The Fight for Sustainability Will be Won or Lost in Cities

  • 2015•09•19

    Robert Muggah and John de Boer

    The Global Goals

    This article is part of UNU’s “17 Days, 17 Goals” series, featuring research and commentary in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, 25-27 September 2015 in New York City.

    Goal #11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

    The United Nations just made history. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed to this month set out a bold and detailed global agenda to guide development for the next fifteen years. It is Goal #11 and its promotion of safer, more inclusive and resilient cities that makes the SDGs genuinely revolutionary. After all, two thirds of humanity will reside in urban settings by 2030. By 2050, roughly 6.4 billion people – almost the equivalent of the planet´s current population – will live in a city. The future success of all the SDGs resides, in large part, in cities.

    The ability of nation-states to tackle global problems such as climate change, poverty, and fragility will depend on how cities respond to these challenges. This is because cities account for at least 70% of total worldwide greenhouse gas emissions; are home to the highest concentrations of poverty; and tend to have higher homicide rates than rural areasMany mayors already recognize this reality and are already teaming up to tackle these interconnected challenges. An urban SDG can usefully empower city leaders to develop practical solutions to problems that have divided and paralysed their federal counterparts.

    While an urgent global priority, it was not at all certain that an “urban SDG” would emerge. Issues of cities and safety are not a typical mainstay of development — and both themes were largely absent from the erstwhile Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) established in 2000. Some critics were concerned that a focus on cities might divert attention and aid from rural areas. It was due to the dedicated campaigning of groups such as the World Urban Campaign, Cities Alliance, and UN-Habitat among others that these priorities were eventually taken onboard.

    So why is SDG #11 so unprecedented? Perhaps most importantly, it calls for more investment in cities and all human settlements, including slums, shanty-towns, ghettos, and favelas of the world’s most fragile cities. The focus on informal settlements is critical, since the proportion of people living there is massive, and growing. There are almost 1 billion people living in slums today, as compared to 650 million in 1990. This population will grow to almost 2 billion over the next three decades. Yet risk factors there are systematically underreported and underdiagnosed.

    Along with upgrading slums, SDG #11 emphasizes the critical role of adequate, safe, and affordable housing as well basic urban services. It also urges more investment in affordable transport, participatory planning, disaster risk planning, environmental protection, public spaces, and more resilient infrastructure. Many of these measures are known to have positive knock-on effects on well-being and living standards. Less is understood about the extent to which they contribute to the prevention of violence and improvements in safety. There is a general perception that improving housing and living conditions in low-income and informal areas should have positive violence prevention externalities, but the evidence base is thin.

    As the focus turns to implementing the SDGs, decision-makers must be mindful of what works and what does not. The impact of large-scale programmes intended to create housing, guarantee services, and upgrade slums on safety and security is mixed. This is not entirely surprising: these interventions were seldom (if ever) designed to prevent and reduce violence.

    More disconcerting, there is evidence of how some national programmes intended to improve public housing and basic services are instead captive to criminal markets. Gangs and militia routinely influence the management and direction of such interventions, especially in informal settlements. As a result, affordable housing, services, and upgrading initiatives are often associated in the public eye with increased levels of extortion, eviction, displacement, and violence.

    Nevertheless, there are also examples of how improved city housingservice delivery and slum conditions yielded positive violence prevention and urban safety externalities. Many of the positive examples are from Latin America and the Caribbean, among the world´s most urbanized societies. Take the case of Brazil´s celebrated public housing programme — Minha Casa Minha Vida — which aims to reach 6.75 million households (or 27 million people) by 2018. A recent study of the spatial distribution of new housing in relation to gini inequality and homicide shows some important violence prevention dividends. In other words, the introduction of more affordable housing appears to have robust effects in terms of reducing murder.

    Likewise, Brazil´s Bolsa Familia — conditional cash-transfer programme covering more than 12 million families, or 40 million people (most of whom live in cities) — has demonstrated promising outcomes in relation to human capital formation and crime prevention. For one, it has yielded positive effects on school enrollment rates, educational progression, and reducing extreme poverty and inequality. Studies have also shown how its expansion among 16–17 year-olds has also generated statistically significant negative effects on crime. This is due to improved income effects as well as the way it results in changed peer groups.

    Meanwhile, Mexico´s conditional cash transfer programme — Oportunidades — has generated important violence prevention effects, especially among intimate partners. In Mexico, roughly 11 million women report a violent episode in their lifetime due to spousal or partner altercations. Oportunidades has been accessed by over 4 million Mexican families since its inception in 1999. There are indications that women in households eligible for participation are less likely to suffer psychological violence, and this effect becomes even stronger when these households participate in the programme.

    One of the most innovative cases of housing and service improvements and urban upgrades comes from Medellin. Once one of the world´s most violent cities, Medellin has seen homicide rates drop by over 80% over the past two decades. This was due in part to the initiative of a string of mayors who pursued so-called “social urbanism” and deliberately integrated the poorest areas of the city with the centre and outlying areas. The city introduced a cable car system, new metro, high-quality libraries and schools, as well as more participatory forms of engagement for the cities 2.2 million residents. While replication is challenging, the experience offers lessons to cities around the world.

    There are many promising examples of how to convert the aspirations of SDG #11 into reality. Interventions must account for the particular physical and spatial environment of cities and slums with a focus on recovering public spaces and bringing fragmented societies together. They should also build ways to improve social interactions in neighbourhoods, including through consultation mechanisms to avoid their being captive to criminal interests.

    Fragile cities will become more resilient if residents, including slum dwellers, are themselves advocates and change agents. If armed with the right evidence, the right tools, and inclusive consultation processes, the real potential of the urban SDG will be unlocked.

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    Robert Muggah and John de Boer are currently overseeing a project on fragile cities in partnership with the UNU and the World Bank. 

    This article was originally published as “The sustainable development fight will be won or lost in our cities” by the World Economic Forum’s Agenda on September 24, 2015. Reprinted with permission.