Relevant reading

Remaking cities

Urban development and urbanisation in general should be at the top of the global policy agenda. Sustainable urban transformation is essential for achieving global climate goals, but it will only happen if we embrace an entirely new way of considering, planning and building cities.
China has experienced a tremendous construction boom in recent years. Model in the Museum of Beijing City Planning in the Chinese capital. picture-alliance/robertharding China has experienced a tremendous construction boom in recent years. Model in the Museum of Beijing City Planning in the Chinese capital.

In 2050, around 70 % of the world population will live in cities. This tremendous urban growth necessitates that we build a city for 1 million people every week, with an average investment volume of around $ 10,000 per family. Time is thus a critical factor, and so is the way we build. China, for example, has recently used more concrete for construction purposes in three years than the USA in the entire 20th century. This path is neither sustainable nor keeping with the times.

Using conventional construction materials for necessary infrastructure would alone consume three quarters of the currently available C02 budget, if we want to limit the rise in global temperature to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The goals of the Climate Agreement adopted by the UN members in Paris last December would become unattainable, as would improvements in social welfare. In 2010, a billion people were already living in squalid and inhumane circumstances in developing countries. Without a change in trend, this number will grow to around 1.6 billion people, according to the UN Habitat 2016 World Cities Report.

The speed and scale of urbanisation requires the “remaking of cities”. An entirely new approach to considering, planning and building cities is needed as soon as possible. That is the key message of a flagship report published by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) (see interview with Dirk Messner). Only a profound paradigm shift will set the course for a sustainable urban transformation and ensure that the challenges of urbanisation are mastered.

Accordingly, a global policy framework is required. In view of the urgency, urban development and urbanisation in general must be at the top of the global political agenda. There must be a debate about, with and in cities. Consequently, the modernisation of urban governance is a key issue, according to the WGBU authors. They demand a right for cities and cities’ networks to participate in – and contribute to – relevant international negotiation processes. Moreover, they want national governments to recognise and promote the crucial role of cities in implementing international agreements, like the Paris Agreement or the UN Agenda 2030 with the Sustainable Development Goals (agreed in September 2015).

Between ambition and reality in the Habitat III process

The role of cities as central actors for sustainable development will be the subject of the Habitat III conference in Quito in October. It will remain important in future. The WBGU thus hopes that the global debate on urbanisation, which has taken place over the last two years, will continue after the conference ends, given that the preparations for the urbanisation summit were largely disappointing.

The Habitat III process lacked a convincing message as to why cities are the major agencies for the global transformation to sustainability. It lacked political leadership and diplomatic skill, good timing and the necessary attention. The topic did not seem relevant to most governments.

In contrast, the WBGU report provides a politically convincing and more progressive narrative, spelling out a vision for sustainable urban transformation. The vision translates into more than 500 pages of tangible and conceptually sound recommendations. The report should thus prove especially relevant for implementing the New Urban Agenda, the final document expected from Habitat III, as well as the Agenda 2030 (see p. 14 in this issue and D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2016/07, p. 6).

Strengthening urbanisation as a political realm

The WGBU focuses on ten areas of urgent action and expects that these areas will be the most relevant in terms of sustainable urban transformation. This is a valuable input into the policy debate. By proposing clear goals for each area and recommending specific measures, the report offers a focused concept for transformation.

One recommendation, for example, is the complete decarbonisation of all transport systems by 2070 and substituting carbon-based fossil fuels with emission-free alternatives. The WGBU also emphasises flexible designs for urban land use in order to best serve the public good and establishing the most complete circular economy possible in this century. The authors plan to draft an instruction manual for policymakers on the basis of their recommendation. It should prove important for implementing the New Urban Agenda.

The same applies to the UN Habitat World Cities Report 2016. This document reflects urban development and urban politics in the past 20 years. It discusses the greatest challenges and unresolved issues since the Habitat II Conference in Istanbul in 1996, indicating paths for a sustainable urban transformation. With its focus on housing, which is a key factor for sustainable development in cities, and the role of information and communication technologies for city innovation, the report complements the WBGU appraisal with further key aspects of future city development. “Facts at a glance” and “Political recommendations” make the report more accessible for decision-makers.

UN Habitat is the UN programme for urban planning, human settlements and housing in developing countries and emerging markets. Its future is uncertain. Many of the countries concerned, especially the African Group, favour strengthening UN Habitat as a pivotal institution for implementing the New Urban Agenda.

The authors of the WBGU report agree and recommend that, in the long run, UN Habitat should become an independent UN organisation. In the short run, they suggest reforms to improve management, strengthen UN Habitat’s capacity to act, boosting its competencies and political relevance. The EU, on the other hand, wants an UN-wide coordination mechanism (which might be called “UN Cities”) to implement the New Urban Agenda.

Cities shape global politics

Sticking to the 20-year cycle of Habitat conferences is no longer suitable, considering the momentum of urbanisation today. The WBGU and Germany’s Federal Government have proposed shorter cycles of four to 10 years, yet without success. However, cities, cities’ networks and other urban actors – including international businesses – will not wait for national governments or the multilateral system to react. They will discuss new forms of global urban governance outside the existing intergovernmental systems. The Global Parliament of Mayors, founded in September by and for cities is one such forum.

While national governments and the UN system have not yet effectively tackled global challenges such as climate change or migration, many cities have already taken innovative action to rise to these global challenges. To a large extent, cities will more and more be shaping global affairs rather than merely being exposed to them. That is what Benjamin Barber argues in his book: “If mayors ruled the world: dysfunctional nations, rising cities”. This is why the Parliament of Mayors, as a global governance institution, is supporting cities around the world to unite in policy-making and to show that brave and ambitious solutions are politically possible and viable. There are many signs that cities in the future will organise more such initiatives that demonstrate their role as trailblazers.

Franziska Schreiber is a project manager at Adelphi, a think tank and public policy consultancy. She specialises in international negotiations relating to cities, as well as urban governance and sustainable city development.

Barber, B., 2013: If mayors ruled the world: dysfunctional nations, rising cities. Yale University Press.
UNFCCC, 2015: Adoption of the Paris Agreement: proposal by the President. Draft decision -/CP.21, UN-Doc. FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1, (Paris, December 12, 2015).
UNGA, 2015: Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. UN-Doc. A/70/L.1 (New York, October 21, 2015)
UN-Habitat, 2016: World Cities Report 2016.
WBGU, 2016: Humanity on the move: Unlocking the transformative power of cities.

Related Articles


Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals will require good governance – from the local to the global level.


The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.