UN Sustainable Development Goal for Sustainable Cities

  • July 11, 2024/

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The United Nations Sustainable development goals are a collection of targets designed to tackle the problems society faces due to increased environmental debasement and social pressures. The main drivers of which being “the growing populations and increasing per capita consumption” (Pedersen, 2018) This report will attempt to critically review the eleventh sustainable development goal, sustainable cities and communities, and discuss vacillating perspectives, challenges and how the problem is relevant on a domestic and international level. The term sustainable community “tends to be applied to communities who promote or seek to promote sustainability in sectors such as water, food, transport, waste and energy and is applicable to either new or existing communities” (Rae & Bradley, 2012)

The Problem

The need for sustainable communities is at the forefront of the modern world. The United Nations description of developing a sustainable city or community is to “make cities and human settlements, safe, resilient and sustainable” (United Nations, 2015) However, rapid urbanisation that has been seen in recent years means that towns and cities are not being developed in a way that can maintain inhabitants in a sustainable manner. In many cases, this results in poorly build cities which face major problems including, slum housing, pollution, lack of fresh water supplies, sewage and dangers to public health. In “2013 an estimated 54.4% of the world’s population lived in urban settlements” (United Nations, 2016) and although more than half of the world’s population choose to reside in cities, they are unsustainable and so resource intensive it has negative implications on current residents and future generations.

A Social Perspective

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A shift in recognised social norms can be accountable for the need for sustainable communities. “Comfort, cleanliness and convenience norms are standardising in ways that are ever more resource-intensive” (Shove, 2003) This is one of the largest challenges that face developed countries, as the rational individual will, on the whole, chose to live their lives in a way which benefits themselves. In the twenty-first century it can be argued that individuals determine their aims in relation to the acquisition of material goods and wealth; so much so that in a contemporary world it has become “a way of life” (Miles, 1998) It is this social pattern of behaviour that means in order to develop sustainable communities the mindset of the inhabitants would have to be deterred from their normal methods of purchasing and consumption. Advertising also plays a large part in dictating people’s choices whether or not to consume goods “The effectiveness of advertising in enhancing demand is not only revealed by firms’ willingness to spend money on it but is also supported by a large number of empirical studies.” (Molinari & Turino, 2018)

A Political Perspective

It must be considered with whom it lies the power and potential to change. These goals set by the United Nations are undertaken by countries each with their own doctrine and political agendas. Depending on if the decision is made to implement sustainable cities and communities nationally, the success or failure of them still rests with individuals’ and their own principles. In order for sustainable cities and communities to truly be successful individuals must think and act as utilitarian’s and move past the scope of their own personal interests and consider the interests of others.

An Economic Perspective

A major issue associated with the potential of achieving the United Nations goal is the interpretation of what is meant by the term sustainable community. Currently, in urban areas of less economically developed countries, vast numbers of people live in slum housing. The infrastructure in place is not capable of sustaining the current level of population. In addition to this, the methods of town planning and development are not sophisticated enough to cope with the rapid urbanisation growing economies are experiencing. In a less economically developed country, the interpretation of a sustainable community is to clear slums and provide safe, affordable and resilient housing for those with low levels of income. “Families still live in housing that is so substandard as to constitute a serious threat to health and safety” (Grigsby, 1964)

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By contrast, urban areas in developed countries largest problem are in overconsumption. As the average income rises the demand for luxury goods increases, bringing with it a higher level of waste and pollution from the excess that is being consumed. As a direct result of this, we see a heightened use of energy, private transport and natural resources. It has become such an integral part of modern society that “consumption rather than production is now the driving force in contemporary society” Corrigan states (Cited in Mansvelt, 2005) A further issue arises from this as we do not see the externalities of our consumption when making decisions “Economic analysis concerning consumption tends to focus on ‘the consumer’ as the unit of analysis… such analysis ignores both the larger issues of social consumption and the complications of decision making” (Goodwin, Nelson, Ackerman & Weisskopf, 2008) It is this way of thinking that makes society in developed nations so unsustainable.

Relevance within the UK

The United Kingdom is a highly developed country, with low levels of poverty and slum housing when compared globally. However, lifestyle choices within the United Kingdom mean that “A typical UK lifestyle has an ecological footprint of 6.3 hectares per person. To meet our environmentally sustainable target and live within our planet’s capacity we need to reduce this to 2.2 hectares.” (BioRegional Development Group, 2002) The implementation of a sustainable community within the UK is possible as proved by projects such as the Beddington Zero Energy Development. This is a completely sustainable community which “give residents the ability to live sustainably without decreasing the quality of life of residents” (Jenks & Dempsey, 2005) From a holistic point of view, the development of large-scale sustainable communities is vital to procure continued rises in standards of living in economically developed countries. The viability of this, however, is questionable. Creating entirely sustainable communities on a large scale may be considered to be economically unachievable as the cost of this would be so high that sacrifices will need to be made by individuals.

Relevance internationally

For a developing nation such as Nigeria, the view of a sustainable city is very different, to that of the UK. Primarily developing nations main focus is on the economic prosperity of their nation and developing safe and resilient housing. “Slums are easily formed in areas experiencing rapid urbanisation without commensurate increase in the provision and maintenance of housing and infrastructure.” (Bobadoye & Fakere, 1926) For Nigeria, the United Nations sustainable development goal to build and develop sustainable cities is vital in terms of providing appropriate housing for those migrating to densely populated urban areas in search of work. The Figure below shows in less developed regions urban populations have grown exponentially since the mid-1970’s it is this increase in population which has caused overcrowding and unsafe slum settlements. For a nation like Nigeria, to build a sustainable community could be deemed as slum clearance. However, to do this it will be heavily resourced intensive and could have negative implications in terms of pollution and the goal to be carbon neutral

Figure 1- Urban and Rural Populations by Development Group, 1950-2050. Source: UN (2012) Cited from Adedapo, O & Akunnaya, O. (2014). Trends in Urbanisation: Implication for Planning and Low-Income Housing Delivery in Lagos, Nigeria. Architecture Research. 4. 15-26. 10.5923/s.arch.201401.03.


The development goal set by the United Nations seeks to implement sustainable communities and cities. However, the key issues it seeks to address are subject to interpretation and are different depending on the level of economic development within a country. Also, in more economically developed countries the social norms and patterns of human behaviour must be considered as continued consumption is not sustainable. Therefore, creating a fundamental problem as to the extent to which it is achievable.


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