Our Perspectives


Cities will be big winners in 2015

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Kathmandu after the earthquakeDharahara, Kathmandu after earthquake in April 2015. Photo: Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi /UNDP Nepal

In just a few days, the international community will meet in New York to finalize the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In doing so, countries will roll out the path forward for the next 15 years.

With a human population that is increasingly urban, a focus on cities and settlements is not only welcome but necessary. Having seen first-hand the fragility of many of our cities, I am thrilled that Goal 11 focuses on urban resilience.

The numbers speak for themselves: nearly 54 percent of the global population already lives in urban areas and that figure is expected to reach nearly 66 percent by 2050. But the flipside of great growth is great vulnerability, and cities and urban areas find themselves uniquely threatened by both disaster risks and climate change.

I saw for myself the devastation that can transpire in urban centres, especially those that are rapidly growing, when going to support our recovery teams in Nepal after the earthquake of 25 April. Having worked in Mexico before returning to UNDP New York Headquarters, I have also seen how serious, risk-informed urban planning allows a megalopolis to build back better, and ensure that future earthquakes wouldn't be nearly as devastating. The same sensation is omnipresent in Japan, with their safe building codes and public awareness.

It isn't only megacities and urban areas that require support. Small settlements, especially those along exposed coastlines or in fault zones, are vulnerable to natural hazards and the impacts of climate change. Just this year, we have seen Vanuatu heavily impacted by a cyclone and Nepal devastated by twin earthquakes. In the latter case, I also traveled to the hardest-hit rural areas of Nepal and saw countless farmers' homes, village schools and country infrastructure that had been leveled.

Strengthening urban resilience will also facilitate efforts to eradicate poverty. Poor and marginalized populations are moving to cities at record rates, resulting in the urbanization of poverty and inequalities. It is estimated that income inequalities in cities have increased dramatically since 1980. Nearly one third of the urban dwellers in the developing world (some 863 million people) live in slums and informal settlements.

Yet urbanization also presents an opportunity – to formulate a global socio-economic development path that is equitable, inclusive, risk-informed and just. As cities grow, we can ensure that they use their tremendous financial, intellectual and cultural clout to ensure that existing infrastructure is improved while new infrastructure is built with an eye toward minimizing risk.

So what should sustainable urban development look like? Ideally, it would mean that:

  • The urban- and local-governance systems are equipped to make climate and disaster risk-informed development choices;

  • Planning and implementation among different sectors and different levels of government are streamlined to form a single, comprehensive development process;

  • Policies ranging from land-use to energy production are based on a long-term and sustainable vision for growth and prosperity;

  • Communities, their representative institutions, and other key stakeholders – like the private sector and civil society – are engaged with and inform measures to decrease risk; and

  • Urban planning must not only keep pace with urban development, but anticipate the various exposures and vulnerabilities that will result from exploding urban populations.

The SDGs are building on the success of the MDGs, learning where the gaps were and recalibrating efforts to reflect the new international context. In a way, all of the 2015 processes are geared toward such recalibration, and the end result, we hope, will be a reinvigorated, more finely honed push for sustainable development. I am confident that cities and human settlements will prove to be some of 2015's biggest winners.

An extended version of this post was originally published in the Huffington Post. Read it here.

Magdy Martínez-Solimán Crisis response Agenda 2030 Urbanization Inclusive growth Poverty reduction and inequality Sustainable development

UNDP Around the world