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SDG11 on cities – what can its role be in foreign policy and sustaining peace?

42 of the world’s 100 largest economies are cities1. Local and subnational governments change the landscape of international relations by increasingly participating in global city networks and even signing international agreements2. At the same time, decentralisation does not necessarily contribute to peace and stability. Such a transition requires the right governance structures to be in place and calls for much stronger policy coordination between central government and decentralised structures. Cities face some of the most challenging trends: rising inequality, population growth, human mobility and natural disaster risks often converge in urban settings. But cities also have the potential to become laboratories for coping with these pressures in innovative ways.

The critical importance of cities for core foreign policy objectives

Around the world, cities become increasingly crucial for national security and stability. Where vulnerability, economic and political relevance and global pressures converge, fragile cities can pose a threat to the stability of entire countries. City fragility is not a steady state but occurs due to an aggregation of risks and stresses. Several factors can have a destabilising effect on cities, including the level of inequality, unemployment, crime, pollution, rapid urban population growth, conflict events, and natural hazards. Literature suggests that more cities are fragile than expected. While high levels of city fragility occur primarily in low-income and conflict-affected settings (especially in Asia and Africa), where the pace of urbanisation is fastest, urban fragility is also observable in medium and high-income countries. For instance, over half of European cities have a medium level of fragility3.

Cities already host more than half of the world's population, and much of the population growth will take place in urban settings in low and middle-income countries across the global South4. By 2050, 70% of the global population will live in cities5. These developments often go along with weak governance, poverty, inequality, and marginalisation, decreasing cities’ resilience to shocks and pressures. While the economic success of cities is often highlighted, the decrease in global poverty rates is accompanied by growing income inequalities in 75% of the world’s cities in the last two decades6. Many cities cannot provide enough jobs and livelihoods for growing populations. Moreover, much of the urban growth is expected in informal settlements (see target 11.1), where almost one billion people live today. Here, provision of basic rights and services like water, energy, and housing is even more challenging for municipal authorities, which affects many dimensions of the wellbeing of the inhabitants. There is emerging literature showing a relationship between political and economic exclusion experienced by the urban poor and the propensity to be recruited by criminal entities.

The concentration of the population, economic activity, and infrastructure also means that the impact of environmental change can be especially devastating in cities. Projections from the UN and other international bodies point to increased frequency and severity of natural disasters occurring in towns and cities (see target 11.5). The impacts of climate change are likely to be compounded by existing vulnerabilities in urban areas. This presents a significant challenge for the international development and humanitarian system; both in the scale and complexity of responding to urban development and disasters and in operating in an environment in which traditional humanitarian actors do not have significant experience and expertise. The built environment and urban planning can play an essential role in the fostering of inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable cities. For example, green urban planning (see target 11.7) has been shown to effectively support adaptation through controlling urban flooding. However, there is a lack of understanding of what these spaces should look like, how they should be developed, and who they should be created by and for whom, especially in fragile and conflict-affected urban settings.

Another significant trend that converges in cities is migration. While many developed countries are already highly urbanised, in developing countries urbanisation will continue due to rural-urban migration. We will see increased rural-urban movement within countries, for example, due to decreasing agricultural productivity, more labour migration, and more frequent or longer lasting circular migration patterns. Already today disasters and violence have caused 50 percent of a total of 51 million refugees and internally displaced persons to flee to urban areas7. With more people moving to cities, and with many cities already facing increased vulnerability to climate and disaster risks as well as experiencing existing social, economic and political fragility, these dynamics will be a major determinant of urban resilience. For instance, a disproportionate share of slum/shack dwellers are migrants8 and are exposed to more significant climate change impacts9.

Illustration: converging pressures in urban areas of Guatemala

How cities manage the converging pressures will be crucial for stabilisation and countering non-state armed groups. Rapid urbanisation in post-conflict societies with rural youth migrating to the cities is often linked to youth criminality and their increased vulnerability to illicit activities. In Guatemala, rural-urban migration is already putting a strain on the receiving urban areas. Many of the urban areas are largely dominated by youth street gangs (‘pandillas’ or ‘maras’) that create a culture of violence. While urban security and anti-crime policies are needed to address this, they are not enough. Connecting the urban poor and those on the periphery of cities to the urban economy, its institutions, governance systems, and services, will be the key to improving livelihood security (see targets 11.1, 11.2, 11.3, 11.a). Some cities already have valuable lessons to share. For instance, the city of Medellin - once one of the most fragile and dangerous cities of the world - has increased urban resilience by expanding public transport to connect formerly neglected areas with the rest of the city and reinstalling social services in these areas.

International efforts to improve urban governance

On the global level, several frameworks now exist along with the 2030 Agenda that offer some real opportunities to promote resilience: the Sendai Framework for Action, the New Urban Agenda and the UN Peacebuilding Commission’s Sustaining Peace Agenda. The international community needs to maximise the synergies between these frameworks and to close the gaps with regards to cities, sustainability challenges, and fragility. Foreign policy can help promote this, putting urban fragility risks on the agenda.

Integrated perspectives and approaches to urban development and planning and management that cut across thematic silos and maximise synergies between different sectors will be the keys to improving urban resilience (see target 11.b). Sustainable and resilient urban development requires municipal authorities to plan in a long-term, inclusive and integrated way to overcome silos. It is important to take into account the people, the problems, and the trade-offs that come with ‘nexus’ approaches. However, in fragile cities, these processes or capacity to implement these processes are often absent or weak, so financial and technical assistance in this area is needed (see target 11.c). At the same time, humanitarian and development agencies might also need to make their approaches more integrated and suitable to the urban level.

Global and national efforts to address conflict and fragility risks must be transposed to the urban scale, as highlighted by SDG11. For this, dynamic multi-level approaches involving all key stakeholders in processes relating to urban development are imperative (see target 11.3). In the humanitarian realm, the need for greater localisation was recognised at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit. It will require a transformation of the way in which the UN system and many donor agencies operate, and it will need greater contextual knowledge of city actors – mayors, urban dwellers, municipalities and urban conflict dynamics. Sustained engagement with civil society and local communities – with an acknowledgment of the highly heterogeneous nature of urban communities and recognising the multiple identity interests an individual or group may hold – will be particularly valuable in urban environments.

Foreign policy can help leverage the potential of city networks to contribute to sustainable development effectively. In recent years, the number of international city associations has proliferated (more than 125 at present), including ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), Cities Alliance and C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40)10 . While their work in the areas of sustainability and climate was for a long time the most visible, topics such as peacebuilding are gaining traction – a recent study found that 10.6% of networks engage with this topic. Expanding the focus of city networks to address issues related to security, resilience, and fragility more broadly could be beneficial11. The Municipal Alliance for Peace in the Middle East, which fosters cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian municipalities, is an example of such an effort.


Making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable as mandated by SGD11 is a tremendous opportunity to contribute to peace. Foreign policy should both look at urban fragility risks in detail and seek to leverage municipal agency to build resilience. For this, connecting policy processes in different sectors, coordinating action on multiple levels of governance and adapting approaches to urban settings, putting a strong emphasis on inclusion of vulnerable urban dwellers, remains imperative.


[This article originally appeared as part of adelphi's policy brief "A Foreign Policy Perspective on the Sustainable Development Goals" (2018) and it's comprehensive annex.]



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