An historic urban moment to be seized!

David Simon, Director, Mistra Urban Futures, Chalmers University, Gothenburg, and Professor of Development Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London

2030 Policy Endorsement of a Sustainable Future: Implications for Urban Research

I agree closely with the contents of the paper by Susan Parnell, Owen Crankshaw and Michele Acuto. Drawing on diverse sources and Parnell’s first-hand experience as a participant in some of the processes surveyed, the paper illustrates well the structural, institutional and political complexities involved. These, in turn, reveal why moving forward to implement and monitor Agenda 2030, the New Urban Agenda (NUA) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly Goal 11 and relevant elements of cognate Goals, will be particularly challenging.

My purpose in this comment is, therefore, not to contest elements of their argument but to emphasise four salient points about the current state of play and to propose a way forward that is both straightforward and practicable, and which could thus greatly assist all stakeholders by promoting a unity of purpose.

First, it is vital that all those engaged or with interests in promoting urban sustainability keep focused on the essentials and not lose the unprecedented and historic opportunity that the build-up to Quito represents. The process to get ‘here’ has, quite literally, been a struggle or, more accurately, a series of intersecting struggles. If, for any of a number of reasons, the moment is lost – as many opposing vested interests would dearly love – there will be no going back.

Second, a key element of this historic moment is that the NUA and urban SDG (like the SDGs as a whole) in effect provide the urban components of Agenda 2030 and are framed in terms of the imperative of achieving global sustainable (urban) development. Previous UN ‘development’ agendas have focused principally on low and lower-middle income countries. In this sense, the shift from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to SDGs symbolises far more than simple succession. Agenda 2030, the NUA and SDGs make unambiguously clear that sustainable (urban) development is everyone’s challenge. Indeed, what needs to be done in OECD countries in terms of decarbonisation, retrofitting and redesign of the urban fabric is no less formidable than building sustainably out of urban poverty in new and existing urban areas elsewhere.

Third, the importance of the current urban focus reflects not only the need for transitions and transformations to urban sustainability per se but also the centrality of this process to the attainment of overall societal sustainable development. Some cities might appear superficially as islands of concrete, brick, steel, glass, tarmac, mud blocks, corrugated sheeting, wood and plastic,[1] but this would be misleading. Cities are central nodes in economic, socio-cultural, demographic, political and social-ecological systems and flows that integrate them inextricably into their surrounding regions (‘hinterlands’) and national and transnational spaces. What happens in urban areas has profound implications beyond their boundaries as well as inside them. Fundamentally, rural sustainable development is no more feasible without urban sustainability than vice versa.

Finally, if this is the urban century, we need to be attentive to urban areas of all sizes in all locations. We tend to use ’cities’ as a short-hand for urban areas generally. However, since most policy debates, even in the Agenda 2030, NUA and SDG processes, take place in large cities (usually national capitals or commercial hubs) and are dominated by agencies, city leaders, professional elites and other ‘stakeholders’ based there, implicit meanings and understandings tend to drift quickly towards actually inferring large cities. These, after all, also tend to dominate the headlines about explosive urban growth, the increasing number of megacities outside of Euro-America, prestige symbols of urban modernity (including gleaming transport hubs, elite megaprojects and, most curious of all, the great phallic race to erect the tallest, most virile freestanding tower in the world), and, at present, unwanted flows of desperate migrants and refugees from other regions. Nevertheless, the dynamics of urban growth have already been shifting and much current and future growth will occur in secondary, intermediate and smaller urban centres. Their sustainable planning, development and management are therefore fundamental to sustainable urban and societal futures.

So how, given this diversity, complexity and sometimes strong opposition from interests vested in the status quo, can the prospects for the urban century to become the urban sustainability century be maximised? The challenge is formidable but the key almost certainly lies with integrated (‘joined up’) thinking and action of the following elements:

First, using incentives for a limited period and effective and enforced regulations appropriate to local conditions to encourage movement towards urban economic greening on a clear timetable. This would have the purpose of demonstrating quickly – as the evidence is showing increasingly clearly in many parts of the world – that such transitions provide and present substantial net economic opportunities rather than survival threats to the construction, urban transport and other sectors often associated with opposition to sustainability transitions. If they can be enrolled as supporters exploiting new opportunities, a key obstacle will have been overcome.

Second, mobilising civil society, community groups, indigenous knowledges and other forms of ‘bottom-up’ pressure on local, regional and national authorities to promote sustainability in line with the new undertakings made in adopting Agenda 2030, the NUA and SDGs. Even authoritarian governments, including in China, are beginning to show movement in this area, also haunted by numerous domestic environmental disasters.

Third, involving UN and other international agencies and international NGOs like ICLEI and UCLG, to promote proactive local urban leadership and mutual international learning and to engage with local and national leaderships. Research around the world is showing increasingly that such multilevel governance, while often difficult to achieve, provides a crucial mechanism for sustainability transitions, precisely because no level of government or mode of governance can do it alone.

Fourth, in support of this, deploying substantive participatory methods, including new forms of co-design and co-production to engage diverse stakeholder groups actively in locally appropriate and relevant research and governance, can play important roles in overcoming entrenched conflicts and institutional antagonisms.

Finally, following from the previous point and simultaneously coming back to my starting point, there is a straightforward way to bring the currently rather separate Agenda 2030, NUA and SDGs together that offers a path forwards that will enhance their prospects of success. This is simply to set up the SDG implementation process as the monitoring and evaluation framework for Agenda 2030 and the NUA. Despite its positive and progressive content, the NUA Zero Draft was long and complex and lacked any clear implementation mechanism or process beyond, in effect, relying on national governments to adopt it and proceed in their own ways. Conversely, the SDGs offer a holistic set of metrics for gauging progress towards sustainability on approaching 200 variables. However, the challenge of implementing the SDGs around the world are formidable, with many voices objecting to the complexity and cost. Such objections could readily be assuaged if they were linked to relevant aspects of Agenda 2030 and the NUA to monitor and evaluate progress rather than being implemented in isolation. In addition to Goal 11’s overt urban focus, numerous indicators in other Goals are pertinent to urban areas and were refined during the finalisation process to ensure compatibility. In addition to giving the SDGs a substantive role within the global sustainable development agenda, this would also ensure that urban progress was ‘everybody’s business’ within multilevel governance frameworks.


[1] Although probably unfamiliar in most of the global North, it is important to acknowledge the materials which provide the shelter for significant proportions – and sometimes even the majority – of inhabitants in many urban areas of the global South.