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Main Issue

Humanity has for the first time become an urban species, and the number of people living in towns and cities has grown more than fivefold since 1950. Cities are key systems for global economic growth but also drivers of environmental degradation, affecting the balance between humans and natural systems. They consume two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It is estimated that by 2030, cities will be expanding into key global biodiversity hotspots, severely affecting natural ecosystems and their critical services for cities.

Rapid and unplanned urbanization is leading to urban sprawl that has made cities highly vulnerable to climate change induced flooding, droughts, and heatwaves. Urban sprawl is further resulting in inadequate transportation infrastructure, leading to air pollution and affecting the health and well-being of millions. Short-term and uncoordinated responses to the problem—additional infrastructure, excessive land use and ground water extraction, energy-intensive cooling and other resource-intensive measures—cause further environmental degradation and vulnerability. Urban areas are expected to triple in size between 2000 and 2030, and by 2050 as much as 70% of the global population is predicted to live in cities, which will likely exacerbate these trends in absence of transformational shifts towards compact, low-carbon, resilient, and inclusive cities.

There are significant obstacles to such shifts. Cities face institutional, political, and financial constraints, have uncoordinated urban policies, lack integrated planning and effective engagement of stakeholders, and need to increase their capacity to break from ‘business as usual’ practices. Cities are also at the frontline of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to economic, social, and health crises simultaneously on top of the environmental crises.

What We Do

Creating sustainable cities is essential to achieve sustainable development. There is a growing momentum for climate action, and cities are at the center of that movement. Forward-looking mayors and national governments are setting climate and sustainability targets for cities, and urban programs and city networks are emerging to support these efforts. Cities, as key economic systems, are also very well placed to lead the way towards a green recovery from COVID-19 thanks to their integrated nature.

Recognizing the centrality of cities as key climate actors, the GEF launched the Sustainable Cities Integrated Approach Pilot in 2016, as part of the GEF-6 phase (2014-2018). The program is now in implementation, supporting 28 cities in 11 countries with integrated urban solutions for green mobility, clean energy, climate adaptation, and solid waste and chemicals management. Along with these country projects, the operational Global Platform for Sustainable Cities is facilitating city-to-city exchange and knowledge creation.

Building on the GEF-6 phase, the Sustainable Cities Impact Program (SCIP) in GEF-7 (2018-2022) advances the integrated approach of urban planning and implementation. The program brings together global, national, and local stakeholders to work towards a common vision of sustainable, low carbon, inclusive, gender sensitive, and resilient development, and is supporting 24 cities in nine countries. The SCIP focuses on both infrastructure and nature-based solutions for urban sustainability, engages with city-based organizations and the private sector, and integrates gender and inclusion into planning and investment decision-making in cities.

The objective of the Sustainable Cities program is to deliver impactful development outcomes at large scale and with multiple global environmental benefits. To strengthen opportunities for cutting-edge support, learning and knowledge sharing, the program is delivered through two interlinked components: 1) innovative implementation models for integrated sustainability solutions and investments in selected cities and countries; and 2) a global platform and coordination project. As the country and city-level investments lead to multiple global environmental benefits, the global platform will enhance the potential for amplifying the benefits across many more cities in recipient countries.


Map of Sustainable Cities Impact Program cities

The Sustainable Cities program works with city-level projects in 51 cities across 17 recipient countries, through $310 million in GEF grants, leveraging $4 billion in co-financing. The program is expected to contribute towards avoiding or reducing more than 280 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) of greenhouse gas emissions, and to improve management and restoration of approximately one million hectares of land and 38,000 hectares of marine habitat. The program is expected to benefit over 58 million people.

Looking Ahead

During these challenging times following the COVID-19 pandemic, GEF’s Sustainable Cities program will continue deliver multiple environmental benefits while supporting economic urban growth and livability. The pandemic has provided a great opportunity for cities to reset their policies, incentives, and investments for green and sustainable growth, and many cities have as a response adopted an integrated approach across departments and in coordination with national governments.

The program will advance its support to integrated planning and investments for sustainable and innovative solutions, to decarbonize urban infrastructure, and promote circular economy approaches in for example urban food systems and waste management. A strong focus on nature-based solutions in cities is set out to generate multiple global environmental benefits for climate change mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity enhancement and land restoration, as well as many social and economic benefits, such as new jobs and livelihood opportunities, food security, and improved human health. Through this work, the GEF promotes the urban transformation needed to create net-zero, nature positive, resilient, and inclusive cities that can deliver global economic, environment, and sustainability goals, while directly contributing to green urban recovery.