The United Nations has estimated that by 2050 7 out of 10 people will live in an urban area. While cities are large drivers of economic growth and are important in contributing to the global GDP, they are also not designed to be sustainable. Cities contribute to over 70% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Other issues include unaffordable housing, insufficient infrastructure, limited open space, air pollution, and more. By making our cities and communities more sustainable, we can increase our resilience and minimize inequalities.
As of 2020, about one in four dwellers that live in a city, live in slums or informal settlements. And the increasing urban population growth will likely increase the incidence of slums. An increase in population is one of the causes of this issue, along with ineffective planning, lack of affordable housing, poverty, housing policies and more. The World Bank estimates that by 2025 over 1.5 billion people will be impacted by the housing crisis. In order to house all these people and more currently affected, UN-Habitat believes every day we need to build 96,000 affordable housing every day.
There are many causes as to why we are experiencing increasing housing issues. One of them is the rising cost of housing which is growing faster than income. In a study of 200 cities, 90% of them were found to be unaffordable to live in, as the average home costs more than three times the average income. In a study by Moodys, reasons such as the shortage of land, labour and materials since the US financial crisis in 2008 are the leading causes. Due to the increase in costs to build a home, there is less incentive to build homes, especially those that are lower-priced housing with lower margins.
These causes and others have been exaggerated due to COVID-19, as many people were looking for more space during the mandatory lockdowns. And in the last 40 years house prices have risen at a fast rate, putting stress and strain on the limited supply. It is also very common for many people to live outside of their means due to cost, with over 10 million Americans spending more than half of their income on rent.
The increase of housing also causes people to have less money to spend on other essentials such as bills, groceries and transportation. As we are seeing now, with housing costs climbing, there is also an increase in inflation, and the costs of goods and services have massively increased.
An increasing problem in cities is the rise of pollution, specifically air pollution. Ambient air pollution can come from a range of sources such as traffic, manufacturing, power generation, burning waste, and residential fuel combustion. In 2019 over 4 million deaths were attributed to air pollution, as the fine particulate matter put people at risk for lung cancer, heart disease, lower respiratory infections and more. Current studies also show that air pollution weakens the immune system, making it less able to fight against infectious diseases.
Another issue is the growing amount of waste cities now need to deal with. Mishandled waste can be a large source of pollution from plastic but also from greenhouse gas emissions. Many cities, especially in Asia, still rely on open dump sites, and many countries in the global north still ship their waste to global south countries. Investment and development are needed to improve the waste management infrastructure, especially in global south countries. Along with improving policy and strengthening environmental law there could be a lot of improvement.
What can we as Individuals do?
- Take an active interest in the governance and management of your city
- Advocate for the kind of city you believe you need
- Develop a vision for your building, street, and neighborhood, and act on that vision. Are there enough jobs? Can your children walk to school safely? Can you walk with your family at night? How far is the nearest public transport? What’s the air quality like? What are your shared public spaces like? The better the conditions you create in your community, the greater the effect on the quality of life.
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
The United Nations developed SDG 11 and its targets are to be achieved by 2030. The overall aim of the goal is to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. The SDG 11 targets include:
11.1 Safe and Affordable Housing – By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums.
11.2 Affordable and Sustainable Transport Systems – By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons.
11.3 Inclusive and Sustainable Urbanization – By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries.
11.4 Protect the World’s Cultural and Natural Heritage – Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.
11.5 Reduce the Adverse Effects of Natural Disasters – By 2030, significantly reduce the number of deaths and the number of people affected and substantially decrease the direct economic losses relative to global gross domestic product caused by disasters, including water-related disasters, with a focus on protecting the poor and people in vulnerable situations.
11.6 Reduce the Environmental Impact of Cities – By 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management.
11.7 Provide Access to Safe and Inclusive Green and Public Spaces – By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.
11.8 Strong National and Regional Development Planning – Support positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning.
11.9 Implement Policies for Inclusion, Resource Efficiency and Disaster Risk Reduction – By 2020, substantially increase the number of cities and human settlements adopting and implementing integrated policies and plans towards inclusion, resource efficiency, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, resilience to disasters, and develop and implement, in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, holistic disaster risk management at all levels.
11.A Support Least Developed Countries in Sustainable and Resilient Building – Support least developed countries, including through financial and technical assistance, in building sustainable and resilient buildings utilizing local materials.
EnvironFocus is hosting a webinar event on SDG 11, on Thursday, March 16th, 2023. The event will go from 11:00 AM to 12:30 PM EDT and is titled “Ways to ensure our Cities and Communities are Sustainable”. We will be joined by expert guest panelists, Maria Fernanda Aguirre, and Igwebuike Ijeoma. Panel presentations will be followed by a live Q&A session, and is completely FREE. Register now HERE.
The Global Goals. (2023). Sustainable Cities and Communities. https://www.globalgoals.org/goals/11-sustainable-cities-and-communities/
United Nations. (2020). Sustainable Cities: Why They Matter [PDF]. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/11_Why-It-Matters-2020.pdf
United Nations Statistics. (2023). Goal 11. https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2022/Goal-11/
World Economic Forum. (2022). What has caused the global housing crisis – and how can we fix it?. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/06/how-to-fix-global-housing-crisis/