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Forging a New Global Partnership with Cities: Reflections from World Urban Forum

John Romano

Posted April 16, 2014

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Last week, I joined thousands of city leaders from all around the world in Medellín, Colombia for the UN’s premiere showcase event for sustainable cities – the World Urban Forum. With the theme of “Urban Equity in Development – Cities for Life,” the forum brought together more than 20,000 participants, including mayors, governors, ministers and other high-level government officials, along with urban planners, practitioners, and other leaders from the private sector, academia and civil society.

Medellin-Urban-GondolasThis forum was remarkably different the dozens of UN meetings I have attended before, which are often filled with endless negotiations and result in vague declarations. The forum itself felt much more like a “World’s Fair” than a UN conference, with dozens of events, exhibitions, and speakers featured each day; and in many ways was a microcosm of a bustling and innovative city of the 21st century. The revitalized host city of Medellín was a perfect site for the forum – illustrative of the transformative change that cities are making in integrating socio-economic mobility and environmental planning. I came away invigorated by seeing the many ways cities are showing real leadership on the global sustainability challenges we face.

I was also encouraged to see so much support for a standalone goal on cities as one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are set to succeed the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015. At a Special Session on the Post-2015 Development Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) during the Forum, Paula Caballero of the Colombian Ministry for Foreign Affairs – who is widely regarded as the “mother of the SDGs” – boldly stated that “Governments cannot deliver on this agenda alone. We need the private sector, we need every single person in the room here to be working on (these issues).” She went on to point out that “cities are a lens through which you can multiply and address many of the inter-linkages, through which you can bring together these integrated solutions.”

NRDC Panel at World Urban ForumNRDC also hosted an event at the forum where I presented a discussion paper on a “New Global Partnership with Cities.” The key message from the paper and this event is that that cities – and most importantly, city-dwellers themselves – must be included in not just the vision for the SDGs, but also must be recognized and supported as a critical part of the “means of implementation” for these goals. All the speakers at the event -  Shelley Poticha, Director of NRDC’s Urban Solutions Program; Don Chen, Ford Foundation; Matt Boms, Communitas Coalition; and Alisa Zomer, Yale Governance Environment and Markets (GEM) Initiative, highlighted the need for greater cooperation between all levels of government and local stakeholders as a prerequisite for sustainable development within cities. Shelley Poticha presented the ground-breaking work of her Urban Solutions Program, which brings together the organizations various sustainable initiatives within cities and communities around the United States. Many of the panelists highlighted the key role of existing global city-networks such as ICLEI and C40, in the sharing of best practices and in forging new partnerships and commitments to action. 

During the Forum, ICLEI and C-40 joined the Rockefeller Foundation, the World Bank, UN-HABITAT, UNISDR and other groups in announcing the Medellín Collaboration on Urban Resilience. Collectively, these organizations work in over 2,000 cities around the world, committing more than $2 billion each year towards advancing resilient and sustainable urban growth and development. This initiative will help ensure that cities have access to the best and financial and technical tools to aid them in disaster risk reduction and resilience.

As global leaders in taking action on sustainability and climate change, cities are playing a critical role in our transition to a sustainable future. As significant hubs for innovation, economic opportunity, social inclusion – and with a blossoming global urban population – cities are poised to play an even bigger role in forging a “New Global Partnership” to support the implementation of the SDGs. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon describes it, “our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities.” Simply put, if we are truly serious about forging a truly transformational agenda in 2015, the architecture for the SDGs must link our global aspirations to local actions.

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