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The million steps to sustainability

While Gothenburg, Sweden issues green bonds to finance sustainability projects, Almada, Portugal creates community gardens that allow citizens to grow vegetables next to flood-preventing stormwater retention areas. The Jongno District in Seoul, South Korea seeks to increase the happiness of its residents by restoring green areas in the city and ‘emptying’ the city from unnecessary objects, and Denver, United States shifts from “just-in-case“ mobility to “just-in-time“ mobility, developing transportation options based on the needs expressed by citizens.

All around the world, cities are taking a million steps to become more sustainable. They enhance their resilience to protect residents from natural and manmade disasters, look for new sources of energy to power their infrastructure, support alternative modes of transport that emit zero greenhouse gases and transform into productive cities that are increasingly self-sufficient.

Yet cities cannot transform themselves overnight. Each project itself requires a number of steps, from feasibility assessments to target setting, action planning, citizens engagement, progress measurement and financing – to name only a few – and each project is just one action among many that will enable cities to achieve their goals.

When the city of Recife, Brazil, decided to address climate change, it had first and foremost to gain the support of the civil society, which the city managed to do by showing genuine concern about the most vulnerable populations and including influential actors at all stages of the policy making process. They found ways to integrate this issue among the many priorities of the city, which is facing serious social and economic challenges. The city administration itself had to change its way of working in order to implement integrated policies involving several city departments.

Cities can implement and scale up these sorts of projects even more effectively with strong international and national framework conditions to support them. The New Urban Agenda, the framework for sustainable urbanization to be officially adopted at Habitat III, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in Quito, is an opportunity to do just this. Even beyond Habitat III, it is vital that nations support cities through advocating and shaping policies that empower them, and through ensuring they receive adequate funds to build their capacity to shape and carry out ambitious projects.

Indeed, the path toward sustainability is not the same for all cities, nor are the specific end goals. Each city has different priorities, existing assets and degrees of progress. Not all cities advance at the same pace on sustainable issues. This often depends on framework conditions, local political and cultural factors.

In less than a month, nations will gather at Habitat III in Quito. They must seize this opportunity to align with and accelerate the implementation of the global frameworks adopted in 2015, and to do so alongside cities and their local governments. Cities are the implementers and can do a lot, but national frameworks are crucial and often make a significant difference, particularly for cities with high ambition, large challenges and few resources.