Goal 11 Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

Goal 11 - Sustainable cities and communitiesI’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: cities are big news. They’re high on public and political agendas, and have become increasingly central to the idea of sustainable development. This is hardly surprising given that they’re at once home to extreme poverty, environmental degradation and the vast majority of the planet’s wealth. And – if their status needed cementing any further – they’re growing, with urbanisation described as a ‘defining trend’ of our time.

It’s perhaps equally unsurprising, then, to see the resilience of cities feature so prominently in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

But what exactly do the SDGs say on the matter, and how does this relate to the Royal Society’s work?

Within the SDGs the natural home for resilient cities is Goal 11. One of its aims is to significantly reduce the number of deaths, people affected and economic losses caused by disasters, with a focus on people in vulnerable situations (Target 11.5). This is a central tenet of both the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (another global agreement we’ve been following) and the Society’s own work on resilience to extreme weather.

The starting point for our work was the recognition that extreme weather inflicts a huge amount of damage on people’s lives and livelihoods (see Sally’s blog post on the ‘resilience deficit’). More positively, though, we recognised that societies already possess much of the knowledge and experience to not only cope with disasters but also reduce disaster impacts and build resilience.

In order to do this, Goal 11 calls for an increase in the number of cities putting in place policies to adapt to climate change and become more resilient to disasters (Target 11.b). Despite the growing resilient cities movement (again, see my previous blog), the responsibility to develop and resource resilience-related policies still rests with national governments. In our Resilience report we recommend that governments should consider all the factors – the whole system – likely to be affected by extreme weather, including areas not directly impacted and effects over decades.

We also recommend that progress in building resilience should be measured using ‘input’ metrics (which would include the number of cities putting in place resilience policies – Target 11.b) as well as ‘outcome’ metrics (which would include the number of deaths or economic losses caused by disasters – Target 11.5). For more on metrics, see pages 90-91 of our Resilience report.

Goal 11 also highlights the need for sustainable urbanisation and settlement planning (Target 11.3). Urbanisation features in both our Resilience to extreme weather and People and the planet reports. Both recognise it as a potential force for good or ill, depending on how well planned it is. If poorly planned – without effective governance, financial resources or the political will to invest in new services and infrastructure – it can constrain economic activity, exacerbate the number of vulnerable people exposed to disasters, and ultimately entrench poverty.

The reference to sustainable settlement planning in Goal 11 is therefore a welcome one. In our Resilience report (see page 76) we highlight land-use and urban planning as key policy areas where resilience considerations need to be applied, allowing urbanisation to boost prosperity rather than add to vulnerability.

Beyond Goal 11

Yes, Goal 11 is the torchbearer for resilient cities, and yes, many have argued that a stand-alone goal on the topic gives it considerably more clout. That said, resilient cities crop up throughout the SDGs. This is wholly intentional: an important distinction between the SDGs and their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), is the SDGs’ integrated nature and attempt to tackle the numerous components of sustainable development collectively.

As Pope Francis outlined in his encyclical letter on ‘care for our common home’, we must understand ‘the mysterious network of relations between things’ and the dangers of solving ‘one problem only to create others’. It was a sentiment echoed by Ban Ki-moon at last month’s UN summit: ‘We can no longer afford to think and work in silos’.

A comprehensive run-down of how resilient cities feature across the SDGs would require an entire blog series of its own (though I’d recommend this ICSU report and this Guardian piece for more on the 17 SDGs and 169 targets, how issues cut across them, and how they could reinforce or undermine one other).

As far as this blog post’s concerned, here are just a couple of examples of how resilient cities feature beyond Goal 11.

Target 1.5: By 2030, build the resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations and reduce their exposure and vulnerability to climate-related extreme events… and disasters

Goal 1 - no povertyThe MDGs failed to recognise the link between poverty and disasters, so it’s particularly pleasing to see disasters referred to in Goal 1. Our work has always pointed to this inextricable link; with disasters often undoing development gains, preventing people from escaping poverty or pulling them back into it.

The implications of this link for international policy are spelled out in our short statement, Taking joint action on disasters, development and climate change. Here we argue that more closely aligned policies on disasters, development and climate change would reinforce global efforts to build resilience to extreme weather, while avoiding duplication of efforts and confusion over mandates.

Although not a city-specific issue, disasters are likely to disproportionately affect poor and vulnerable people in urban areas as this is where disaster risk is projected to increase the most (see our analysis in chapter 2 of the Resilience report).

Target 9.1: Develop quality, reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure, including regional and transborder infrastructure…

Goal 9 - Industry, innovation and infrastructureAlthough not the most well-defined target, ‘reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure’ is clearly a prerequisite for resilient cities. The references to ‘resilient’ and ‘regional and transborder’ infrastructure in Goal 9 are particularly noteworthy.

They complement our advice to view infrastructure as an integrated whole and to apply ‘systems thinking’ to the planning, design and maintenance of resilient infrastructure. This involves recognising that vulnerabilities or failure in one sector can affect the whole system, potentially leading to a cascade of failures elsewhere (see pages 77-78 of our Resilience report).

The importance of infrastructure in the sustainable development sphere seems to have risen in tow with the resilient cities movement. This rise has been helped by an oft-quoted (and frankly mindboggling) statistic from the Global Infrastructure Basel (GIB) Foundation: 75% of the infrastructure that will be in place by 2050 doesn’t exist today (!)

What this statistic captures, and Goal 9 represents, is that the development of new infrastructure presents a major and very tangible opportunity to increase the resilience of our cities and help safeguard future generations.

So there you have it: a whistle-stop tour of how resilient cities feature across the SDGs and the Royal Society’s policy work. It’s a topic we’ll be returning to over the coming months, particularly with the World Humanitarian Summit (to which we’ve already contributed) and the UN-Habitat III conference on the horizon.


This blog post is the second in a series on the Sustainable Development Goals to be published over the coming weeks. The first post looked at education and the next will look at sustainable consumption, drawing on our People and the planet report.