Harmonization of Urban Definitions Key to Monitoring Implementation of SDGs and the NUA

By on 10/18/2018

Nairobi, 17 October 2018 – A rapid assessment of approaches to collecting city level data reveals a mixed bag of results with huge variations not only in how each country defines urban, but also in how urban level data is collected. The result is often data that is not comparable nationally, regionally and globally, making it difficult to monitor development agendas such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the New Urban Agenda (NUA).

Until recently megacities denoted urban areas with at least 10 million inhabitants but the rapid rate of urban growth in most parts of the world has spawned cities which surpass this threshold by far, making it necessary to introduce into urbanization lexicon terms such as Hyper or Meta for cities with more than 20 million inhabitants. However, most urban development is projected to take place in medium sized cities with between 500, 000 to 1 million inhabitants.

Although number of inhabitants is one way of defining cities, a more formal definition that distinguishes cities from other urban or rural agglomerations is fundamental. The terms city and urban have traditionally been used in an inclusive sense. City areas may refer narrowly to the central business district or to dense commercial, residential, and industrial nodes in an urban region or to the entirety of dense, heterogeneous and extensive settlements. This reference encompasses variations that include core urban centers on one extreme and urban centers that overlap with agricultural and unmanaged lands on the other.

Many people see cities as densely populated areas where people and businesses connect, exchange information and execute transactions more efficiently. The combination of digital platforms, user-generated content and feedback, social media integration, global positioning services, and the use of big data and artificial intelligence has transformed the way people experience, consume and share information in many cities and urban areas making these attributes relevant factors in defining a city or urban area.

Evidence from localizing the SDGs monitoring and reporting frameworks indicates that indicator computations that require measurement at the urban and rural levels largely rely on a clear definition of what constitutes the reference units of human agglomerations at which measurements take place. To measure and understand key elements of sustainable development and develop solutions to common urban and rural problems applicable across countries, it is important to agree on basic elements which define cities and distinguish them from other forms of settlements. This should be done through multi-stakeholder consultative processes.

The need for a global definition of city has attracted interest from stakeholders across the globe, including Member States, diverse organizations in the development sector, research institutions, think tanks and civil society groups. UN-Habitat, whose key mandate is to promote sustainable urbanization has been at the fore in this endeavor to establish a global definition of city. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to defining an urban or city area in any given country. Instead various global definitions need to be discussed at regional, national and sub-national levels to ensure that whatever is agreed upon is integrated into city-wide strategies for sustainable urban development.

UN-Habitat and other global partners have led the appeal for Member States to work towards a harmonized city and urban area definition since 2016. At the Habitat III Conference the European Union (EU) made a commitment to develop a global definition of city. The European Commission has partnered with UN-Habitat to engage countries in the ongoing debate on a global definition of city by introducing the degree of urbanization approach endorsed by FAO, OECD and World Bank and to get their feedback on the applicability of the approach for local level data generation, monitoring and reporting. A series of 7 workshops will be conducted in Africa, Asia, Arab States and Latin America.

Participating countries will have an opportunity to learn more about the urban related SDGs and how they should be measured, how the degree of urbanization approach works, and how it differs from other national and global definitions. There will be in-depth discussions on lessons learnt and challenges encountered with national and sub-national urban definitions for participating countries. Lessons learnt from implementing the degree of urbanization definition in the EU for more than 10 years will be shared and compared to working with global urban definitions in African countries.

The first workshop to be held in Abuja between 15 – 19 October 2018 will be followed by countries undertaking cautious steps to revise or realign their national definitions with global applications in close consultation with local governments and national statistical institutions.

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