UN Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities & Communities encompasses both the challenges and opportunities presented by the increasing concentration of our global population both in urban centers and smaller but still heavily populated towns. By 2050, an additional 2.4 billion people are expected to be living in urban areas as this trend continues.1 Cities put a strain on natural resources in surrounding regions, and present difficulties in terms of creating housing and transportation systems that are both sustainable and inclusive. On a positive note, dense population means that sustainable solutions to urban challenges can improve the lives for many at once. SDG 11 is further refined by targets that can be more readily translated into actions. These targets highlight the interconnected nature of the goals: For example, strategies to support SDG 11 dovetail with those that support SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), and SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-Being). Below are a series of synergies that can come from providing access to products, services and systems that address Sustainable Cities & Communities.

Invest in Access to Clean Air

Nine out of ten urban residents breathe air that does not meet World Health Organization quality guidelines. 2 Air pollution is higher in cities than other areas due to high concentrations of human-generated sources3 vehicles, industrial activity, and power plants are the greatest contributors.4 Of particular concern is black carbon, a sooty fuel by-product that causes respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.5 Encouraging solutions to increase access to clean air will greatly improve the quality of life in urban communities.6

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Invest in Access to Clean Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

Close to 1 billion city residents live in slums, where both running water and sanitation services are rare.7 For those living in formal housing, clean water is still not guaranteed. City water in developing countries often contains high levels of contaminants such as fecal bacteria.8 Meanwhile, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, highlighted widespread exposure to unsafe drinking water in many urban areas in the US.9,10 At the same time, cities are major sources of water pollution. Ninety percent of sewage in developing countries is discharged, untreated, directly into bodies of water,11 and rainwater runoff from cities around the world contaminates streams and rivers. 12 Access to clean water ensures the health and prosperity of growing urban populations, and encouraging better water management in cities will be critical for water quality improvement beyond their boundaries.

Invest in Access to Affordable, Sustainable and Modern Energy

Cities account for 65% of the world’s energy demand, which will grow with rising urban populations.13 This demand translates to 70% of energy-related CO2 emissions globally, making urban areas major contributors to climate change.14 In cities that rely on the burning of fossil fuels for energy, air pollution often exceeds guidelines.15 At the same time, modern energy is essential to basic services such as lighting, cooking, and heating,16 yet 58% of people living in cities in low-income countries lack access to electricity.17 Improving access to sustainable, affordable, and modern energy in cities will bring benefits to more people and safeguard against harmful environmental impacts.

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Invest in Access to Sustainable Sources of Food and Nutrition

As urbanization intensifies, so do the challenges of ensuring access to healthy food for residents.18 For many, price is a major barrier. For example, poor urban households in many parts of Africa spend 60-80% of their income on food, and report often going without food due to cost.19 In the US, lack of access to healthy food is also linked to distance as over 4 million urban households live further than a half-mile from a supermarket and lack access to a vehicle.20 These households frequently resort to nearby fast-food and convenience stores, leading to high levels of obesity and diet-related diseases.21 The well-being of all city dwellers depends on continued efforts to increase access to sufficient, healthy, and affordable food.

Invest in Access to Adequate Housing and Living Conditions

In the developing world, the number of people living in urban areas with substandard housing continues to grow. These residents often lack access to basic services such as electricity, running water, or sanitation.22 In developed cities, rising housing costs are placing unsustainable burdens on residents: Nearly half of all US renters pay more than 30% of income on housing,23 and more than 300 million urbanites globally are financially stressed by housing costs.24 This burden forces people to divert money from necessities like healthy food or medical care to pay for housing.25 Expanding access to affordable, safe, adequate housing means improving the health, finances, and stability26 for growing urban populations.

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SDG 11: References

1 UNCTAD Handbook of Statistics 2017- Population
2 UN Sustainable Development Goals
3 Rural and Urban Differences in Air Quality, 2008–12, and Community Drinking Water Quality, 2010–15 — United States. Surveillance Summaries, June 2017
4 World Health Organization
5 Environmental Protection Agency Black Carbon Research
6 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects, Population Division, UN
7 World Resource Institute Cities for All
8 Reducing Inequalities in Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene in the Era of the Sustainable Development Goals. World Bank Group. 2017
9 Elevated Blood Lead Levels in Children Associated With the Flint Drinking Water Crisis: A Spatial Analysis of Risk and Public Health Response. Hanna-Attisha M, LaChance J, Sadler RC, Champney Schnepp A. Am J Public Health. 2016
10 Environmental justice and drinking water quality: are there socioeconomic disparities in nitrate levels in U.S. drinking water? Laurel A. Schaider, Lucien Swetschinski, Christopher Campbell, and Ruthann A. Rudel. Environmental Health. 2019
11 United Nations World Water Assessment Programme, “The United Nations World Water Development Report 2015: Water for a Sustainable World”
12 Environmental Protection Agency “Urban Facts”
13 International Renewable Energy Agency, Renewable Energy in Cities, 2016
14 Ibid
15 World Health Organization https://www.who.int/phe/health_topics/outdoorair/databases/background_information/en/index2.html
16 Powering Cities in the Global South: How Energy Access for All Benefits the Economy and the Environment. WRI.
17 World Bank. 2016. World Development Indicators
18 International Institute for Environment and Development, Urban poverty, food security and climate change
19 Penn Institute for Urban Research, Feeding Cities: Food Security in a Rapidly Urbanizing World, 2013
20 USDA Economic Research Service, The Extent of Limited Food Access in the United States
21 Ibid
22 World Resource Institute Cities for All
23 America’s Rental Housing 2017. Joint Center for Housing Studies. Harvard
24 McKinsey Global Institute, A blueprint for addressing the global affordable housing challenge, 2014
25 National League of Cities, Affordable Housing & Health: City Roles and Strategies for Progress, 2019
26 Scott, M. 2012. “Beyond Four Walls.” In The Big Idea: Global Spread of Affordable Housing, edited by Scott Anderson and Rochelle Beck, 79–81. Washington, DC.