World Cities Day: Cities at the Centre of Global Sustainability Crisis
Dr. Alexei Trundle, Prof Michele Acuto, Ms Jessie Briggs and Ms Giorgia Fornari, University of Melbourne
October 31 is recognised by the United Nations as World Cities Day, with the 2020 theme Valuing Our Communities and Cities.
Cities have been the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic, with little discrimination between more and less developed urban environments. More than 95 per cent of total cases have occurred in urban areas, while a lack of access to safe drinking water and health services continue to heighten risks for the more than one billion people living in urban slums and informal settlements around the world.
Even before COVID-19 had become a global pandemic, the 2030 Agenda was tracking poorly. At the end of 2019, a global snapshot of progress towards the SDGs showed that for even the most fundamental of development objectives – like ending poverty – the world was ‘off track’.
Other measures were found to vary by region and country grouping. For example, achievement of targets relating to urban air quality in country groupings as diverse as those of the OECD and Pacific Island Small Island Developing States were offset by declines in other groups such as those of Sub-Saharan Africa as well as Central and Southern Asia.
In the intervening ten months, COVID-19 has set global development back decades. Obvious impacts are reflected in headline figures, like the addition of an estimated 71 million more people suffering extreme poverty in 2020 alone.
Even the measurement of progress towards the SDGs is under threat. Data collection for both national planning processes and the measurement of progress towards the SDGs (in the form of 231 unique indicators) is primarily undertaken by the national statistics offices (NSOs) of each country.
But a survey of NSOs by the World Bank and the UN found that 72 per cent had partially or fully stopped face-to-face data collection in July (down from 96 per cent in May), with more than half unsure of when data collection would resume.
This compounds major shifts in these indicators due to COVID-19, with the pandemic sending measures, like unemployment, off the charts and drastically shifting patterns of urban movement and industrial activity.
Despite this, the urgency of meeting the goals has, if anything, increased. More people are being left behind than ever as a result of the pandemic’s economic impacts. As of 2015, four billion people lived in cities, making up 54 per cent of the world’s population. By 2030 this figure is projected to grow by a further one billion people, with the bulk of this growth occurring in the Global South.
Although cities only cover three per cent of the Earth’s land mass, they generate 80 per cent of global economic output and, relatedly, account for more than 70 per cent of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.
So any transformative global agenda must be localised within our current urban fabric, but the local decision-making for the ongoing expansion and renewal of cities must also be driven by these wider sustainable development considerations.