rudimentary economic functions. Without reliable measurements of income, output, and other basic metrics like we have for nations, we can’t tell which cities are growing or by how much, where incomes are going up or down, where productivity is increasing or not, where jobs are being created, or where slums are income traps or centers of mobility. A UN Goal could help develop the data and research infrastructure which is absolutely critical to developing deeper understanding that can guide more effective urban strategy, policy and city-building writ large.  

10) Because the world needs better urban leadership, strategy, and policy. There's been no shortage of arguments in recent years that "mayors rule the world" and that cities are capable of making it on their own. But cities and their leadership too often lack the tools, training and best-practice identifications that national leaders have come to rely upon. Nation-states have forums and summits like the G8, G20, the APEC and the UN itself. There are world development agencies like the World Bank and countless NGOs and philanthropies. But mayors and city leaders really are going it alone. An SDG for cities would help provide institutional and monetary support for leadership training and the development of tools that can massively upgrade the state of urban leadership and practice of urbanism across the globe

11) And, most of all, because development money needs to be flowing in the right direction. We are going to be spending thousands of trillions of dollars on city building; to get the most out of our investment, we need to identify and replicate what works. We cannot afford to build more sprawling, auto-dependent cities. We need dense, walkable, transit-serviced cities that spur innovation and growth and improve the environment, and that are resilient and sustainable. Like the previous Millennium Development Goals, the new goals will help frame an agenda and orient the flow of development dollars from major international agencies like the World Bank and USAID. An SDG for cities will ensure that cities and urban areas are a focal point. 

One argument against an SDG for cities is that cities are implicitly included in all the other development goals the UN will announce. But that misses the point. Cities are in fact the central pivot point for the achievement of each and every one of them. Though the U.S., the U.K., and Canada have been reticent, it is absolutely critical that an urban SDG be adopted; we will miss a huge opportunity if we do not get it this summer.

Our cities hold vast promise, but it is not blind promise. They can tip either way. As we embark upon the greatest epoch of city building that the world has ever seen, our greatest challenge is to make sure that they tip the right way. Adding a specific UN Sustainable Development Goal for cities will send an unmistakable signal to the world’s nations, NGOs, private sector, and foundations that cities are the key to a more sustainable and prosperous global future. 

Top image: Eugenio Marongiu /Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More
    Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here