A systemic approach to SDG 11 – three critical steps

SDG 11 “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” is a powerful rallying call to focus greater political attention on the importance our cities and the urgent need to improve the way that they are planned and run. With this year’s once in every twenty year meeting on human settlements: Habitat III now only a few short months away – this call comes at a vitally important time.

Over half the world already lives in urban centres, and the planet’s urban population continues to skyrocket; with another 2.5 billion due by 2050, mostly within the fast growing towns and cities of Africa and Asia. The pace and scale of this 21st century urban growth is unprecedented, and the way in which we respond will in many ways determine whether we are hardwired for environmental and social catastrophe, or for truly sustainable development.

The approach of The Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit (ISU) is to address the challenge in a systemic way, acting at different levels.

1. Address the urgent need to improve global understanding of urbanisation.

The complex dynamics of urbanisation are still remarkably poorly understood, as too are the ways in which these relate to sustainable development concerns, such as environmental degradation, food, water and energy security, public health, social cohesion and peace and security. A more comprehensive and multidisciplinary “science of cities” must now evolve in order to inform a systemic response to these challenges and the ISU is working with stakeholders across the world to articulate how this might best be done in the wake of the Habitat III meetings in October this year.

2. Improve the quality of urbanisation and urban planning.

We must help build stakeholder capacity to develop planning processes that prioritize sustainability and facilitate inclusive public participation. And, we must also help stakeholders to define and establish the governance frameworks necessary to implement these frameworks. Of particular concern is the rapid expansion of the world’s secondary cites and the ISU is helping the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community to launch an initiative to assist secondary cities across the Commonwealth to improve their planning capacity and to exchange their learning on implementation. In addition, a more joined-up approach to urban and rural development is also now needed in order to maximise vitally important synergies that exist between them. To this end the ISU has been working with stakeholders to underpin arguments for a more integrated, territorial approach to the governance of city-systems in the hope that this approach will be enshrined in the New Urban Agenda that will be the outcome of the Habitat III meeting.

3. Generate innovation and exchange knowledge for cities and local governments.

The combined efforts of city-network and local government organisations such as ICLEI, UCLG, the C-40 and The Climate Group’s Compact of States and Regionswho have aligned their activities to address climate changethrough the Compact of Mayors has been exemplary. However, given our increasing understanding of urbanisation (point 1), and our increasing understanding of the need for integrated and territorially coherent approaches (point 2), there is now significant opportunity for city networks to combine their efforts to address new challenges, for example; food and nutritional security. Over the past two-years, the ISU has been working behind-the-scenes with stakeholders including the FAO to help improve the coordination of effort in this area including through supporting the follow up to the Milan Urban Food Policy Pactthat was signed last year by over 120 cities from across the world – all committing to develop coherent and sustainable city food policy and planning processes and to exchanging information on what works and what obstacles stand in the way of further progress.

Of course, though cities are well placed to act and to prevail upon national government to act, they cannot do so without means of measurement that allow them to assess and monitor the impact of interventions. “Measuring What Matters” is of fundamental importance to improving governance at any level, but if we are to implement SDG 11 to “make our cities and human settlements inclusive, safe resilient and sustainable” a better understanding of how to measure the performance of our cities – and indeed the dynamics of urbanisation itself – is now urgently required.

You can follow this link to download the ISU’s Sustainable Urbanisation report

David Edwards is the Assistant Director of The Prince of Wales‘ International Sustainability Unit. 


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