Brussels 27 April 2017-- The “Expert Group Meeting on Geospatial Definitions for Human Settlements Indicators of the SDGs” organized by UN-Habitat brings together leading experts on the detection of built-up areas and on the identification and classification of what is urban and what is rural. A standard definition of the city for purposes of global reporting is a requirement for monitoring the SDGs and will assist to explore implications of the urban extents on land indicators including those based on rural definitions.

This key component of monitoring the SDGs forges a new spatial definition for cities and has been an issue of great interest for national statistical offices, civil society participants, academics and policy makers. Many of the SDG indicators are quite sensitive to where the boundary between rural and urban areas is drawn. To ensure comparability of reported results, a harmonized global definition is needed. This will facilitate exchanges and comparisons across national borders and within nations.

At this meeting, two methods have been proposed for defining what is rural and what is urban, and for identifying the area of the city. The first method, presented by the European Commission, is currently being used by all EU and OECD countries and has been endorsed by the World Bank. It has been applied globally. This method relies on population density and city size at a 1km grid level. The second method, presented by New York University, relies primarily on an assessment of the density of a built-up area, and applies various rules to create a unified urban boundary for cities. This method has been used to create a globally representative atlas of 200 cities in collaboration with UN Habitat and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. It is currently in use in four countries for the purpose of mapping change in urban land cover.

Tests conducted by the European Commission, in coordination with New York University, revealed a surprising degree of overlap between the two methods. Prior tests conducted by the European JRC revealed a high degree of overlap regardless of spatial resolution or temporality. This surprising result indicates that the two methodologies are rapidly converging and, indeed, represents the same universe of cities, detected in a similar way.

At the meeting, areas of convergence are being explored along with links to the relevant SDG indicators.

Endorsed in 2012, the outcome document of Rio +20 (United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development) recognizes that if cities and all human settlements are well planned, they can promote economically, socially and environmentally sustainable societies. The recognition of a stand-alone Goal on cities and human settlements (Goal 11) and other urban related SDGs further reaffirms the role that cities/urban areas can play in national development and shared prosperity.

UN-Habitat is leading the coordination of the statistical work on collection, reporting, monitoring and implementation of the Human Settlements Indicators of the SDGs. National governments have sent numerous requests to the agency seeking assistance in preparing conditions to monitor indicators collected at the city level or those monitored at human settlements levels.

In addition to refining the definition of what constitutes a city or rural areas, the EGM will seek to develop tools and guidelines for the collection of spatial data while comparing the existing methodologies.

Why is defining a ‘city’ important?

In many countries today, city boundaries are set along administrative and legal lines which in turn reduces the accuracy and effectiveness of decisions made by policy makers. They simply rely on guidelines which vary by country. UN-Habitat’s chief of the Global Urban Observatory Unit, Mr. Robert Ndugwa acknowledged that lack of a universally accepted definition of a city poses a risk for measuring indicators in an area that is part of a city (example, municipality) and not the whole city extent.

European Commission Deputy Head of Unit Regional and Urban Policy, Lewis Dijkstra identified that many city leaders often compare their cities to those in other countries. Movement of people from the city may create an impression that the population is declining when in fact, the city is expanding. This inhibits proper urban planning.

A lead researcher from New York University, Patrick Lamson Hall noted that the urban extent approach used by the institution provides a uniform way to create hard edges of the city which allows many policy makers to monitor the inputs and outputs of their city's interventions in a more systematic way.

In attendance, we have representatives from UN-Habitat, EC, New York University, USAID, US Census Bureau, National statistical agencies, KTH University-Sweden, University of Pennsylvania, GORA Corp, EU JRC, Civil Society, UNGGIM, and FAO.

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