Towards sustainable cities: best practices and challenges of urban sustainable policies implementation

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City scape

By Francesco Venuti, a member of the Environmental Law and Sustainability Research Group.

Cities’ role in achieving Sustainable Development

Cities are thrilling places that allow people to develop new and innovative ideas, offering many opportunities to put into practice the shift to the brain-based economy and mechanised labour.[1] However, they also represent the major source of greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions worldwide and the areas in which most of the resources are consumed.[2] Urban environmental footprint is even expected to increase because projections estimate that 68% of the world population will live in cities by 2050.[3]

For these reasons, the United Nations decided to pay special attention to urban areas integrating them within the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.[4] In particular, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 conceives the idea of a sustainable city, calling the international community to ‘make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable’.[5] SDG 11 comprises 10 sub-targets that address different sectors of urban sustainability. Each city’s level of compliance with these sub-targets is measured through a series of indicators developed by the UN.[6]

SDG 11 and human health

Some sub-targets are closely connected with human health, e.g., those related to the transport sector (SDG 11.2), urban development plans (SDG 11.3), and air quality (SDG 11.6). In 2014, the transportation sector alone accounted for almost 1/5 of the GHG emissions,[7] playing a central role in worsening the air quality and thus impacting the health of millions of people. Besides, in 2017 air pollution represented the fourth leading cause of death worldwide.[8] Finally, urban development plans are critical in enabling broader citizens participation in cities development, offering a means to avoid discrimination that leads to social inequality and poor standards of living.

Best practices

Research shows that some cities are role models in one of the sectors taken into consideration. In particular, Singapore regarding SDG 11.2, Medellín (Colombia) regarding SDG 11.3, and Stockholm (Sweden) regarding SDG 11.6.

In Singapore, for example, recent investments made by the government allowed the public transportation sector to achieve high-efficiency levels[9] while maintaining itself affordable even for lower social classes and vulnerable people.[10] These improvements enabled Singapore to have a percentage of people conveniently served by the public transport system near 100%.[11]

In Medellín, the concept of sustainable development firstly appeared in an urban development plan in 1993.[12] Since then, environmental concerns and citizen participation progressively gained momentum, offering alternative perspectives in solving many issues (e.g., the problem of landslides in the peri-urban area).[13]

Stockholm offers a great example of how taxing polluting vehicles can increase urban air quality and positively impact human health from different angles. The 2006 congestion scheme implementation produced positive outcomes concerning traffic reduction,[14] lower CO2 emissions,[15] and dwellers health[16] and road safety improvement.[17] The good effects on air quality are confirmed by the fact that Stockholm is currently compliant with the World Health Organisation’s recommended levels of air polluting particles.[18]


Other cities, e.g., Milan, present an opposing situation with some sectors that are characterised by measures that promote SDG 11, while others show clear obstacles to urban sustainable development. In Milan, several measures directed to decrease air pollution targeted both the transport sector[19] and the GHG emissions generated by domestic heating systems.[20] The results in terms of air quality improvement are promising.[21] However, concerning the link between urban development plans and social inclusion and integration, research shows both an unequal wealth distribution[22] and irrational land utilisation.[23] These elements produce social fallouts related to immigrant communities’ inclusion and integration and widespread illegal housing.[24]

In conclusion, data gathered on these four cities demonstrate that the best way to address SDG 11 is by adopting an integrated approach that has collaboration between different actors as its core and gives the same importance to all the three pillars of sustainable development.

This blog is based on the LLM dissertation on ‘Are policies on Sustainable Cities complying with SDG 11? Milan as a case study’.


[1] Steven Cohen, The Sustainable City (Columbia University Press 2017)

[2] United Nations, ‘Tracking Progress Towards Inclusive, Safe, Resilient and Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements: SDG 11 Synthesis Report High Level Political Forum 2018’ (2018) available at:

[3] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, ‘World Urbanisation Prospects 2018: Highlights’ (2019) 5 UN Doc ST/ESA/SER.A/421; UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, ‘68% of the World Population Projected to Live in Urban Areas By 2050, Says UN’ (United Nations, 16 May 2018) available at:

[4] United Nations General Assembly Resolution 70/1 ‘Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ (25 September 2015) UN Doc A/RES/70/1 (adopted without vote)

[5] available at:

[6] United Nations General Assembly Resolution 71/313 (6 July 2017) UN Doc A/RES/71/313 (adopted without vote), annual refinements contained in E/CN.3/2018/2 (Annex II), E/CN.3/2019/2 (Annex II), and 2020 Comprehensive Review changes (Annex II) and annual refinements (Annex III) contained in E/CN.3/2018/2 (Annex II), E/CN.3/2019/2 (Annex II), and 2020 Comprehensive Review changes (Annex II) and annual refinements (Annex III) contained in E/CN.3/2020/2

[7] European Environment Agency, ‘Sectoral greenhouse gas emissions by IPCC sector’ available at:

[8] Hanna Ritchie and Max Roser, ‘Air Pollution’ (Our World in Data, October 2017) available at:

[9] ‘Completion of The Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP)’ (Land Transport Authority, 9 December 2017) available at:

[10] ‘Concessionary Card Fare Structures for Lower-Wage Workers and Persons with Disabilities’ available at:

[11] available at:

[12] Peter Brand, ‘The Sustainable City as a Metaphor: Urban Environmentalism in Medellín, Colombia’ in Mike Jenks and Rod Burgess (eds), Compact Cities: Sustainable Urban Forms for Developing Countries (Spon Press 2000)

[13] Joseph Claghorn and others, ‘Rehabitar la Montaña: Strategies and Processes for Sustainable Communities in the Mountainous Periphery of Medellín’ [2016] 8 Urbe: Revista Brasileira de Gestão Urbana 42

[14] Staffan Algers and others, ‘Facts and Results from the Stockholm Trials’ (2006) available at:

[15] Jonas Eliasson and others, ‘The Stockholm Congestion Charging Trial 2006: Overview of Effects’ [2009] 43 Transportation Research Part A 240

[16] Christer Johansson, Lars Burman, and Bertil Forsberg, ‘The Effects of Congestion Tax on Air Quality and Health [2009] 43 Atmospheric Environment 4843

[17] Jonas Eliasson, ‘A Cost–Benefit Analysis of the Stockholm Congestion Charging System’ [2009] 43 Transportation Research Part A 468

[18] European Environmental Agency, ‘Air Quality in Europe: 2019 Report’ (2019) EEA Report No 10/2019 95 available at:

[19] Milan City Council Deliberations (Deliberazioni della Giunta comunale di Milano) 1788/2007, 2526/2011, 1366/2018 (IT)

[20] Ordinance of the Mayor (Ordinanza del Sindaco) 51/2020

[21] Edoardo Croci and Aldo Ravazzi Douvan, ‘Urban Road Pricing: A Comparative Study on the Experiences in London, Stockholm and Milan’ (2016) Centre for Research on Energy and Environmental Economics and Policy available at:

[22] Pietro L Verga, ‘Rhetoric in the Representation of a Multi-Ethnic Neighbourhood: The Case of Via Padova, Milan’ [2016] 48 Antipode 1080

[23] ‘Urban Development and Green Economy’ available at:

[24] Petros Petsimeris, ‘Social and Ethnic Transformation of Large Housing Estates in Milan, Italy: From Modernity to Marginalisation’ in Daniel Baldwin Hess, Tiit Tammaru, and Maarten Van Ham (eds) Housing Estates in Europe: Poverty, Ethnic Segregation and Policy Challenges (Springer 2018)