Urban Transformation

Four ways cities must harness the UN's Sustainable Development Goals to build back after COVID

A favela in Rio de Janeiro

City authorities are now focusing on SDGs #3 (health) and #8 (work) in the COVID-19 recovery period. Image: Pixabay

Francesco Papa
Consultant, UrbanDNA
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Urban Transformation?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

• Cities are the dominant force of change for human societies.

• Cities, not nations, should secure the SDGs for the world.

• COVID-19 has given a stimulus for cities to push harder on many SDGs.

Where the majority of the world’s population now live, cities will play a leading role in the drive towards a more sustainable future. Powerhouses of economic growth, they consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70% of global carbon emissions.

The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are vital to achieving a prosperous future for all. Only one, SDG #11, explicitly addresses cities – but in fact, 65% of the SDG targets can only be accomplished if cities and regions get involved.

Have you read?

COVID-19 has brought the SDGs’ importance even more clearly into focus. Given the severity of the crisis, one might expect cities to abandon them in order to concentrate on the pandemic. Interestingly, instead of this, cities are reporting a shift in priorities: Local authorities are now emphasizing health & well-being (SDG #3), and decent work & economic growth (SDG #8).

Only SDG #11 directly impacts cities – but many of the others are concerned with them too
Only SDG #11 directly impacts cities – but many of the others are concerned with them too Image: UN

However, cities worldwide are falling behind on delivering overall the 2030 agenda. After five years, the SDGs are still not on the agenda of cities in a “business as usual” sense. So how can cities overcome this? New research reveals that:

1. Cities should approach the SDGs step by step. City leaders recognize that their attention needs to extend beyond SDG #11 (cities). But trying to tackle all the SDGs at once can be overwhelming and actually hold cities back. Cities should approach the journey component by component. Allan Macleod, a young SDGs leader who has worked on Bristol's One City Plan, recommends concentrating on specific goals like #13 (Climate Action) as part of a "bottom-up approach" that will achieve more concrete results than a "top-down" one that attempts to get everything done at once.

2. Being accountable for SDGs does not necessarily mean extra work; more an adjustment of focus. SDGs can be easily aligned with current city priorities. For example, New York City pioneered the Voluntary Local Review for SDGs, a tool for cities to report directly to the UN on their efforts to achieve the goals. According to Penny Abeywardena, the Commissioner for International Affairs and a key figure behind the review, aligning the city’s green plan with the SDGs was relatively simple..

3. Cities must share SDG successes and failures. City action on the SDGs is not well-documented. Experiences are insufficiently and inconsistently captured, variably communicated, and often recognized under a different agenda. Yet learning from past experiences and failures is critical to success. Cities need to document and share their local experiences on furthering the SDG agenda. This will inspire other places and help accelerate action across the globe.


How is the World Economic Forum supporting the development of cities and communities globally?

4. The voice of women and young people needs to be heard to drive the SDGs agenda. Most capital city leaders in the world are men over 50. While older generations hold a wealth of experiences, more balanced and inclusive governance mechanisms must be sought in cities to develop solutions that work for everyone. Helsingborg in Sweden, for example, has created a youth council to engage people in local sustainable development – an easy set-up that can be replicated anywhere.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Urban TransformationSustainable DevelopmentClimate Action
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Cities drive global prosperity – but the way they do that is changing

Matthew Cooper and Marco Fengler

June 19, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum