12: Cities and the SDGs: A Spotlight on Urban Settlements

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It has been predicted that, by 2050, 70 per cent of the world’s population will be living in urban settlements. It is no wonder that the United Nations has taken note and is acknowledging cities now more than ever in global frameworks. Efforts to achieve global goals that improve the well-being and quality of life of citizens must now recognize their increasingly urban dimensions, a shift that culminated in the development of Sustainable Development Goal 11, to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. This chapter explores the history of the development of SDG 11 and how this evolved from the narrow focus on cities in the Millennium Development Goals. It also analyses the growing role of city governments as transnational actors, working through an ecosystem of city networks to play a significant part in global environmental governance.

Sustainable Development Goal 11 has been a long time in the making. Incorporating elements of housing, transport, planning processes, disaster response, social inclusivity, and air and water quality, it is a goal that is broad in approach in recognition of the variety of global challenges confronting cities today. Five of the nine targets have a direct link to climate change and the environment generally. These are areas where cities have a significant current policy focus, as is reflected in recent studies (Kosovac et al, 2020b). Cities around the globe are increasingly facing sustainability challenges, including rapid urbanization leading to unsustainable housing. Mortality rates are rising in relation to poor air quality in urban areas (Liu et al, 2019), and this is linked to one in nine deaths globally every year (WHO, 2016. Furthermore, climate change effects such as more frequent extreme weather events (eg floods and bushfires) have resulted in calls for more action on committing to the Paris Agreement (C40 Cities, 2020) in line with many urban areas introducing cleaner energy systems in transport, electricity, housing and planning. With more than half of the world’s population currently living in urban areas, a number that is projected to increase to 70 per cent by 2050 (UN Habitat, 2020), cities are feeling the direct impact of global challenges and are essential to addressing them.

This chapter considers the role of cities and academic advocates in promoting a dedicated urban focus in the lead-up to the announcement of the Sustainable Development Goals, why a separate city goal is important for global sustainability practices, and how cities are progressing on achieving the SDG 11 objectives. The chapter will also discuss how cities have been asserting themselves on the global stage and advocating for a seat at the table of multilateral discussions that are usually the domain of nation-states.

‘Nations Talk, cities act’ is an oft-cited statement overheard in global city-based discussions, often in the context of these climate change issues (Curtis, 2014). Much of this rhetoric stems from cities being recognized as the frontline of various global problems, from housing and well-being through to sustainability, a point that has only been broadly recognized in the past two decades. Given growing urban populations, it is no wonder that the United Nations has taken note and is acknowledging cities in its frameworks and meetings now more than ever (Kosovac et al, 2020a), and nothing expresses the need for a better quality of life for the urbanizing world than the inclusion of a cities focus in the SDGs.

Key idea: ‘Urbanization’ as a term does not refer solely to an increase in population in urban areas and cities, but rather to an increase in the proportion of those living in urban areas compared to non-urban areas.

Although the idea of cities sharing global power status with nation-states is considered anomalous, historical precedents suggest otherwise. This is not the first time that cities have exercised significant political power. For example, in (pre-unified) Italy, city-states such as Florence and Milan were independently sovereign. Similar sovereign arrangements were also present for the city of Athens in the classical period of ancient Greece. These city-states ruled their regions, as places where power rested and leaders presided. A modern example of a city-state exists in the case of Singapore, a city made up of over 5.7 million people (in 2020), with its own legislative system and currency. As such, the role of cities as global powerhouses is not new, and cities have taken a back seat only in recent history to make way for the predominance of nation-states, most notably with the adoption of the sovereignty-based Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. However, the current international order developed as a result of the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, which adopted an acute focus on nation-state representation with little regard for intra-statal issues, including those of cities. Not only have discussions in the 20th century centred on interstate relations, but this has also served to neglect urban issues occurring within state borders. The driver for this behaviour was largely the reluctance of the UN to overstep the recently asserted sovereignty claims of nation-states.

While states remain the essential interlocuters of the international system, over the past 30 years a shift in these relations has led to the higher visibility of cities on issues such as climate change, and sustainability (Acuto, 2016; Gordon and Johnson, 2018; Aust and Nijman, 2020; 2021). A recent analysis of UN frameworks and key documentation has highlighted the increasing recognition of the role of cities in environmental sustainability not only as sites of issues, but also as global actors (Kosovac et al, 2021a). This same study also found that cities were more than ever before considered formally in discussions and documentation (and this figure was rising over time), especially in the areas of development and the environment1 (see Figure 12.1). While cities remain marginal participants in most multilateral forums, they are becoming more prominent in both the development and the implementation of global agendas.

City-specific environmental sustainability initiatives are widespread, as cities exist at the frontier of climate change impacts because of their often close proximity to coastal areas, increased risk of flooding and heat island effects, and as high producers of greenhouse gas emissions (70 per cent of global output: World Bank, 2021). Above all other issues, cities have been most vocal in their push for global environmental action on the climate crisis. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group represents one of the largest global city networks and its remit is based on influencing the global agenda on climate action through advocacy, research and promoting city-based sustainability planning. Similarly, the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy is another high-profile urban network focused on environmental sustainability. As well the being the largest producers of GHG emissions, cities also generate the majority of the world’s economic activity, 80 per cent of global GDP (World Bank, 2021). Hence, urban settlements play a central role in global environmental sustainability practices.

12.1 City networks as unifying agencies in global governance

Cities have worked to amplify their voices globally through membership of an increasing number of transnational city networks (see Table 12.1 for list). These networks represent a conglomerate of city members that work towards a common goal or goals (Acuto and Rayner, 2016). Some are based around a specific thematic issue, while others focus on several policy domains (Acuto and Leffel, 2020). Through networks, cities engage in diplomatic relations (called either city diplomacy or paradiplomacy), resulting in agreements, cooperation and partnerships across cultural, environmental, economic and political spheres (Acuto and Rayner, 2016; Acuto et al, 2021a; Kosovac and Pejic, 2021). City networks also produce a wide variety of outputs aimed at policy changes and knowledge mobilization, such as reports (62 per cent of total networks) and joint pilot programmes (32 per cent) (Acuto and Leffel, 2020).

A horizontal stacked bar chart plots the theme versus percentage of total mentions.
Figure 12.1:

Percentage of city mentions (by section or paragraph) in UN city-based frameworks and documents by theme (n = 32)

Source: Kosovac et al (2020a).

A study of over 200 city networks found that almost 30 per cent have a focus on environmental issues (Acuto and Leffel, 2020), with the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 acting as the key instigator of this proliferation. Since then, two of the most prominent sustainability-focused transnational city networks have been Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), a global network of more than 2,500 local and regional governments dedicated to sustainable urban development and C40 Cities, a network of almost 100 of the world’s largest cities committed to urgent climate action. More recently large networks of networks have emerged, such as the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy (representing over 11,000 cities) and the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments. Many other prominent city networks that are not specifically focused on climate and sustainable development have made these issues a key part of their work, such as United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), Eurocities, Metropolis and the Global Parliament of Mayors.

Some of these city networks have also become institutional partners in multilateral systems governing sustainable development. For example, ICLEI’s partnership agreements with the UN Environment Programme, UN-Habitat and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) or UCLG’s chairing of the United Nations Advisory Committee of Local Authorities (UNACLA), a body that strengthens the partnership between the UN system and local authorities in the implementation of the Habitat Agenda (discussed later). Since 1995, the Local Governments and Municipal Authorities Constituency (LGMA) has represented the views of local and regional governments in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties meetings. The LGMA now works on behalf of the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments and advocated strongly for multilevel action on climate change at the COP 26 meeting in Glasgow in 20, a position which is reflected in the outcome document. The Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments has a range of partnerships across the UN system.

City network initiatives themselves are also often multistakeholder partnerships incorporating representatives or support from philanthropies, non-profit organizations and the private sector. C40, for example, has been underpinned by funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies but now has a broad range of funding partners including national governments, foundations and global brands such as IKEA and Arup. Many networks also work closely with academic institutions and think tanks to develop research and policy outputs to inform cities, national governments and international organizations (Kosovac and Pejic, 2021).

While the inclusion of local authorities in the global governance of sustainable development may be incremental, prominent advocacy from urban group, such as city networks have been an important factor in a broader ‘urbanization’ of the way sustainable development is thought about and discussed. The inclusion of a specific SDG on cities (discussed later) is a strong recognition of this. As city networks have grown in scale, they have also expanded the geographies of the cities included, with many more cities from the Global South participating in these initiatives (Acuto and Leffel, 2020). However, they are often still largely driven by major cities in the Global North who have the resources and capacity to participate meaningfully in these types of initiatives.

Table 12.1:

Key global city networks with a focus on climate change and sustainability

City network Founded Type of network No. of members
C40 2005 Cities and local governments 97 cities and local governments
Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy 2014 City networks and partners 12 networks and partners
Eurocities 1986 Cities and local governments 137 cities and local governments
Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments 2013 City networks 27 City networks
Global Parliament of Mayors 2016 Mayor or city 41 mayors/cities
Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) 1990 Cities, local and regional governments 2,500+ local and regional governments
Metropolis 1994 Cities and local governments 141 local governments and cities
Regions4 2002 Regional governments 42 regional governments
United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) 2004 Cities, local, regional and metropolitan governments 240,000 cities, regions and metropolitan governments
Resilient Cities Network 2011 Cities and local governments 97 cities and local governments

The centrality of urban settlements to the sustainability agenda has raised questions about whether the role of cities in global governance should be more substantial and further formalized. Barber (2013) famously advocated for city leaders to usurp national ones as the key international interlocuters and decision makers. His campaign led to the development of the Global Parliament of Mayors. It has been argued the often progressive politics of the city represents a dynamic and pragmatic alternative to the quagmire of international politics and geopolitical struggles (Lee, 2016). Other scholars have been more sober regarding the prospects of city leaders ‘saving the planet’ (Angelo and Wachsmuth, 2020). While urban settlements undoubtedly matter more than ever to global challenges such as sustainable development, city leaders are often not masters of their domain and lack the capacities, legal authority and competencies to implement many of the changes required to promote and foster sustainable development. This has made the multilevel governance of issues such as sustainability and climate change increasingly critical (Betsill and Bulkeley, 2006). City leaders have and continue to make an important contribution to the way sustainable development is governed within nations and globally, but this contribution needs to be made in partnership with other actors.

12.2 The rise of cities globally: a brief history of SDG 11

Before delving into SDG 11, the preceding actions and discussions that have led to the current rendition of the global framework to address urban issues should be explored (see Figure 12.3). Habitat I, held in 1976 in Vancouver, Canada, represents the first UN conference specifically focused on issues related to urban areas and human settlements. The ensuing Vancouver Action Plan recommended over 60 actions, which also prompted the formation of a UN arm, UN-Habitat, to further advance urban agendas. With urban issues institutionalized within a settlement-based organization such as UN-Habitat, there seemed to be little need to address these issues across the United Nations more broadly. The approach by and large was one of economic bolstering through funding of infrastructure in poor urban settlements. This method was spearheaded by the World Bank to produce (arguably limited) developmental outcomes at a time where urban modernization was accelerating globally (Parnell, 2016).

ICLEI, established in 1990, has been actively pursuing engagement with the UN at the global scale over the last 30 years (Gordon and Johnson, 2018) and, notably, was heavily involved in discussions prompting the formation of an urban-based dynamic in the UN’s Agenda 21 at the 1992 Rio Summit. Furthermore, off the back of Agenda 21, there was an increase in city-based rhetoric within the UN, particularly recognizing cities as actors with a role to play in achieving global goals (see Figure 12.2).

A multi-line graph plots percentage of total sections mentioned versus years.
Figure 12.2:

Percentage of total sections of documents with city mentions by function and year (including actor trendline)

Source: Acuto et al (2021a). Reproduced with permission.

Fuelled by these discussions, Habitat II followed in 1996, resulting in the Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements and Habitat Agenda to promote safe housing in highly urbanized areas. The outcomes of Habitat II did not depart significantly from those of Habitat I, with an ongoing focus on cities in the Global South. However, a notable aspect was the progressive notion in both conferences to elevate civil society in shaping global urban debates around international development. Nevertheless, the discussion was limited in scope to issues of housing and settlements.

Over the following decade, C40, UCLG and urban scholars were actively voicing their concerns regarding broader city representation on the global stage and in frameworks (Parnell, 2016). As the year 2000 approached, these calls were heeded with the development of the Millennium Development Goals, wherein a goal specifically on cities was included. However, the remit of the urban goal was very limited in scope. Focusing only on slum settlements, and pushing strongly for more public investment, the MDGs ignored many of the other prevailing issues facing cities such as clean water, sanitation, health, education and transport (Cohen, 2014). The target within the goal stated that the world must ‘have achieved by 2020 a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers’ (UN, 2015) (see Figure 12.3).

A listicle with key time points for SDG 11.
Figure 12.3:

Key time points for SDG 11

Not only was the target vague, but it also focused on factors that are spatial in nature, without considering broader social and economic issues within cities. It can also, arguably, promote the state-sponsored eviction of slum dwellers without providing alternative suitable accommodation to meet the MDG target (Meth, 2013).

Accordingly, the MDGs treated urbanization in ways that were outdated, focusing on housing (in particular, slums) as the key issue facing urban spaces and ignoring the context of wider-ranging underlying sociocultural concerns within cities (Rudd et al, 2015). There is no doubt that housing, when consciously designed to consider environmental practices, can have a significant impact on urban carbon emissions in how construction materials are sourced, used and maintained and the location of housing on peripheral environmental landscapes (Winston, 2009). However, the low incomes of slum dwellers do not allow for the incorporation of expensive sustainability construction solutions (Winston, 2009) but rather rely on slum upgrading (or demolition) options in the bid to improve unsafe building practices, overcrowding and access to sanitation (Doe et al, 2020). Therefore, adopting tunnel vision in redeveloping slum housing carries implications for sustainability issues that are inherent in city living and urban environments. Housing alone cannot solve sustainability issues such as water scarcity and flooding, or social-cultural problems, and cannot produce healthy ecosystems and air quality.

The focus on slum development in the MDGs was inadequate to address broader urban sustainability issues. UCLG, supported by other global organizations such as the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), ICLEI and the Global Covenant of Mayors, pressurized the UN to develop a globally applicable urban-based goal. These calls were eventually heeded in 2015 with a city-specific SDG that incorporated the challenges of urban sustainable development (Arajarvi, 2018).

12.3 Overview of SDG 11

Planning for SDG 11 rested on a vision for urban areas in 15 years’ time (in 2030). The vague language from the MDGs was replaced by more specific active goals with clear deadlines for meeting each.

SDG#11 unambiguously signals UN members’ acceptance of some form of devolution in governance, the imperative of an integrated vision of sustainable urban development that not exclude social, economic, or ecological imperatives and (implicitly) a collective acknowledgement that the spatial concentration of resources and flows that cities represent can act as a driver of sustainable development. (Parnell, 2016, 530)

SDG 11 adopted a multifaceted perspective on cities and their wide-ranging sustainability issues. The adoption of these principles, as described in the previous section, was the result of extensive and sustained campaigning by city networks, academics and cities themselves (Parnell, 2016). To formulate the goals, multiple workshops were run, incorporating governments, academia, philanthropy and the private sector, to develop sets of targets and indicators for the goal (Rudd et al, 2015). A wide range of urban issues were considered in the final iteration of the goal, including housing, transport, participatory approaches, heritage, disaster planning, pollution, green spaces and urban planning (see Box 12.1 for full list). This ambitious goal focuses on a global approach to urbanization and its impacts rather than a goal that is geared towards low- and middle-income nation-states. The topics explored in SDG 11 reflected discussions occurring across various UN conferences, and within declarations in the 30 years leading up to the goal, that cities and urban areas are often included in themes of development, environment and housing (see Figure 12.1). This is cognisant of a marked increase in populations living in urban areas without clean water, essential services, education and health services (UN-Habitat, 2020).

However, the focus on the housing aspect of the MDGs has not been abandoned in the SDGs, as it is still captured by target 11.1, with an expansion for the provision of safety to ‘ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums’. There is arguably a move away from eradicating slums to upgrading these settlements, recognizing justice framings of slum dwellers’ ‘right to the city’ claims (Roy, 2005). However, the use of ‘informal settlements’ in the SDGs does not recognize the differentiated nature of informality, a term that is not solely related to the poor and has been shown to exist in the domain of the middle and elite classes (eg enclave urbanism) in a bevy of global cities (Roy and AlSayyad, 2004; Müller, 2017). Furthermore, informal settlements represent neighbourhood identities and highlight the adaptive capacity of these marginal groups that is wholly ignored as ‘messy … urban voids’, underpinning the SDG eradication target (Lehmann, 2020). Although the goal has improved from its MDG predecessor, it nevertheless does not consider urban informality in line with issues of citizenship, migration and informal entrepreneurialism (Lehmann, 2020), a seeming area of improvement for future iterations. Further areas of interest were recognized in the aim for safe, accessible transport (target 11.2). Climate change adaptation in cities is addressed through targets 11.6 (Waste management), 11.7 (Green Spaces) and 11.b (including specific mention of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction). These goals have been heavily informed by discussions leading to the Paris Agreement and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. The deliberations underpinning these agreements and frameworks focused on urban issues as key topic areas in negotiation, and this is further reiterated in SDG 11. Traditionally, cities have been managing climate actions using risk framework mechanisms, and have been criticized for their reductionist and project-specific approach (Sanchez Rodriguez et al, 2018; Wise et al, 2014). The SDGs adopt a broader approach to climate adaptation in urban areas, reducing the need for path dependency in planning while actively supporting the incorporation of participatory planning in urban planning (target 11.3), first discussed at the Habitat II conference in 1996. Furthermore, planning targets have also been captured to firmly include the oft-forgotten peri-urban areas, regional planning in urban development (target 11.a) and the preservation of cultural and natural heritage (target 11.4).

12.4 SDG 11 in action

SDG 11 has for the most part been embraced by mayors and city leaders globally (though admittedly more in the Global North), with its adoption in key city planning documents such as local government strategic priorities and organizational values (Wittmayer et al, 2018). Globally many local governments have integrated the SDGs into planning in a bid to localize the global nature of the goals. More than 125 city governments have also joined a global movement to conduct voluntary local reviews (VLRs), where they track and report their progress on SDGs in a similar manner to national governments (Ciambra, 2021). The lack of a high-level of prescriptiveness of the goals provides cities with ample opportunity to contextualize the goals for their own localization practices. However, it can then present a challenge for cities to acknowledge whether their approach works, a deterrent for cities pursuing goal localization (Andrea et al, 2020). Localizing the SDGs and conducting a comprehensive VLR is a complex process and requires effective urban governance (Fox and Macleod, 2021). While the VLR concept has had impressive take-up from large cities of the Global South, particularly in South America and Africa (Ciambra, 2021), the instigation of this initiative was driven by cities in Global North (New York City and several Japanese municipalities), and it remains a much greater challenge for small and middle-sized cities, particularly those in the Global South, to implement this kind of sustainable development initiative.

The measurement of goal progression is an area of increasing interest for cities needing to track and monitor SDG targets. The approach, used correctly, can also provide for effective city-to-city peer learning (Leavesley, 2021), as well as informing reflexive practice to drive SDG goal attainment.

Behind each target are indicators by which to track sustainable development progress (see Box 12.1). Indicators are a way of monitoring and uniformly testing progression of the goals across differing urban landscapes (Hiremath et al, 2013). Although the indicators are clearly defined, there have been various critiques aimed at how they are positioned and utilized in practice (Barnett and Parnell, 2016; Klopp and Petretta, 2017; du Plessis and Aust, 2018). For many cities, a constraint exists in their capacity to collect and track required data by which to measure indicators (Simon et al, 2016). In a study of five cities’ abilities to report on the indicators, Simon et al found that three of the draft indicators (11.3.2, 11.3 and 11.b.) were relatively easy for local governments to report on, while others strained already overwhelmed city departments, becoming reporting burdens and thus limiting cities’ active participation in tracking programs (Simon et al, 2016).

Other studies have incorporated wider city samples, for example the SDG Cities Challenge Project run by the Melbourne Centre for Cities at the University of Melbourne. This project looked at 14 cities in Asia-Pacific to determine the challenges of localizing SDG 11. A difficulty faced universally across these cities was inadequate funding provisions and limited staff resourcing dedicated to tracking the SDGs (Leavesley, 2021; Leavesley et al, 2022) This lack of funding was also a primary factor in the ability of cities to conduct city-to-city learning on key urban issues to encourage goal progression (Kosovac et al, 2021).

As previously mentioned, there has been wide-ranging criticism of the limited specificity regarding SDG 11 implementation, resulting in ambiguity for city planning departments. This can lead to city governments questioning whether the approach they have taken is appropriate for the goal, as local-level tactics are not clearly stipulated in the goals, primarily to increase universality (Leavesley, 2021). Comparative analysis across cities on goal progress can also be problematic in understanding improvement, as measurement procedures and approaches can vary widely, largely as a result of differing governance structures of cities (Cottineau et al, 2017). The challenges are further exacerbated for cities of the Global South, which tend to have fewer resources to actively measure and track progress.

Conversely, the ambiguity of the goals and indicators lends itself well to allowing cities to establish their own version of the goals that are context specific, which also reduces the chance of path dependence (the ability to stray off a planned trajectory and be adaptive to changing situations and values) (Hartley, 2019). This allows the strategic planning to remain flexible, and enables cities to take a reflexive approach in their uptake, an important element in sustainability planning.

Indicators for Sustainable Development Goal 11

Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goal 11: Targets and indicators

Target 11.1: By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums

Indicator 11.1.1: Proportion of urban population living in slums, informal settlements or inadequate housing

Target 11.2: By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons

Indicator 11.2.1: Proportion of population that has convenient access to public transport, by sex, age and persons with disabilities

Target 11.3: By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries

Indicator 11.3.1: Ratio of land consumption rate to population growth rate

Indicator 11.3.2: Proportion of cities with a direct participation structure of civil society in urban planning and management that operate regularly and democratically

Target 11.4: Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage

Indicator 11.4.1: Total per capita expenditure on the preservation, protection and conservation of all cultural and natural heritage, by source of funding (public, private), type of heritage (cultural, natural) and level of government (national, regional and local/municipal)

Target 11.5: By 2030, significantly reduce the number of deaths and the number of people affected and substantially decrease the direct economic losses relative to global gross domestic product caused by disasters, including water-related disasters, with a focus on protecting the poor and people in vulnerable situations

Indicator 11.5.1: Number of deaths, missing persons and directly affected persons attributed to disasters per 100,000 population

Indicator 11.5.2: Direct economic loss in relation to global GDP, damage to critical infrastructure and number of disruptions to basic services, attributed to disasters

Target 11.6: By 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management

Indicator 11.6.1: Proportion of municipal solid waste collected and managed in controlled facilities out of total municipal waste generated, by cities

Indicator 11.6.2: Annual mean levels of fine particulate matter (eg PM2.5 and PM10) in cities (population weighted)

Target 11.7: By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities

Indicator 11.7.1: Average share of the built-up area of cities that is open space for public use for all, by sex, age and persons with disabilities

Indicator 11.7.2: Proportion of persons victim of physical or sexual harassment, by sex, age, disability status and place of occurrence, in the previous 12 months

Target 11.a: Support positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning

Indicator 11.a.1: Number of countries that have national urban policies or regional development plans that (a) respond to population dynamics; (b) ensure balanced territorial development; and (c) increase local fiscal space

Target 11.b: By 2020, substantially increase the number of cities and human settlements adopting and implementing integrated policies and plans towards inclusion, resource efficiency, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, resilience to disasters, and develop and implement, in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030, holistic disaster risk management at all levels

Indicator 11.b.1: Number of countries that adopt and implement national disaster risk reduction strategies in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030

Indicator 11.b.2: Proportion of local governments that adopt and implement local disaster risk reduction strategies in line with national disaster risk reduction strategies

Target 11.c: Support least developed countries, including through financial and technical assistance, in building sustainable and resilient buildings utilizing local materials

Indicator 11.c.1: No indicator is currently listed under 11.c. See E/CN.3/2020/2, paragraph 23. (UN, 2017)

Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goal 11: Targets and Indicators

Target 11.1: By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums

Indicator 11.1.1: Proportion of urban population living in slums, informal settlements or inadequate housing

Target 11.2: By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons

Indicator 11.2.1: Proportion of population that has convenient access to public transport, by sex, age and persons with disabilities

Target 11.3: By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries

Indicator 11.3.1: Ratio of land consumption rate to population growth rateIndicator 11.3.2: Proportion of cities with a direct participation structure of civil society in urban planning and management that operate regularly and democratically

Target 11.4: Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage

Indicator 11.4.1: Total per capita expenditure on the preservation, protection and conservation of all cultural and natural heritage, by source of funding (public, private), type of heritage (cultural, natural) and level of government (national, regional, and local/municipal)

Target 11.5: By 2030, significantly reduce the number of deaths and the number of people affected and substantially decrease the direct economic losses relative to global gross domestic product caused by disasters, including water-related disasters, with a focus on protecting the poor and people in vulnerable situations

Indicator 11.5.1: Number of deaths, missing persons and directly affected persons attributed to disasters per 100,000 population Indicator 11.5.2: Direct economic loss in relation to global GDP, damage to critical infrastructure and number of disruptions to basic services, attributed to disasters

Target 11.6: By 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management

Indicator 11.6.1: Proportion of municipal solid waste collected and managed in controlled facilities out of total municipal waste generated, by cities Indicator 11.6.2: Annual mean levels of fine particulate matter (eg PM2.5 and PM10) in cities (population weighted)

Target 11.7: By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities

Indicator 11.7.1: Average share of the built-up area of cities that is open space for public use for all, by sex, age and persons with disabilitiesIndicator 11.7.2: Proportion of persons victim of physical or sexual harassment, by sex, age, disability status and place of occurrence, in the previous 12 months

Target 11.a: Support positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning

Indicator 11.a.1: Number of countries that have national urban policies or regional development plans that (a) respond to population dynamics; (b) ensure balanced territorial development; and (c) increase local fiscal space

Target 11.b: By 2020, substantially increase the number of cities and human settlements adopting and implementing integrated policies and plans towards inclusion, resource efficiency, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, resilience to disasters, and develop and implement, in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030, holistic disaster risk management at all levels

Indicator 11.b.1: Number of countries that adopt and implement national disaster risk reduction strategies in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 Indicator 11.b.2: Proportion of local governments that adopt and implement local disaster risk reduction strategies in line with national disaster risk reduction strategies

Target 11.c: Support least developed countries, including through financial and technical assistance, in building sustainable and resilient buildings utilizing local materials

Indicator 11.c.1: No indicator is currently listed under 11.c. See E/CN.3/2020/2, paragraph 23. Source: UN (2017).

12.5 The story so far

Many cities have taken it on themselves to report on their own strategies around SDGs and to encourage city-to-city learning. Despite this, it can be difficult to compare cities because of the inconsistent measurement practices and differences in baseline starting points (du Plessis and Aust, 2018; Pipa and Bouchet, 2020). Despite the previously described weaknesses in the indicator process, there are nevertheless wide-ranging attempts to report and compare SDG 11 progress across different nation-states. Data is being collected by UN-Habitat, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, WHO, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to actively track the progression of goals.

A key aspect to note is that these data are collated on the basis of nation-states, not cities, which increases the difficulty of establishing a city-level comparison. The following figures highlight some of the reporting on progress for different goal indicators. The nation-states included in the diagrams were chosen on the basis of either having the highest shift in progress across time or representing a high area of concern for that country. Voluntary national or local reviews are by nature voluntary. While the 193 countries that signed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development committed to completed at least two voluntary national reviews (VNRs), five (Haiti, Myanmar, South Sudan, Yemen and the US) have yet to complete one report. The US is a significant outlier here as a high-income country where several cities, including New York City, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh have completed VLRs. While there has been strong participation globally in the VNR process, the voluntary nature of reporting and tracking, and the absence of consequences for inadequate performance, coupled with challenges in data collection and validation, are all hindrances to SDG 11, and indeed to all the SDGs, in driving global progress.

A horizontal bar chart of the proportion of the urban population living in slums percentage.
Figure 12.4:

Tracking progress on indicator 11.1.1 (percentage of urban population living in slums)

Source: UN-Habitat (2021).
A horizontal bar chart of the annual mean concentration of particulate matter of less than 2.5 microns in diameter.
Figure 12.5:

Tracking progress on indicator 11.6.2 (air quality) (Annual mean concentration of particulate matter of less than 2.5 microns in diameter [PM2.5] percentage change between 2000 and 2019)

Source: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (2021).
A horizontal bar chart of the access to the improved water source, piped percentage of the urban population.
Figure 12.6:

Percentage change on access to safe water for tracking Goals 6.1 (Safe water access) and 11.1 (Access to basic services) (percentage change between 2000 and 2017)

Source: UN-Habitat (2021).

Figures 12.4, 12.5 and 12.6 show one of the approaches taken to track SDG 11 progress across nation-states. As shown, it provides a broad outlook and comparability across countries themselves rather than cities, highlighting the persistent nation-state-centric nature of the endeavour. While Figures 12.4 and 12.6 highlight a goal that is specifically tracked within urban areas, Figure 12.5 does not make clear whether or not the data are based in urban spaces. The definition of urban also requires interpretation. There has been a widespread debate in urban studies on what the terms urban and city mean, and in particular, the boundary constraints, spatially or otherwise (see eg Allen et al, 1999; Marcotullio and Solecki, 2013; Wachsmuth, 2014). This ongoing conflict over definition presents a further issue with regard to what is being measured and where, resulting in difficulty in comparing across cities/urban areas. Despite the lack of comparable data, many cities were adamant about the importance of city-to-city benchmarking, tracking and learning (Leavesley, 2021).

As mentioned, the SDG Cities Challenge takes an approach that tracks cities themselves rather than nation-states, relying on local governments to actively measure and share their approaches with other participants. Not only does this create a strong shared-learning platform, but it also encourages further city-to-city relations, building on existing city diplomatic actions (Acuto et al, 2021a; Kosovac et al, 2021). The SDG Cities Challenge undertaken in 2019 and 2020 relied on voluntary local reporting of cities within the challenge, which looked at eight cities across the Asia-Pacific region (Leavesley, 2021). A further iteration of this program has expanded the remit to a range of cities in the US. Another example of a program that supports knowledge sharing on SDG localization is the SDG Leadership Cities initiative run by the Brookings Institution (see also Ortiz Moya et al, 2021). These types of city-centric programmes are flourishing to further embed and operationalize SDG 11 in urban areas.

12.6 Conclusion

Issues of sustainability are inherently complex, involving a range of disciplines and sectors in planning. This is reflected in how cities have embraced the goals, with many incorporating public–private and civil society partnerships to encourage a shared responsibility approach to goal delivery. The boundary work encompassed by these relations highlights the importance not only of engaging local governments in the achievement of the goals but also of private business, other levels of government and civil societies playing a key role in ensuring strong multistakeholder partnerships that share knowledge, expertise, technology and financial resources (Kosovac and Pejic, 2021). This is captured by the very last goal in the SDGs, SDG 17, to strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development. By and large, a strong acknowledgement exists in sustainability governance that interdisciplinary approaches are key to ensuring continued and long-lasting environmental and social outcomes (Halffman et al, 2019).

However, the legal and budgetary limitations of cities are also worth considering. The power to enact new laws, policies and fiscal strategies related to environmental action is often determined by national governments and varies distinctly between countries. Although some cities do not have direct policy influence over elements such as energy regulation, they nevertheless can still be key instigators of on-the-ground action. Cities therefore have the ability to implement climate change and sustainability measures directly, as their remit often covers areas of responsibility such as waste management, housing, water management and urban planning, to name a few. This results in a direct path to action in areas where nation-states can struggle to implement quickly and effectively at the ground level. Urban areas are key sites for sustainability issues, but also feature increasingly as actors in the implementation of global sustainability practices (Acuto et al, 2021b). Cities therefore do not just act as bystanders or implementers of global agendas dictated by nation-states, but are increasingly powerhouses of economic and social activity. SDG 11 speaks directly to the importance of cities in sustainability and to their wide-ranging nature. Given that the capacity to collect local data is still a barrier to effective SDG 11 reporting, the introduction of programs such as the voluntary local reviews is promising, even though structural inequalities mean that some cities are better placed to be part of such initiatives than others. Without some form of equalizer to aid cities in their reporting functions, it will be difficult to track progress meaningfully. As described in this chapter, cities and urban-focused academics advocated strongly for a dedicated urban SDG, ultimately leading to the 2015 announcement. SDG 11 represents a starting point. It is important not only for its measures but also for its symbolic power in recognizing cities as actors and essential sites for advancing sustainability practices.

Note

1

The term ‘environment’ in Kosovac et al. (2020a) referred to references to climate, pollution, forest, air quality, desertification, biodiversity, climate change, coastal, ecosystems, pollutants and environmental management.

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  • Figure 12.1:

    Percentage of city mentions (by section or paragraph) in UN city-based frameworks and documents by theme (n = 32)

  • Figure 12.2:

    Percentage of total sections of documents with city mentions by function and year (including actor trendline)

  • Figure 12.3:

    Key time points for SDG 11

  • Figure 12.4:

    Tracking progress on indicator 11.1.1 (percentage of urban population living in slums)

  • Figure 12.5:

    Tracking progress on indicator 11.6.2 (air quality) (Annual mean concentration of particulate matter of less than 2.5 microns in diameter [PM2.5] percentage change between 2000 and 2019)

  • Figure 12.6:

    Percentage change on access to safe water for tracking Goals 6.1 (Safe water access) and 11.1 (Access to basic services) (percentage change between 2000 and 2017)

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