Framing Urban Resilience within the UN Sustainable Development Goals: still gaps between theory and policy guidelines?

This weekend, 25 – 27 September 2015, more than 150 world leaders will attend the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, in New York, to formally adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) setting the Post 2015 Development Agenda. In 2000, UN launched a set of eight international development goals, better known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), to be achieved by 2015 and aiming to tackle the indignity of poverty in the developing world. The new post 2015 Agenda (2015-2030) doubles the MDGs by proposing 17 SDGs (and 169 targets), to be supplemented in 2016 with numerous indicators. There are different key messages within the new 2030 Agenda, that to my view should be considered as critical insights driving our urban studies research paths. Also, as this post title stresses, there are still some important gaps between theory and policy guidelines that are worth mentioning and debating, when framing and promoting (urban) resilience.


Fist of all, the SDGs keep MDGs while expanding some of them (i.e. new goals related to water and sanitation, energy, climate change and inequality) and in so doing encompassing almost all the issues that can be considered related to sustainable development (and this could be seen both/either as a strength and/or weakness). As better explained here, one of the main consequence for this is that SDGs are not only directed to developing countries (as the MDGs were) but apply uniformly to all countries worldwide. Two among many interesting insights, and consequences, of broadening the scope, audience and responsible actors for addressing the new goals, could be summarized: i) a clear call for enhancing the role of science (science, technology, and innovation) in contributing to the goals achievement and ii) the close relationship between the new sustainable goals and the global urbanization strategy for the next 20 years (better known as Global Urban Agenda for 2030, to be presented at the HABITAT III Conference, Quito 2016).

Regarding the first point, in a recent editorial published in Science, William Colglazier illustrates how science, technology, and innovation should contribute to achieve SDGs by contributing with the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR), acting as a platform for continued interaction between scientists and policy makers. UN could schedule Global Sustainable Development Report chapters much like the IPCC reports are organized, while each country’s government could commission a national sustainable development report. Such process should be inspiring for us, urban studies researchers and planners, because of the emerging role of both science and cities within these planetary sustainability challenges. A first ever dedicated Urban SDG indeed (Goal 11, “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable“, see the full text of these goals and targets here), represents United Nations’ strongest expression ever of the critical role that cities will play in the world’sfuture, linking SDGs, and any new climate agreement (COP 21 in Paris to be held this December 2015), to the Global Urban Agenda for 2030.

Which are the implications for cities of having an Urban Sustainability Goal?

The introduction of an urban goal has been supported from an impressive world-wide mobilization of voices, lobbied through a social media campaign using the hashtag #urbanSDG. The Campaign for an Urban SDG brought the profiles and voices of cities within the global sustainability agenda, responding to one of the main challenges of operationalizing sustainability: the spatial localization (of targets and indicators) and the correspondent responsibility to take action. As also reported from a working paper commissioned to the United Cities and Local Government (UCLG), cities will play a key role within many other SDGs, and across a range of spatial scales, notwithstanding the stand-alone goal on cities. Because of this, strong multilevel governance mechanism and capacities should indeed be set up in order to accomplish such difficult task. The Sustainable Development Solutions Network published a report outlining 6 points about why (and implications for) cities need to have an Urban SDG. In particular it’s emphasized: the need to empower all urban actors, address urban poverty and guarantee the access to integrated and innovative infrastructures, promote land use planning through efficient spatial concentration and enhance resilience to climate change. However, if from one side it seems that the scientific understanding of cities (being systems of systems), cities challenges and their cross scales implication to our planet (Karen Seto et al “Urban Teleconnections” concept, linking urban land use changes with far away impacts on ecosystems) have been properly understood, and translated within the SDGs, I’d argue that less clear understanding has been established between theory and policy guidelines when the concept of resilience has to be operationalized.

Resilience, innovation, power and empowering: still not clear “resilience for whom?”

If we take a closer look at the 17 SDGs, looking for how resilience has been framed, we’ll find the answers in the Goal 9 (Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, and foster innovation) and Goal 11 (the Urban Goal). If you go through the 8 targets of Goal 9 , you will find the call for: 9.1 reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructures (which could stand for “durable” infrastructures),9.2 inclusive industrialization – raise share of employment and gross domestic product, 9.3 increase the access to financial services, 9.4 retrofit industries increasing resource-use efficiency, 9.5 enhance research and innovation, 9.a facilitate resilient-sustainable infrastructures in developing countries, 9.b supporting industrial diversification in developing countries and 9.c affordable access to internet and access to information. To my view, these are essential targets. However, from a resilience scientist perspective, the link among resilience – sustainability – inclusiveness through innovation is not clear, and not in line with the last theoretic underpinnings on resilience. Indeed, there’s no reference to which kind of innovation, if leading to infrastructure decentralization (the calls for a “decentralized resilience” launched from Franco Montalto recently), people empowerment and  active involvement within the urban metabolism (being co-producers of energy – water etc) or innovations cleaning the centralized powers that manage the most of urban resources? Jump to the Goal 7 (Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all) and take a look at its targets. 7.1 ensure access to services, 7.2 increase share of renewables, 7.3 improve efficiency, 7a and 7b there no clear statement about the need for empowering people within the active co-production (diversifying, serving as a redundancy enabler within the net, all resilience principles), something referred to as community empowerment for communities resilience in the resilience literature. In the Goal 6 (referring to Water) there is neither such empowerment and paradigm shift call, in term of resources and services management. Finally, looking at our stand-alone Urban Goal, the 10 targets explore housing, transport, planning, cultural heritage, disaster risks, environmental impacts, green spaces and I’d say all the main urban challenges. If you look for resilience within such 10 targets, you’ll clearly find out the reference to risks reduction strategies (in line and recalling the necessary link to the Sendai Framework). Many targets do deal with key aspects of sustainability and inclusiveness. But once you recall some key recent papers on the challenges in bringing resilience (urban resilience) ahead (like this, this or this) you’ll find the call for linking resilience and innovation and transformation for empowering people, changing systems rules (and dynamics) along a long term transition that should provide more local and distributed responsibility and involvement within the sustainability goals.

Fortunately, although resilience is still framed as a risk-related concept in policy guidelines, from science there’s space and time to contribute to such need for filling the gaps among theory and practices, or as in this case, between theory advances and policy guidelines. How should we frame resilience within the set of indicators which will be developed out from the 169 SDGs’ Targets?


  1. Great reflection thank you! It is interesting to see how calling for resilience in policy making does not necessarily imply embracing urban change (i.e. transformation). Thanks to this post I have checked the advances in this regard. The Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGS) conducted an open consultation on the development of a global indicator framework for the SDGs. It seems that hundreds of stakeholders have commented on SDG indicators, including urban SDG ( and The results are now under review and should be submitted by 30th of Nomvember. All information about the process is to be found here: I ma eager to know the outcome.

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