Unlike the major global agreements that preceded it, the formulation of the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda was a collective process open to all actors working in the area of sustainable development. In particular, major cities sought to highlight their contribution as laboratories in which globalisation’s greatest challenges are taking shape. For the first time, cities were able to participate in the definition of a global policy framework that has become fundamental to tackling the planet's major challenges. It will also be key to addressing the coronavirus pandemic we currently face and its mid- to long-term consequences.
Following the launch of the so-called Post-2015 Process in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, cities used their international networks to demonstrate their willingness to contribute to designing a universal agenda that meets the challenges of twenty-first century urbanisation. They collaborated in the global consultation process on localising the future agenda and launched a campaign for a standalone goalon sustainable cities. The latter campaign was devised and promoted within the framework of a multi-stakeholder alliance in which cities, civil society, academia, UN agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UN-Habitat, and some national governments participated.
Gradually, awareness and consensus were generated about the importance of the localisation of the new global agenda. This consensus led the then UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, to state that “our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities.” It also paved the way for the inclusion of a dedicated goal on sustainable cities and communities among the 2030 Agenda’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): SDG 11 addresses core issues such as affordable housing, sustainable mobility, participatory urban planning and air quality. However, what is more significant is how many of the other goals and their targets fall into the remit of the competences and responsibilities of cities in areas such as education, healthcare, economic development, peacebuilding and the fight against climate change.
But recognising the importance of localisation and the role cities should play is not enough. Cities should be at the heart of the SDG implementation processes. To achieve this, the necessary resources and an enabling environment in terms of competences should be created. Since the 2030 Agenda was launched in 2015, cities around the world, from New York to Jakarta, Buenos Aires, Barcelona, Durban and Sydney, have shown strong commitment to it and are making notable efforts to align their public policies and to report results. They are generally doing so with limited resources and under potentially unfavourable conditions. Yet, they are clearly willing to play an essential part in this global effort.
What remains to be seen, is what impact this commitment has and whether aligning with the 2030 Agenda is helping cities tackle sustainable development processes more efficiently. It certainly provides them with a policy framework that is based on shared challenges and a set of transformative principles. These principles should be used to improve local policymaking processes. Whether it is climate change, migration or global health that cities are tackling, they need to break out of their administrative silos and move towards holistic, integrated approaches to development; to commit to collaborative governance by shaping partnerships between public and private actors; and to accept the importance of measuring results and being accountable. Time will tell whether cities have the vision to achieve progress, create change and take advantage of all this transformative potential, moving beyond "business as usual".
What seems clear is that the policy framework the 2030 Agenda provides must be decisive in tackling the global pandemic we currently face. Cities must realise – and the signs suggest they do – that this is a universal crisis that ignores borders and requires collective responses. Such responses must be comprehensive and transcend specific sectors, such as healthcare, the economy and caring for the most vulnerable. They must involve all the actors, resources, knowledge and innovation that can be mobilised; and all of this must be deployed in a way that is transparent and for which city governments can be held accountable.
But what is absolutely crucial is that the 2030 Agenda is used to address the mid to long-term consequences that will be the pandemic’s legacy. The world that awaits us after this pandemic is hard to visualise, as is the urban future ahead. What is clear is that cities must learn to adapt, to be resilient and to develop scenarios that ensure social cohesion. They must do this by relying on their citizens to unite in collective efforts, and by building on the mutual understanding and alliances among cities, collective ties that states often lack. Possessing a shared policy framework may yet prove crucial.