G20 and the question of urbanisation

The 2030 Agenda: Sustainable Urbanisation and the Research-Policy Interface – Issues for the G20

This week, leaders of the world’s twenty largest economies will be meeting in the German port city of Hamburg. Since the creation of the Group of 20 (G20) in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008, issues on its agenda traditionally include global economic growth, free trade and financial market regulation. For this 12th meeting the German presidency has pushed for the inclusion of issues such as digital technology, climate policy and sustainable development as well as forced mass migration.

A recent report The 2030 Agenda: Sustainable Urbanisation and the Research-Policy Interface – Issues for the G20, written by Edgar Pieterse, Sue Parnell and Sylvia Croese of African Centre for Cities for the German development agency GIZ, highlights the apparent conspicuously absence of urbanisation from the G20 agenda despite global recognition of the importance of cities for development: “A review of G20 summit documents indicates that the term ‘cities’ has only featured twice: once under the rubric climate change and green growth in the 2010 Seoul summit document and once with reference to urban mass transportation infrastructure projects in the 2012 Los Cabos G20 Leaders Declaration. There was also a world Café on cities in the lead up to the G20 Brisbane meeting. The ‘G20 Action Plan on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ adopted in 2016, however, lacks a comprehensive understanding of the urban issue/sphere.”

Cities are more than just context

The past two years has seen the emergence of a global consensus on the importance and role of cities for sustainable development. The report argues that “cities are the crucibles of our common economic, social and ecological future. It is not just people that concentrate in urban areas: traditionally economic activity, employment and value addition have also aggregated in cities. The concentration of people and capital in cities may have positive spin-offs, through improved access to education, health services and markets which improve the quality of live. However, if the urban environment is not protected, affordable services are not proactively supplied, managed and regulated and no careful attention is paid to supporting job creation and sustainable livelihoods, poverty, inequality and vulnerability grows (UN Habitat 2016).”

Global policies and commitments therefore increasingly recognise that cities are crucial for achieving sustainable development, in both the developing and developed world. This is underscored in the 2030 Agenda’s stand-alone goal #11 on the need for “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements”. In addition, multi-lateral agreements such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on development finance, the Sendai Agreement on Risk and Resilience and most recently the New Urban Agenda all place emphasis on the centrality of cities for sustainable development.

Urban development on the agenda

Although the G20 has expressed a commitment to meeting the SDGs through the adoption of the G20 Action Plan on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2016, and despite the fact that many issues which the G20 has successfully advanced over the past years as well as its collaboration with international organisations and multilateral development banks such as the OECD and the World Bank, urbanisation is yet to feature directly or prominently on its agenda. While individual G20 member states have developed and funded important urban research at the national, regional and transnational level, such as the Future Earth research initiative, the G20 collective is yet to foreground urbanisation, and therefore urban research, as a driver of global change and prioritise cities and towns as the dominant form of settlement and sphere of implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

Urban research-policy disconnect

Academic urban research has been burgeoning across the world in the past years, through the creation of new urban research institutes, regional and transnational urban research networks and new methods of urban knowledge co-production. But these hubs of academic excellence remain disconnected from institutional and scientific UN-led urban research and from local, national and global. Moreover, research on urbanisation is largely based in the North, even though most urban growth in the decades will take place in lower income countries in Asia and Africa. Research has shown that cities like Lagos, Kinshasa and Addis Ababa are expected to experience some of the greatest increases in population but have the fewest financial resources per capita to (generate the knowledge that is necessary to) address the multidimensional challenges that are associated with rapid urban growth. Moreover, these cities are least represented in international fora such as the G20.

Three recommendations 

Given these imperatives for an “urbanised” vision of sustainability, the centrality of the G20 in the global system, in the multilateral process and in the generation of new policy useful

knowledge, the report suggests that the German G20 presidency as well as future presidencies reflect on possible ‘global urban’ intervention processes that might include:

  • Re-aligning the urban-knowledge agenda in the G20 itself.
  • Strengthening the research capacity in and through the G20 to link the 2030 Agenda to the realities of urbanisation
  • Reforming the research-policy interface to enable the G20 to link the 2030 Agenda to the realities of urbanisation

The G20 therefore currently faces a unique opportunity to use its position as a global leadership forum to channel resources on urban research to where they are most needed. It can also support the creation of mechanisms to link this research to policy. In doing so, it can provide much needed leadership around the creation of the evidence required to inform, monitor and implement global international urban commitments.

  • Download the full report here.
About the author
Sylvia Croese is a research fellow at the African Centre for Cities and at the Department of Sociology at the University of Cape Town. She works on housing, urban governance, informality, the state and global urban policy in Africa.



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