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The Urban Age: How can our cities drive sustainable innovation globally?

Updated: Sep 18, 2022


By 2050, 7 out of 10 people globally will live in cities. As 80% of GDP is already generated in cities, our urban hubs are vital for the path to sustainability. How can cities continue to lead the way on the path to 2030 and beyond?


Where are cities in the Sustainable Development Goals?


As so many of us already live in cities - with the global urban population only projected to rise in both developed and especially developing countries - of course, all the Sustainable Development Goals have relevance for the Urban Age.


SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities - brings this into specific focus. Its core aim is to "make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable".


This is reinforced by the UN Habitat Plan for SDG Cities. with an estimated budget of US$208.5 million over the first 10 years, the initial focus will be on urban sustainability in the Least Developed, Low- and Middle-Income countries.


However, as with virtually every SDG, there has been a negative impact as a result of the global COVID pandemic. The lives of the 1 billion urban residents living in slums have been worsened - and that is concentrated in Eastern and South East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Central and South Asia.


Half of the world's urban population still lack access to convenient public transport and while 156 countries have now established National Urban Policies, only half are being implemented.


However, we can point to a number of emerging initiatives and networks of cities that are aiming to turn this around.


Where are the positive examples of urban leadership in sustainability?


“In cities, we are the doers, in contrast to national governments who are the delayers, kicking the can down the road to 2040 or 2050,” -Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, speaking at the COP26 in Glasgow November 2021

City mayors are certainly crucial agents. The Rockefeller Foundation recognised this with its decade-long Resilient Cities programme, which seeded 100 resilience officers in the mayor's offices of global cities.


Their leadership can drive urban planning including making cities more walkable. Jeff Speck's work on this shows how not only does this improve the health and wellbeing of urban citizens, it also forges a stronger sense of community and encourages the clustering of independent businesses and sustainability.


Changing the urban landscape though is hard. In London only 9% of road space is usable by pedestrians; while in Auckland the shopping centres lose an estimated NZ$11.7million because of the lack of incentive to walk.


The city of Wellington has for example developed a 10 year plan with the New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities and in consultation with the public. This prioritises planning decisions in favour of city living and discouraging suburban development reliant on car use., plus fully-funding new cycleways.


Finally, Helsinki has an ambitious plan to be a 'circular city' by 2025. This sets out the ambition and the road map, for the city to be a leader in the sustainable, circular and sharing economy. This is closely linked to supporting innovation and start-ups for sustainable development and it is no surprise that Helsinki was the second city in the world and the first European city to commit to the Voluntary Local Reviews of the SDGs, delivering the first review in 2019.

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How can funders support urban sustainability?


Corporate foundations - as with the Rockefeller Foundation's programme on Resilient Cities - can be key catalysts to unlock the ambitions of cities and to support urban leadership to priorities sustainability.


Bloomberg Philanthropies are currently supporting a global network of cities to focus on how streets are used and to support initiatives that prioritise sustainable mobility. Its director, urban designer Sky Duncan, has previously worked in the New York City Department of City Planning.


She is clear this is about giving people a choice, and that access to mass transportation is undervalued as a public good compared with education or health.


Cities have long been asking the wrong question – how can we move cars? – when they should be asking: how can we move people?' -Sky Duncan, Director, Global Designing Cities Initiative

Similarly, Alfred Herrhasuen Gesellschaft, a project of Deutsche Bank, has been supporting the global Urban Age project since 2005. Led by LSE Cities, Urban Age conferences have been held in cities across five continents, including Addis Ababa, Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, London, Hong Kong, Istanbul, São Paulo, Mumbai, Mexico City, Johannesburg, Berlin, Shanghai and New York City. Building from these, the Urban Age Task Force, launched in 2019, is now working with city governments globally to help deliver sustainable urban change at the environmental, social and spatial level.

Why do city networks matter for sustainability?

As well as accessing funding and sharing best practices, cities can also form powerful coalitions of 'doers' as well as advocating for the integration of SDG-aligned sustainable development into the heart of urban planning.

The 2020 EU Circular Cities Declaration is a good example of this. The 20 original signatories have now swelled to 60 in 20 European countries (including Glasgow and Wolverhampton in the UK).

The future is urban, the future is circular?

"While cities are major contributors to climate change, material consumption and waste generation, they are also cradles of innovation and socio-economic transformation." -EU Circular Cities

Cities are both fantastically unique and also share distinctive characteristics in this urban age. By building on both, and working globally and with across partners including the private sector, we have a chance to deliver on SDGs for the growing urban population, with equity, profitability, and sustainability.



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