ECC Platform Library


SDG11 on cities – what can its role be in foreign policy and sustaining peace?

14 March, 2019
Daria Ivleva, adelphi

SDG11 - City, urban, bangkok.jpg

© Dan Freeman/Unsplash

In an increasingly urbanised world, global resilience cannot be achieved without cities. Separating a local from a national or international sustainability issue is increasingly difficult – be it climate change, migration, or economic development.

42 of the world’s 100 largest economies are cities1. Local and subnational governments change the landscape of international relations by increasingly participating in global city networks and even signing international agreements2. At the same time, decentralisation does not necessarily contribute to peace and stability. Such a transition requires the right governance structures to be in place and calls for much stronger policy coordination between central government and decentralised structures. Cities face some of the most challenging trends: rising inequality, population growth, human mobility and natural disaster risks often converge in urban settings. But cities also have the potential to become laboratories for coping with these pressures in innovative ways.

The critical importance of cities for core foreign policy objectives

Around the world, cities become increasingly crucial for national security and stability. Where vulnerability, economic and political relevance and global pressures converge, fragile cities can pose a threat to the stability of entire countries. City fragility is not a steady state but occurs due to an aggregation of risks and stresses. Several factors can have a destabilising effect on cities, including the level of inequality, unemployment, crime, pollution, rapid urban population growth, conflict events, and natural hazards. Literature suggests that more cities are fragile than expected. While high levels of city fragility occur primarily in low-income and conflict-affected settings (especially in Asia and Africa), where the pace of urbanisation is fastest, urban fragility is also observable in medium and high-income countries. For instance, over half of European cities have a medium level of fragility3.

Cities already host more than half of the world's population, and much of the population growth will take place in urban settings in low and middle-income countries across the global South4. By 2050, 70% of the global population will live in cities5. These developments often go along with weak governance, poverty, inequality, and marginalisation, decreasing cities’ resilience to shocks and pressures. While the economic success of cities is often highlighted, the decrease in global poverty rates is accompanied by growing income inequalities in 75% of the world’s cities in the last two decades6. Many cities cannot provide enough jobs and livelihoods for growing populations. Moreover, much of the urban growth is expected in informal settlements (see target 11.1), where almost one billion people live today. Here, provision of basic rights and services like water, energy, and housing is even more challenging for municipal authorities, which affects many dimensions of the wellbeing of the inhabitants. There is emerging literature showing a relationship between political and economic exclusion experienced by the urban poor and the propensity to be recruited by criminal entities.

The concentration of the population, economic activity, and infrastructure also means that the impact of environmental change can be especially devastating in cities. Projections from the UN and other international bodies point to increased frequency and severity of natural disasters occurring in towns and cities (see target 11.5). The impacts of climate change are likely to be compounded by existing vulnerabilities in urban areas. This presents a significant challenge for the international development and humanitarian system; both in the scale and complexity of responding to urban development and disasters and in operating in an environment in which traditional humanitarian actors do not have significant experience and expertise. The built environment and urban planning can play an essential role in the fostering of inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable cities. For example, green urban planning (see target 11.7) has been shown to effectively support adaptation through controlling urban flooding. However, there is a lack of understanding of what these spaces should look like, how they should be developed, and who they should be created by and for whom, especially in fragile and conflict-affected urban settings.

Another significant trend that converges in cities is migration. While many developed countries are already highly urbanised, in developing countries urbanisation will continue due to rural-urban migration. We will see increased rural-urban movement within countries, for example, due to decreasing agricultural productivity, more labour migration, and more frequent or longer lasting circular migration patterns. Already today disasters and violence have caused 50 percent of a total of 51 million refugees and internally displaced persons to flee to urban areas7. With more people moving to cities, and with many cities already facing increased vulnerability to climate and disaster risks as well as experiencing existing social, economic and political fragility, these dynamics will be a major determinant of urban resilience. For instance, a disproportionate share of slum/shack dwellers are migrants8 and are exposed to more significant climate change impacts9.

Illustration: converging pressures in urban areas of Guatemala

How cities manage the converging pressures will be crucial for stabilisation and countering non-state armed groups. Rapid urbanisation in post-conflict societies with rural youth migrating to the cities is often linked to youth criminality and their increased vulnerability to illicit activities. In Guatemala, rural-urban migration is already putting a strain on the receiving urban areas. Many of the urban areas are largely dominated by youth street gangs (‘pandillas’ or ‘maras’) that create a culture of violence. While urban security and anti-crime policies are needed to address this, they are not enough. Connecting the urban poor and those on the periphery of cities to the urban economy, its institutions, governance systems, and services, will be the key to improving livelihood security (see targets 11.1, 11.2, 11.3, 11.a). Some cities already have valuable lessons to share. For instance, the city of Medellin - once one of the most fragile and dangerous cities of the world - has increased urban resilience by expanding public transport to connect formerly neglected areas with the rest of the city and reinstalling social services in these areas.

International efforts to improve urban governance

On the global level, several frameworks now exist along with the 2030 Agenda that offer some real opportunities to promote resilience: the Sendai Framework for Action, the New Urban Agenda and the UN Peacebuilding Commission’s Sustaining Peace Agenda. The international community needs to maximise the synergies between these frameworks and to close the gaps with regards to cities, sustainability challenges, and fragility. Foreign policy can help promote this, putting urban fragility risks on the agenda.

Integrated perspectives and approaches to urban development and planning and management that cut across thematic silos and maximise synergies between different sectors will be the keys to improving urban resilience (see target 11.b). Sustainable and resilient urban development requires municipal authorities to plan in a long-term, inclusive and integrated way to overcome silos. It is important to take into account the people, the problems, and the trade-offs that come with ‘nexus’ approaches. However, in fragile cities, these processes or capacity to implement these processes are often absent or weak, so financial and technical assistance in this area is needed (see target 11.c). At the same time, humanitarian and development agencies might also need to make their approaches more integrated and suitable to the urban level.

Global and national efforts to address conflict and fragility risks must be transposed to the urban scale, as highlighted by SDG11. For this, dynamic multi-level approaches involving all key stakeholders in processes relating to urban development are imperative (see target 11.3). In the humanitarian realm, the need for greater localisation was recognised at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit. It will require a transformation of the way in which the UN system and many donor agencies operate, and it will need greater contextual knowledge of city actors – mayors, urban dwellers, municipalities and urban conflict dynamics. Sustained engagement with civil society and local communities – with an acknowledgment of the highly heterogeneous nature of urban communities and recognising the multiple identity interests an individual or group may hold – will be particularly valuable in urban environments.

Foreign policy can help leverage the potential of city networks to contribute to sustainable development effectively. In recent years, the number of international city associations has proliferated (more than 125 at present), including ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), Cities Alliance and C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40)10 . While their work in the areas of sustainability and climate was for a long time the most visible, topics such as peacebuilding are gaining traction – a recent study found that 10.6% of networks engage with this topic. Expanding the focus of city networks to address issues related to security, resilience, and fragility more broadly could be beneficial11. The Municipal Alliance for Peace in the Middle East, which fosters cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian municipalities, is an example of such an effort.


Making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable as mandated by SGD11 is a tremendous opportunity to contribute to peace. Foreign policy should both look at urban fragility risks in detail and seek to leverage municipal agency to build resilience. For this, connecting policy processes in different sectors, coordinating action on multiple levels of governance and adapting approaches to urban settings, putting a strong emphasis on inclusion of vulnerable urban dwellers, remains imperative.


[This article originally appeared as part of adelphi's policy brief "A Foreign Policy Perspective on the Sustainable Development Goals" (2018) and it's comprehensive annex.]



  1. Toly, Noah J. and Sam Tabory 2016: 100 Top Economies: Urban Influence and the Position of Cities in an Evolving World Order. Chicago: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
  2. Tavares, Rodrigo 2016: Forget the nation-state: cities will transform the way we conduct foreign affairs. Accessed online on 10 October 2018:
  3. Muggah, Robert 2016: Where are the world's most fragile cities?, Accessed online on 05 July 2018:
  4. UN 2014: World’s population increasingly urban with more than half living in urban areas. Accessed online on 05 July 2018:
  5. FAO 2017: How to Feed the World in 2050. Accessed online on 05 July 2018:
  6. UN-Habitat 2016: World Cities Report. Nairobi: UN-Habitat.
  7. De Boer, John 2015: Resilience and the Fragile City, Stability: International Journal of Security and Development, 4(1): 1-7.
  8. IOM 2015: World Migration Report 2015. Migrants and Cities: New Partnerships to Manage Mobility. Geneva: IOM.
  9. UN DESA World Economic and Social Survey 2013: Sustainable Development Challenges. New York: UN DESA.
  10. Tavares, Rodrigo 2016: Forget the nation-state: cities will transform the way we conduct foreign affairs. Accessed online on 10 October 2018:
  11. Acuto, Michele and Steve Rayner 2016: City networks: breaking gridlocks or forging (new) lock-ins? International Affairs 92 (5): 1147-1166.
ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Adaptation & Resilience

Global Issues


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Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

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Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Environment & Migration

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Land & Food

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Minerals & Mining

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Private Sector

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Sustainable Transformation

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Technology & Innovation

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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