Students look out at the central business district in Nairobi, Kenya. Reuters/Joe Penney

Can the ambitious new pledge really make all “human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable” within 15 years?

Included in the United Nations’ newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is goal No. 11, which calls world leaders to make cities and all “human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.”

It’s a goal that economists and urban academics have been pushing for, with some—like CityLab’s Richard Florida—arguing that it’s one of the most pressing issues of our time. For one thing, more than half of the world’s people currently live in cities. And by 2050, the World Health Organization predicts, more than 6.4 billion people will be city dwellers.

“The battle for the SDGs will be won or lost in cities,”says Homi Kharas, senior fellow and deputy director of the global economy and development program at the Brookings Institution. Kharas was also part of the panel that advised the U.N. secretary general on the post-2015 development agenda. “Up until now, [cities] have just been left to their own devices to evolve as they see fit, but they’re evolving in a way that has very little planning and very little consideration to efficiency issues.”

The U.N. goal has several targets, and addresses the different problems that existing and expanding urban settlements face in both developed and developing countries. Those issues include making housing affordable, ensuring that all people have access to basic services, improving transportation systems, protecting people in “vulnerable situations” such as disasters, curbing the effects of climate change, and providing universal access to green and public spaces.

That’s a lot to accomplish by 2030, which is when the SDGs expire. Kharas says that by targeting cities, the guidelines create opportunities for partnerships and innovation, and give governments incentives to focus on making cities better.

But what does it take, really, to improve cities?

“Much of the process of the 21st century has to be about taming the demons that come with density,” says Edward Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard University and the author of the book, Triumph of the City. “There certainly is a role for public policy on the upside of cities. Think about investment for infrastructure in the developing world [and] in education, which are all crucial for productive cities.”

However, much of urban policy has to be about making cities livable and less deadly, he adds. Glaeser believes that, in many developing countries, it starts with improving water and sanitation systems. “No crime wave is as deadly as a cholera attack,” he says. “Typically you move up the hierarchy of urban problems, so for the poorest parts of the world, sanitation is the most important area. But as you move up, like in Latin America, we’d be more worried specifically on the crime front.”

Most cities move “on a broad front,” says Kharas, meaning that they tackle multiple issues at once. “Though it looks like a lot of different targets, cities rarely trade off one against the other,” he tells CityLab. “What they try to do is move in tandem across them all.”

While he likes the idea of the city-focused goal, Charles Kenny, senior fellow at the think tank Center for Global Development, says it’s hard to imagine reaching all the targets in just 15 years. “As much as I would like to imagine the world achieving universal housing, for example, the answer to whether that’s achievable is, ‘Wow, not without something darn revolutionary happening,’” he says.

“Sadly, it takes a fairly rich country to produce cities with quality housing for all,” Kenny adds. “Let’s be honest: We don’t manage it in this country [the U.S.], so to think that Kenya in 15 years is going to have no slums and everybody living in high quality housing in Nairobi is nice. But probably not.”

Like Glaeser and Kharas, however, Kenny is optimistic that some progress will be made. Measuring that progress will be challenging, but he believes that by 2030 there will be larger urban populations living longer and with more access to education. City services will also be better than they are now. “There is every reason to expect progress that will make the lives of literally billions of people better than they are today,” he says.

Kharas adds: “This next 15 to 20 years is going to see the largest migration into cities ever both historically and looking into the future. So this is our chance to get cities right.”

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