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“People-smart” and “cities-based” approach to sustainable development is key, urges UNECE report


Localizing the Sustainable Development Goals at the urban level is crucial to deliver on the 2030 Agenda, stresses UNECE in a new report that advocates for a “cities-based” and “people-smart” approach to sustainable development.  

With cities today as the driving force in economic, social, and cultural life and at the heart of environmental transformations, they must be paid particular attention in national, international and multilateral debates and policies – an approach being put into practice by UNECE’s Forum of Mayors. This is especially crucial in the UNECE region, where urban areas host over 75% of the population in Europe, 80% in North America, and close to 50% in Central Asia. 

Drawing on concrete experiences from across the Pan-European region and North America – which, from Copenhagen to Ottawa and from Paris to Riga and Kyiv, is home to many cities leading sustainability action – the report outlines key trends and policy priorities to leverage “people-smart” sustainable urban development, and highlights how UNECE tools can support efforts on the ground.  

Enhancing resilience  

Cities have taken bold action in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but, like the financial crisis of 2008, the pandemic has shown the uneven capacities for cities to cope with shocks. The health and socio-economic impacts of the pandemic have disproportionally affected the most vulnerable groups. 

The pandemic has also demonstrated how fundamental housing is to public health, thus emphasizing the importance of implementing the principles of the Geneva UN Charter on Sustainable Housing, endorsed by UNECE. It has also highlighted the need to develop innovative methods of controlling infectious diseases without relying on drastic top-down measures. Access to public spaces, including green spaces (parks, forests) has proven especially important for physical and mental wellbeing. 

Due to the concentration of people, housing and capital stock, cities are particularly vulnerable to disasters, calling for strengthened policy integration and improved adaptation. As part of comprehensive risk management approaches, the UNECE Industrial Accidents Convention and Water Convention promote the identification of technological and natural hazards and risk mitigation through the adoption of policies for prevention, preparedness and response. 

Every city matters 

The report urges that persistent geographical disparities call for an inclusive, coordinated, multi-level and multilateral approach to sustainable urban development.  Yet, many countries, including those with economies in transition, focus on large-scale urban projects, particularly in larger and capital cities. Inclusive policies are needed to share the benefits of larger metropolitan agglomerations to benefit all urban areas – whether through redistribution by the state, territorial planning and integration, a polycentric model of regional development or better connectivity and enabling infrastructure. 

Innovative and flexible tools, such as UNECE’s People-first Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) mechanism, can help cities mobilize the investments needed for infrastructure and public services. Such approaches help cities to ensure investments deliver on the SDGs, with an emphasis on “value for people”. 

Engaging with digital transitions and innovation 

From online platforms for mobility services including car and bike sharing in Helsinki, to “digital twins” to create more holistic and optimized ways of managing municipal services and transport infrastructure, digital technology is increasingly being integrated into urban design and management. However, cities are increasingly becoming aware of the ethical and social challenges which come with digitization. Warning against seeing technology as a panacea, the report emphasizes that “people-smart” cities must focus on inclusivity and improving quality of life, harnessing new technologies - among other means - to do so.  

The United for Smart Sustainable Cities (U4SSC) initiative coordinated by UNECE, ITU and UN-Habitat offers a tool to support these efforts, including by using key performance indicators (KPIs) to help cities evaluate their performance, and to support cities’ self-assessment of progress towards the SDGs. UNECE has supported this approach for Almaty and NurSultan in Kazakhstan, Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, Tbilisi in Georgia, Podgorica in Montenegro, Voznesensk in Ukraine, and 17 cities in Norway. In total, over 100 cities worldwide are already implementing these KPIs.  

To fully utilize their innovative potential, the report identifies the need for cities to develop an open culture of agile governance that facilitates learning, adaptation, creativity, innovation and co-creation, and that supports innovative business models. This involves exploratory multi-level management mechanisms to facilitate collaboration across different sectors to collect evidence, gain confidence, and to design, pilot, modify, and scale up ideas. 

Cities that meet everyone’s needs 

People-smart cities require fusions of housing, urban and social infrastructure to foster full and inclusive participation in urban life.  

In Moscow for example, a vision of a “city comfortable for living”, included actions such as the regeneration of 22,000 local courtyards, 550 parks and green zones, and 327 streets between 2011 and 2018. The Smart City Moscow programme also allowed the digitization of many key city services, now provided on a single platform, as well as the introduction of e-governance services, while the city also undertook the largest expansion of public transit in Europe.  

An integrated approach to sustainable mobility is vital, adopting the cross-sectoral principles of the Transport, Health and Environment Pan-European Programme (THE PEP), serviced by UNECE and WHO/Europe. 

With the population aged 80+ the fastest growing age group in Europe’s urban areas - up from 2.8 per cent in 2000 to 4.5 per cent in 2015, special attention must also be paid to ensure age-friendly environments. The need to better take into account the needs of older populations, including in disaster risk reduction strategies, has been further underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The report also calls for increased efforts to address inequalities and close gaps in access to clean and safe water, energy or good quality food. Available tools include the Protocol on Water and Health, serviced by UNECE and WHO/Europe. This supported, for instance, a self-assessment exercise in France which helped inform measures to address challenges including disparities in pricing and lack of access to drinking water of 140,000 homeless people, as well as affordability concerns in the Greater Paris area.  

Public participation and co-production with a range of stakeholders are prioritized by people-smart sustainable cities, through tools including participatory planning and budgeting. The UNECE Aarhus Convention further supports access to information and informed participation at all levels for environmental decision-making. 

The report further highlights the need for integrated spatial and land use planning. The UNECE Protocol on Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) alongside several other strategic UNECE transboundary agreements provide frameworks to understand and address environmental impacts and risk management of proposed projects. 

Climate-neutral and circular cities 

Thousands of cities in the region have already incorporated climate and energy targets into their strategies and plans.  

Among the diverse measures taken, improving energy buildings’ efficiency is a priority for many urban areas. The use of UNECE’s Framework Guidelines for Energy Efficiency Standards in Buildings, facilitated by the UNECE International Centres of Excellence on High-Performance Buildings, provide a concrete tool in this area.  

Cities are also changing energy supply sources to cleaner modes and modernising their energy infrastructure. In Germany alone, more than 150 districts and cities have adopted 100 per cent renewable electricity targets, including Hamburg and Munich by 2025 and Frankfurt by 2050. In the US, cities including Aspen (Colorado), Burlington (Vermont) and Greensburg (Kansas) have transitioned to 100 per cent renewable power. 

Transport measures are also playing a key role, by for example, reducing car use by promoting and incentivizing the shift to greener and healthier forms of mobility like cycling in Budapest, tackling vehicle emissions in Paris, London and Brussels, and developing car sharing and pooling in cities of Central Europe. UN vehicle regulations – such as for electric vehicles and cleaner fuel technologies - and policy tools developed at UNECE help to accelerate this shift.  

Green and nature-based solutions are gaining momentum in many cities, through initiatives including the Trees in Cites Challenge, while smart technologies also help better monitor local environmental conditions. For example, in Gothenburg, Sweden, data on air quality is made available for easy use by pupils on the way to school via a smartphone app. 

The report further emphasises how cities can unlock important efficiency gains and open up green and circular economy opportunities by integrating food, water, energy, and waste sectors. In Jerusalem for example, sludge from domestic wastewater is converted to methane gas and supplies 70 per cent of the electric energy needed for the water treatment facility to function, and the treated water is used to irrigate street trees and parks. Digital platforms can also facilitate the creation of new supply-demand chains, such as for otherwise lost and wasted food – an area where UNECE’s FeedUp@UN solution can unlock new opportunities.  

Sustainable cities must be at the heart of the region’s recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, and are crucial for the region to deliver on the 2030 Agenda. By leveraging its normative and policy tools and facilitating broad cooperation, UNECE stands ready to support all stakeholders engaged at the city-level to continue developing integrated solutions to the complex challenges faced and to scale up innovative approaches.  

The report is available in English at 

And in Russian at 

Note to editors 

About UNECE’s “nexus” approach 

UNECE is supporting countries to address some of the key sustainable development challenges facing the region, which can help steer efforts for a green and inclusive socio-economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.   

Through an integrated, multisectoral approach leveraging UNECE norms, standards and conventions, and by building capacities and providing policy assistance, UNECE is helping to accelerate countries’ implementation of the 2030 Agenda.  

This cross-cutting work is helping to drive progress towards 9 core SDGs where UNECE has particular strengths, namely SDGs 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13 and 15. Partnerships (SDG 17) and gender equality (SDG 5) underpin all UNECE activities.   

At the crossroads of all UNECE programmes and expertise, UNECE has identified 4 high-impact “nexus” areas where multiple SDGs converge.  

  • Sustainable use of natural resources 
  • Sustainable and smart cities 
  • Sustainable mobility and smart connectivity 
  • Measuring and monitoring progress towards the SDGs. 

This report is one of four flagship publications prepared by UNECE to support countries’ SDG progress in these key areas. 

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