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Why Cities Matter for Sustainable Development

Michael Berkowitz — Former Managing Director, The Rockefeller Foundation

This post is part of a series on Advancing the Global Goals.  

A photo by Philipp Henzler.

The 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) officially opens this week in New York, and much attention will rightly be given to the successful implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were adopted at last year’s General Assembly and officially came into force as of 1 January 2016. Through our work, we at 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) are particularly proud to contribute toward the achievement of SDG 11, which focuses on building sustainable cities and communities.

Here’s why.

In many ways, cities are our greatest risk. The challenges presented by climate change, rapid migration, and disasters—both man-made and natural—most acutely affect cities.  But cities are also our greatest opportunity. They are the places where innovation happens, where solutions that improve lives are born, where wealth generation is accelerated and where efficiency gains are most achievable. And as the world becomes increasingly urban, there has never been a more important time to be undertaking this work.


That’s why I’m so proud to lead 100RC, an organization incubated and pioneered by The Rockefeller Foundation to help cities worldwide build resilience to the social, economic and physical challenges of the 21st century.

Our success, which aligns with the mission laid out in SDG 11—to improve the lives of urban dwellers across the world—will not be determined merely by our ability to rally support around the cause of building more sustainable and resilient cities. True success in this space will be determined by how well we plan for, resource, and ultimately implement the projects that will make our cities sustainable, prosperous, and resilient well into the 21st Century. And the good news is that many of these solutions are already out there, waiting to be scaled across the world.

The 100RC network spans six continents and fourteen time zones.  It is a large and diverse cohort of partners that includes rapidly urbanizing megacities like Lagos, Nigeria as well as small to mid-size cities existentially threatened by sea level rise like Rotterdam in the Netherlands and New Orleans in the United States.

Our ability to rapidly experiment, iterate, and share learnings across cities of varying sizes and varying challenges simultaneously allows us to take a broad view to see what’s working, what isn’t working, and previously unseen opportunities in order to create new solutions.

We must support the critical work happening in cities.

To achieve the bold vision set forth in SDG 11, representatives of the General Assembly must ensure that their national governments are setting the right policies that empower cities to take control of their own destiny—institutionalizing best practices for urban development that will allow them to reap the multiple benefits of a resilience dividend for years to come—through political turnover and through whatever shock or stress confronts them next.

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