The Sustainable Development Agenda’s Comeback

Man wearing denim riding a bike on an empty paris street, with a covid mask
Written by Resilient Cities Network
Thursday, 22 October 2020
Two young men walk down a city  street wearing disposable covid face masks.

In this dispatch, David Groisman, economist, Public Policies and Urban Resilience Specialist for Resilient Cities Network, looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of the value of investing in Sustainable Development Goals in concert with urban resilience.


Despite multiple efforts to advance sustainable development in recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic slammed into cities with full force, especially the larger cities. Major urban centers, such as Madrid, Milan, London, and New York, were hit hardest by the virus. In the era of globalization, the densest population hubs connect national states to the world, and at the same time, are often the source of COVID-19 spread.

Addressing the reality of urban life globally, the United Nations 2030 Agenda calls for the construction of more sustainable, inclusive, and resilient cities. As of the beginning of October, almost 900 million people live in informal settlements in cities and their metropolitan areas. Particularly in Latin America, neighborhoods with deficient infrastructure for the provision of basic services are still extremely common. Even though considerable progress in the integration of these sectors has been made, the lack of drinking water and access to safely managed sanitation services translated into ideal conditions for the spread of the new virus.

The pandemic also brought with it forced confinement, which manifested a rise in gender-based violence cases. In the City of Buenos Aires, for example, complaints to the 144-hotline increased by 48%. This trend was repeated in many cities around the world. According to the UN Secretary-General, “the limited progress made in terms of gender equality and women’s rights over the last few decades is in danger of being set back as a result of the pandemic.” This is also true regarding the disproportionate amount of unpaid work that women do, as well as their exposure as frontline workers.

Likewise, the health crisis highlighted the enormous challenge that remains in terms of decent work, another issue addressed by the 2030 Agenda in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8. Informal employment increases vulnerability to the pandemic, since it puts health, safety, and economic subsistence at risk. This scenario requires us to strengthen our containment networks and promote the transformation of professional training, in addition to stimulating the creation of new quality jobs in the recovery from the crisis.

Icons representing the 17 sustainable development goals defined by United Nations as a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all by 2030.

Cities were surprised by an external shock, and just like urban resilience theory warns, it diverted them from their development trajectories. Communities must process this impact with flexibility, and Cities must reorient their thinking and come together to adjust to this new reality if they are to emerge stronger from this challenge. In a few months, the sanitary will be mostly under control, but the magnitude of the social and economic impacts is not clear, nor is the path to recovering from them.

With the arrival of COVID-19, the main response worldwide was social distancing. Governments the world over asked people to stay at home, and we had to move “offices” and “schools” to our residences. What’s more, public spaces had to be adapted to the conditions imposed by the new normal, with rigorous sanitation standards and strict policies to maintain social distancing compliance. Sidewalks were modified to guide and contain people lining up outside businesses, and in many cities, circles were drawn in parks so people could enjoy green public spaces at a safe distance from other groups.

Some major global cities, like Milan and Paris, took it further and used this opportunity to launch ambitious sustainable mobility programs. The construction of new bicycle lanes and street pedestrianization has the potential to become the main character of the new normal.

Once the virus has been contained, we should analyze our governments’ performance, not only in terms of the number of victims we will have mourned but also based on other indicators: the lost jobs, the impact on educational quality, the increase of domestic violence, and the consequences on the environment, among others. This comprehensive analysis of the effects of COVID-19 is closely linked to resilience and sustainable development agendas, and in fact, the pandemic emphasizes just how important investing in urban resilience and SDGs is for our ability to confront future challenges.

Man wearing denim riding a bike on an empty paris street, with a covid mask

Assimilating the SDGs into urban planning enables cities to be better prepared for these challenges. The SDGs give governments a framework to strengthen employment opportunities and improve infrastructure conditions in vulnerable neighborhoods, and introduces mechanisms to eradicate violence and discrimination in all of their forms. Their pursuit also demonstrates a commitment to action for the climate and future generations.

Furthermore, urban resilience agendas highlight the importance of focusing on identifying and preparing for future shocks in city planning agendas, in order to reduce their disruptive effects. The next big global crisis may come in the shape of a pandemic, climate disaster, or a social crisis. If we want to be better prepared, we will have to put resilience and sustainable development as the highest priority agendas in cities around the world.

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