I have even more articles classified under SDG 11 than SDG 8. But this is a bit misleading, because most of them are only because of a couple of targets under this SDG. As a traveller, I have been to my share of UNESCO sites, and I favour destinations with significant cultural or natural heritage. That’s target 11.4. I am also nature-inclined, so I write about public parks and green spaces in cities – target 11.7.

But the remaining articles are related to issues around urbanisation. While cities are not a new invention, today the majority of humans live in them. This is a first, since the earliest cities pioneered in Sumerian Iraq. And today we also pack a lot more density in cities that we ever had before. So the sustainability issues arising from that are unprecedented too.

I think SDG 11 is the last of the SDGs related to providing the basic needs at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. (Although arguably, SDG 16 is also in this category.) By this I mean, those needs that we are driven by psychology to pursue as human beings, before we can fully contribute on other issues. Therefore, any demands related to SDGs beyond this that require developing countries to give up goals at this level, will result in resistance and poor outcomes.

What does a sustainable city really mean?

The most relevant difference between cities and countryside is in how people obtain their basic needs. In cities, the ability to provide them depends on the built environment constructed by others and run by a municipality. Whereas as you get further away to rural countryside, it is increasingly feasible to provide for yourself. For example, build your own house, move around on your own effort, fetch your own water, grow your own food, etc.

However, as population increases, if everyone continued to do this for themselves, it results in increasing conflict and scarcity. Some kind of community management for resource sharing is inevitable, until eventually it scales in complexity to become a city. The purpose of a city is, therefore, to provide for the basic human needs of city-dwellers, more efficiently and at scale.

A sustainable city is one that can provide these needs, while also preserving the things of value to society, which people would give themselves if they were still in the countryside. These include an environment that is safe for women, children, and the elderly to move about, clean from pollution, green areas and public spaces to support community life and neighbourhoods, and preservation of special and sacred sites that reflect the culture’s values and heritage.

Notice that there is no mention of recycling, renewable energy, or low carbon cities. That’s because these things come under SDGs 12 and 13. That said, commitments under those targets will appear in urban planning, as they would in plans for all other relevant SDGs. Most modern city planners incorporate them into SDG 11 efforts at the same time.

Cities and sustainability issues

The world population will continue to increase for a while longer due to momentum from past gains in SDGs 3 and 2, before tapering down due to current trends in fertility. Consequently, urbanisation is a trend that will continue around the world. Since the built environment is difficult to change once built, the cities we build today determine sustainability impacts affecting people and planet for a long time to come.

For starters, present-day cities don’t produce their own food, and depend on excess from the countryside. It’s also easier to waste more food in cities, and throughout the large supply chains intended for them, which drives biodiversity loss from excessive agriculture. In towns and cities, it’s easier to waste in general, because waste collection spares us from seeing our own garbage. Poorly designed cities force urbanites to move more for daily routines, and use more energy to do so.

A sustainable, resilient city is one where these issues are anticipated and designed for. It requires urban planning knowledge and technology. But there is one more (unspoken) element of a sustainable city. It also requires that city planning is motivated by its original purpose of providing for the needs of people, not to grow asset portfolios or property financialisation. It’s possible for the two motivations to co-exist. But you only get liveable cities, where nature and cultural heritage are safe from demolition, when it’s one way around rather than the other.