This one chart shows the radical changes needed to achieve sustainable cities

Kuala Lumpur played host to the recent World Urban Forum. Image: Getty.

Rose Molokoane picked up the microphone at the World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur in February, and challenged the room full of policymakers, practitioners and researchers.

“I’ve been a part of every World Urban Forum, and government is always talking about needing to work together better,” said the deputy president of the Shack/Slum Dwellers International. The audience, many of them from government themselves, sat up a little straighter.

We have heard leaders talk about trust, about integration, about inclusion, she continued. “Well, we don’t know who they’re talking about because they’re not talking to us.”

Going the Wrong Way

Molokoane is one of 881m people living in slums, without access to basic services like water, sanitation and housing. If current patterns of urban growth continue, we project that the number of slum dwellers will reach 1.2bn by 2050.

This is not the only worrying trend in cities. More than 70 per cent of carbon emissions from final energy use can be attributed to urban areas. As urban populations and economies grow, greenhouse gas emissions are rising steadily.

Cities are also becoming more sprawling: the amount of land being used for urban purposes is expected to triple between 2000 and 2050. This is leading to the loss of natural ecosystems and productive agricultural land. Sprawling cities are also less energy efficient, as residents have to spend more time travelling to reach jobs, services and amenities.

These worrying trends are all obvious in one chart.

Three worrying trends: an increasing number of people living in poverty, rising greenhouse gas emissions and sprawling growth. How can cities “bend the curve” towards more inclusive and sustainable development? Image: author provided.

Bending the Curve

Molokoane and other activists were involved in drafting the Sustainable Development Goals, Paris Agreement and New Urban Agenda. These global agreements envision a more equitable and sustainable world.

But cities are not on track to achieve these goals. The number of people living in urban poverty is increasing, as are cities’ environmental footprint. There is therefore a need for transformational change to ‘bend the curve’ towards greener, more inclusive urban development.

The Sustainable Development Goals commit to ending poverty in all its forms by 2030. To realise this aspiration, governments need to provide under-served urban residents with decent housing, safe drinking water, reliable sanitation and clean energy. Ultimately, the number of slum dwellers should be declining by 50-60m people a year even as urban populations rise.

The Paris Agreement commits to eliminate net global emissions by 2050. To decarbonize cities, governments will need to mobilise large-scale investment in renewable energy, public transport, energy-efficient buildings and solid waste management. Much of this investment will be needed in urban areas, which need to reduce emissions by 4-5 per cent every year.

The way that urban land is used will be key to achieving all of these global agreements. In more compact, connected cities, people have better access to jobs, services and amenities. They also don’t have to travel as far, which reduces transport emissions that cause climate change and affect air quality. Cities therefore need to avoid sprawl and pursue more efficient, inclusive urban forms.

Rose Molokoane speaking at the World Urban Forum. Image: Valeria Gelman, WRI.

From Agenda to Action

The Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement were signed in 2015; the New Urban Agenda, in 2016. Now is the time to move from setting goals to taking action. But it’s important to be clear-eyed about the radical change needed to deliver these targets.

‘Bending the curve’ will require more than incremental policy change or individual infrastructure investments. There is a need to shape urban growth in ways that meet the needs of city dwellers, reduce resource consumption and sustain economic development.

Cities are where these changes must happen – but cities can’t do it alone. National governments need to create enabling frameworks that coordinate all the different actors in cities. Private finance will be key to meeting the shortfall in infrastructure investment.


And communities like Molokoane’s must be involved in planning and implementation. After all, it is residents themselves who best know their city and must live with the consequences after all the conferences end.

Sarah Colenbrander is a senior researcher with the International Institute for Environment and Development and Global Programme Lead with the Coalition for Urban Transitions.

Ani Dasgupta is the global director of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, WRI’s program that galvanizes action to help cities grow more sustainably and improve quality of life in developing countries around the world.

Special thanks to Catlyne Haddaoui, research analyst, Coalition for Urban Transitions.

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.