SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities


Making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

Why Focus on Cities

In the last 30 years, cities have been growing at a fast pace in both developed and developing countries. People from less developed, rural parts of the country move into cities to benefit from jobs, housing, and services. Cities are attractive; because they are innovative centers for learning, idea exchange, and technology advancement. 

There is, however, a darker side to city life. Urban centers both contribute to and suffer from climate change.  In fact, social and environmental challenges reinforce each other in the urban space.

Carbon Footprint of Cities

Industries concentrated close to cities, pollute surrounding areas. Workers who travel between their home and the industries where they work, also use polluting transportation. The city expands to accommodate incoming migrants in cheap, concrete construction that traps heat. The growing city borders (sprawl) displace farming communities in the outskirts. The larger the city borders (sprawl), the higher the carbon footprint.

Cheap housing and city expansion
City expansion, Photo by Ben Dumond on Unsplash

Human Vulnerability in Cities

Despite positive economic transformation, cities are also a hotbed of social inequalities.

Migration from rural to urban areas creates a pressure for cities to accommodate more people for jobs, housing, and transportation. Thus, pressure on resources creates inequalities and tension. Unfortunately, not everyone gets equal access to the center.  Moreover, quality education and healthcare are only afforded by the lucky few. Without proper city planning policies, there is an ever-growing divide between the poor and the wealthy.

Increasingly, human vulnerability has been defined by a lack of access, e.g. access to services, but also access to information and influence. At times of natural disaster, those who have less access, suffer more. Therefore, poverty trap in cities is both a political and a climate vulnerability. Communities that are most vulnerable to climate change, are also the groups that are heard less in circles of influence. 

How to Make Cities Sustainable

How we design our cities will determine the level of emissions of cities and equal access for all stakeholders. A sustainable design will consider a variety of interventions and precautions.

There are many policy intervention examples at the city level – although none free of controversy.

  • Subsidizing quality housing for the poor could reduce the rich-poor divide. (But who gets to decide which poor live in the city center?)
  • Building multi-story housing will result in a denser city, with lower carbon emissions. (Yet, multi-story housing is known to reduce neighbor interactions which promote integration.)
  • Building better infrastructure to prevent floods, power outages, and physical destruction. (How many governments invest in poor communities, where climate-induced damage risks are higher?)
  • Transitioning to a more service-based economy could reduce industrial carbon footprint. (But labor market transitions often cause job loss in the short term.)

In conclusion, a habitat resilient to human and climate disasters, demands well-thought out city planning. That’s why, social, economic, environmental impact are essential considerations in sustainable city design. In this regard, policy innovations at the city level are sometimes successful; however, national governments are not always able to scale up city-based actions.

Will closer interaction between city and national governments produce positive outcomes for cities? How will other community actors contribute?

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