• Editorial

Sustainable Cities and Communities

Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable


SDG 11 aims to make cities more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. This includes ensuring access for all people to adequate housing and basic services; ensuring accessible and sustainable urbanization and transport; and safeguarding the world's cultural and natural heritage, among other targets.


55% of the world's population, some 4.2 billion people, live in cities and towns[1] - of these, approximately 60% live in cities with more than 300,000 inhabitants, equivalent to one third of the global population. This figure will increase, so that almost 2.5 billion of the people will be living in urban centers by 2050[2].

While the growth of cities provides opportunities, well-being and prosperity for many people, it also generates great economic, social and environmental inequalities. One billion people live in informal settlements and slums (mostly in East and South-East Asia)[3]. These are densely populated, poorly sanitized and exposed to violence and social exclusion. This trend, far from declining, has increased. While the percentage of people living in slums declined between 2000 (28%) and 2014 (23%), it has been increasing since then (especially in North and Sub-Saharan Africa and West Asia), reaching 24% in 2018[4].

On the other hand, although the world's cities occupy only 3 % of the total land area, the UN stresses that 70 % of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from urban centers, most of which are poorly designed, with insufficient public transport and high energy consumption. This means that, since 2016, 90% of city dwellers breathe air that does not meet the standards set by the World Health Organization[5].

Yet metropolitan areas drive economic growth, contributing around 60% of global GDP[6]. In fact, UN-Habitat says that well-governed and planned cities can help combat global challenges such as poverty (SDG 1) and climate change (SDG 13). Because the world has room for a different kind of city: more compact, sustainable and resilient to the effects of climate change.

These hubs - proposed by the UN in its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 9) - base their economic growth and the well-being of their citizens on sectors such as innovation, research, the construction of sustainable infrastructures and a more inclusive and environmentally friendly industry. The concept of sustainable infrastructures refers to systems and facilities that provide essential services to citizens - roads, bridges, telephone towers, energy generation and transport facilities - and that comply with the principles of sustainability in every sense, i.e., that they are environmentally friendly from start to finish, as well as sustainable in economic, financial, social and institutional terms.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has hit cities particularly hard: more than 90% of Corona Virus cases occur in urban areas. The pandemic hits particularly hard the one billion slum dwellers who have no or limited access to water, sanitation and waste management. This is compounded by overcrowded public transport and poor sanitation facilities. Reliable basic services, safe public transport and open spaces are necessary to ensure the health of urban populations.

Only half of the world's urban population has access to public transport, according to 2019 data from 610 cities in 95 countries. Reliable and accessible public transport not only reduces air pollution and traffic, but also promotes productivity and inclusion.

The rapid growth of cities and megacities - hubs with more than 10 million inhabitants; today there are 34 and they are home to 13% of the world's population (UN, 2020) and, by 2035, the UN estimates that there will be 48 - makes it imperative to pay special attention to urban centers. For this reason, making cities more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable is SDG 11 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in September 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda.

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of public health systems, affordable housing, waste service and sanitation, water infrastructure, and public transport. Meanwhile, migrants, homeless, slum duelers, and informal inhabitants have been most affected since they are more vulnerable. Safe and efficient public transport is essential to control the pandemic especially in big cities but partial and total closures currently are adding to the issue. Promoting non-motorized transportation such as walking and cycling could enhance the damage control of the COVID and increase health. More open public places and recreational areas could be helpful too. There is a reconsideration needed in urban configurations to respond to the current and prepare for the future risks and damages.

[1] United Nations. 2019

[2] United Nations. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. https://www.un.org/en/desa/around-25-billion-more-people-will-be-living-cities-2050-projects-new-un-report

[3] United Nations. Report 2021

[4] United Nations. Report 2020

[5] United Nations. Report 2020

[6] Ebd.