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Urban Adaptation: Development Strategies

In this step we introduce the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the New Urban Agenda (NUA) as key international policy frameworks.
How Is Adaptation Related To Development
© United Nations

In this article, we’ll introduce you to major development strategies within urban adaptation, in particular the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the New Urban Agenda (NUA), that set a vision for successful adaptation at the urban level. You may notice quite different understandings of what urban adaptation should entail. Some highlight the social aspects of adaptation; others highlight the need for infrastructure that is sufficiently resilient to climate change impacts. So what is then the vision for urban adaptation?

Sustainable development, inside and outside of the urban environment, needs to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Adaptation specifically addresses the need to ensure sustainable development in the light of actual and expected climate change climate impacts such as more frequent and extreme weather events, sea-level rise, increased health risks for vulnerable populations, or supply chain disruption.

Let us now focus on the Sustainable Development Goals as a part of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and shine some light on the New Urban Agenda as two important global strategies that set out a vision of how an adapted urban environment might look like.

Sustainable Development Goals

Woman holding cards showing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 11th SDG: “Sustainable cities and communities”

Source: United Nations.

In 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This agenda emphasizes a holistic approach to achieving sustainable development for all. Apart from setting 17 goals, 169 measurable ‘targets’ were specified as well as 231 unique indicators; together providing a global indicator framework and a tool for achieving progress on overall sustainable development.

SDG 11 on sustainable cities and communities specifically focuses on making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable; and sets targets such as: to ensure access to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums for all by 2030 (target 11.1), measured by the proportion of the urban population living in slums, informal settlements or inadequate housing (indicator 11.1.1).

However, Sustainable Development Goal 11 is not the only relevant goal in urban adaptation. For instance, the benefits of adaptation measures should not only accrue with affluent urban dwellers, but even more so with poor and marginalized communities, such as minorities, women, and inhabitants of slums. Therefore SDG 11 also touches upon other goals such as to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls (SDG 5); to provide sanitation for all (SDG 6); or, to ensure sustainable production patterns (SDG 12).

Challenges to implement SDGs at the urban level are found in industrialized as well as in developing countries. Cities as diverse as Bangalore (Bengaluru, India) and Manchester (United Kingdom) often struggle to implement all sustainable development goals and targets. For instance, the SDGs assume a lot of data collection, which is not always possible when cities lack the capacity to collect data. Moreover, in many cities administrative divisions need to be overcome, for example, between separate departments on waste collection, energy supply, and transport to ensure collaboration.

The New Urban Agenda

Photograph of a man in a meeting wearing a green shirt with the label “Habitat X Change” Woman talking at the “High-level political forum on sustainable development” Images taken from the New Urban Agenda.

The New Urban Agenda (NUA), adopted in 2016 at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) emphasizes the development of settlements and urban areas as a vehicle for sustainable development in both developing and developed countries. It frequently refers to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs, as well as other international agreements, including the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015–2030), and the Paris climate agreement.

The New Urban Agenda outlines how national policies, stronger urban governance, integrated planning, and effective finance frameworks can help sustainable development. Among other things, it advocates the ‘smart city’ which makes use of digitization, clean energy and technologies, and innovative transport, to make cities environmentally friendly and to boost sustainable economic growth. We will introduce you in more detail to the notion of the ‘smart city’ in Week 2 of this course.

For now, it suffices to say that the ‘smart-city’ concept has already been taken up around the world. Cities like Nairobi in Kenya have made great strides in improving internet connectivity through mobile networks. However, to achieve sustainable development, it is necessary to not forget about other infrastructures, for instance related to road traffic, to ensure efficient mobility, energy use, and clean air through cleaner vehicles (Mwaniki 2017).

Conflicts between Sustainable Development Goals and the need for participatory approaches

Although the New Urban Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals provide a vision for realizing ‘smart’ and ‘sustainable’ urban development, urban adaptation should not be reduced to the attainment of goals and targets, and the application of smart technologies. A pure focus on indicators and targets may risk negligence of specific contexts that make a city or urban area unique, or divert attention from pressing questions of fairness and equity at the global level (Kaika 2017).

Moreover, achieving targets does not rule out that sustainable development goals may clash at the urban level. For instance, air conditioning in hospitals can be considered as an adaptation measure to climate change, which provides health benefits and also improves working conditions for hospital staff. However, air conditioning also increases energy demand, potentially worsening greenhouse gas emissions. Urban adaptation, therefore, involves decision-making processes that need to be transparent and must engage people that are particularly affected by climate change impacts. This way the benefits of adaptation and urbanization will also accrue with them.

For more on adapting the NUA and Sustainable Development Goals to the city level:

Valencia, S.C., Simon, D., Croes, S., Nordqvist, J., Oloko, M., Sharma,T., Buck, N.T., Versace, I. (2019) Adapting the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda to the city level: Initial reflections from a comparative research project. International Journal of Urban Sustainable Development, 11(1):4-23

For a critical perspective on the New Urban Agenda:

Kaika, M. (2017) ‘Don’t call me resilient again!’: the New Urban Agenda as immunology … or … what happens when communities refuse to be vaccinated with ‘smart cities’ and indicators. Environment and Urbanization. Vol 29(1): 89-102.


United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (1991) Our Common Future. UN.

IPCC (2014). Glossary. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

T. Kjellstrom, A.J. McMichael. Climate change threats to population health and well-being: the imperative of protective solutions that will last. Glob. Health Action, 6 (2013), pp. 1-9

Simon D, Arfvidsson H, Anand G, et al. Developing and testing the Urban Sustainable Development Goal’s targets and indicators – a five-city study. Environment and Urbanization.

Mwaniki, D. (2017). Infrastructure development in Nairobi: Widening the path towards a smart city and smart economic development. In Smart economy in smart cities (pp. 687-711). Springer, Singapore.

Kaika, M. (2017) ‘Don’t call me resilient again!’: the New Urban Agenda as immunology … or … what happens when communities refuse to be vaccinated with ‘smart cities’ and indicators. Environment and Urbanization. Vol 29(1): 89-102.

© University of Groningen
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Sustainable Cities: Governing Urban Adaptation Under Climate Change

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