Tacloban in the Philippines has now joined the growing list of cities – including New Orleans, Bangkok, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, and Port-au-Prince, to name just a few – pummeled in recent years by climate catastrophes. Many of the world’s largest cities, built on seacoasts and rivers, face the threat of rising sea levels and intensifying storms. So the new global development agenda now taking shape should empower cities to help lead the way to sustainable development.
Today, the share of urbanites is around 53 per cent and is this figure is likely to rise to around 67 per cent by 2050. Because per capita incomes are higher in cities than in rural areas, the world’s cities today are estimated to account for more than 80 per cent of global income.
Sustainable development offers a new concept for the world economy in the 21st century. Rather than focusing solely on income, sustainable development encourages cities, countries, and the world to focus simultaneously on three goals: economic prosperity, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. Achieving these targets will require good governance, public finance, and effective institutions.
Cities will be in the front lines of the battle for sustainable development. Not only do they face direct threats; they also have the best opportunities to identify and deliver solutions. As high-density, high-productivity settlements, cities can provide greater access to services of all kinds – including energy, water, health, education, finance, media, transport, recycling, and research – than can most rural areas. The great challenge, however, is to provide this access inclusively and sustainably.
A significant part of the solution will come through advanced technologies, information systems, and materials science. The information and communications revolution has spawned the idea of the ‘smart city’, which places the relevant technologies at the heart of systems that collect and respond to information: smart power grids, smart transport networks, smart buildings, and zoning.
Although the advances in materials science open the possibility of much more energy-efficient residences and commercial buildings, technology will be only part of the story. Cities need to upgrade their governance, to allow for a greater role for poorer and more marginalised communities and to enable much more effective coordination across city lines when a metropolitan area is home to many individual cities.
A wise political doctrine known as subsidiarity holds that public-policy challenges should be assigned to the lowest level of government able to address them, thereby ensuring maximum democratic participation in problem solving and the greatest opportunity to tailor solutions to genuine local needs.
The world’s governments are now negotiating the Sustainable Development Goals, which will guide the global development agenda from 2015 to 2030. In an important meeting on 25 September, the United Nations General Assembly agreed that the SDGs would be adopted at a global summit in September 2015, with the next two years used to select the priorities.
An urban SDG, promoting inclusive, productive, and resilient cities, would greatly empower tens of thousands of cities worldwide to take up the cause of sustainable development for their own citizens, their countries, and the planet.