Although Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 most directly targets urban areas, cities will not realize the goal’s description of becoming “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” without achievement of related SDGs. Globally, of a population of 7.8 billion in 2020, 4.4 billion people lived in urban areas; by 2050, of a total projected population of 9.7 billion, 6.7 billion people are projected to live in urban areas (Figure 5-1; UN, 2019a). Eighty-three percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas (Center for Sustainable Systems, 2022).
The role of urban areas in sustainable development has been increasingly recognized over the past several decades. Workshop presenter Marc Weiss of Global Urban Development recalled that at the 2002 UN World Summit for Sustainable Development, urbanization was barely on the agenda. Now, urbanization is recognized as an important phenomenon to address to operationalize sustainability. Improving the connections between urban areas and their intermediary cities and rural areas is also a growing area of research (OECD, 2021b).
Although local-scale sustainability transformations (e.g., restoring a park or lake, or creating a set of bike paths) are important, they are easier to achieve than systemic change across multiple dimensions of SDGs at the city-regional scale. Yet, setting large-scale science-based targets can have social and economic consequences. For example, decreasing carbon emissions by x percent, or increasing tree cover by y percent, may be possible, but doing so without exacerbating inequity or worsening poverty and vulnerability is more challenging and difficult. Although the rapid development of cities and influx of new residents have significantly
increased property prices and made cities unaffordable for many, efforts to reduce urban disparities will allow cities to become more sustainable and inclusive places to live and work. SDG 10 emphasizes that reducing inequalities and ensuring that no one is left behind are integral to achieving the SDGs (UN, 2022a).
CASE STUDIES AND SYNERGIES
Workshop presenters highlighted opportunities for synergies among SDGs related to urbanization. For example, restoring wetlands and urban forests can bolster food security, provide flood and drought relief, buffer urban heat island effects, and reduce air pollution, as well as provide city dwellers mental and physical relief from stress. Transitioning to low-carbon (e.g., bike-friendly or bus-based) transport systems can not only reduce carbon emissions, but also decrease obesity levels, improve local economies, and reduce air pollution. Globally, Copenhagen, Denmark (Box 5-1) and Porto Alegre, Brazil (Box 5-2) illustrate how these benefits can engage citizens to make sustainability fun and aspirational, not just scary and requiring sacrifice. It takes less time to commute by bike than to drive in Copenhagen, for example. Stormwater management areas that are part of the city’s Cloudburst Management Plan are built as parks. Rather than “giving up privileges,” it was suggested reframing the discourse when possible to “getting benefits” (Leonerdsen, 2022).
The importance of collaboration and knowledge-sharing surfaces in almost any discussion about sustainable urbanization. A regional partnership spearheaded by the University of Texas at Arlington (Tare, 2022), public-private partnerships in New York City (Koval, 2022), and development of Voluntary Local Reviews (Saiz, 2022) served as useful examples for the committee. Efforts such as C40, Local2030 Hubs, and SDG Leadership Cities have created and strengthened communities of practice and knowledge-sharing. Yet, as several presenters warned, strategies must be participatory at all stages, not just in form but truly co-developed. If too closely tied with the agenda of a mayor or other leader at the helm, strategies could fall apart with changes in leadership.
It would be useful to examine issues of the expanding footprint of cities and the challenges of providing essential services to their residents in the Global North as well as the Global South. An example includes the Cities Development Initiative piloted by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in the Philippines as a strategic investment in secondary cities to foster larger regional development beyond the major urban cities (USAID, 2018).
KEY RESEARCH PRIORITIES FOR URBANIZATION
The committee proposes the following key priorities for research to operationalize sustainable development in the area of urbanization:
- Examine how to achieve systemic transformation across multiple dimensions of the SDGs at the city-regional scale while addressing transnational and rural-urban linkages and externalities, including shifting burdens (social, economic, and environmental) beyond the regional borders.
- Build a multiscale narrative of urban change that links local, national, regional, and global activities in the context of COVID-19, climate change, and global conflicts.
- Improve data collection and reporting at the local level, including of disaggregated and city-level data, as well as create open data hubs and portals to capture information from local agencies and community-generated data sets.
- Improve information on cities, including by filling data gaps, especially in the Global South, because developing cities will contribute the majority of the future urban transition in coming decades.
- Improve the understanding of the types of data needed from cities to monitor SDG transitions along environmental, social, and economic considerations. The first step would be to identify the types of data that are missing. The second step would be to determine how to collect these data across multiple locations.
- Explore how to conduct research on systemic equity and power that aligns with research on environmental and economic transitions, because this research is often conducted in silos.
POSSIBLE ACTIONABLE STEPS FOR URBANIZATION
The committee identified the following possible actionable steps to operationalize sustainable development in the area of urbanization:
- Urban leaders and planners could convene diverse, inclusive groups in workshops to focus on the key research priorities addressed above in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and global conflicts.
- Research institutions could create opportunities for workshop reports and journal special editions that focus sharply on identifying critical knowledge gaps relating to big data and research on cities and on producing new knowledge of special relevance to direct action, such as providing guidance to funders about areas for future work.
- International organizations could establish and maintain databases for international research on urbanization, such as the Urban Policy Platform (2022), that focus on urban-rural linkages and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development work (2021b) that strengthens intermediary cities to achieve the SDGs.