Understanding the role of Australian cities in a global context

International governance frameworks including the United Nations Global Compact – Cities Agenda and other multi-national humanitarian, climate and economic forums.  

27 July 2020

The world is becoming increasingly urbanised with 55.3 per cent of the global population living in cities. Residents of cities across the globe are increasingly sharing common challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and globalised economic activity. This sees cities having to focus on responsive innovation to deal with issues of escalating consumption and production.

55.3% of world's population is urban

Global changes are addressed and negotiated within international policy frameworks, like the United Nation’s (UN) New Urban Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), providing national governments with strategic guidance to develop their urban policies. On a local scale, Australian cities are engaged in global networks that provide thematic assistance and facilitate cooperation between cities, such as the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy or the UN Global Compact - Cities Programme.

This Brief on ‘Global Citizenship’ aims to consider Australian cities within international policy frameworks and global networks between cities. The Brief presents key urban issues, including safety and social inclusion, social justice and rights, and sustainable development that can be impacted by international collaboration.

Key urban issues for global citizenship

Safety and social inclusion

Despite continuous economic and population growth, the spatial, social, cultural and economic inequalities of Australian cities have been deepening. The UN's New Urban Agenda recognises the impacts of urbanisation on growing inequalities and the persistence of poverty, with cities being the sites of social and economic exclusion and spatial segregation. The Agenda sets out a shared vision for cities to fulfil their social function, promote civic engagement, achieve gender equality, foster inclusive and sustainable economic growth and promote age- and gender-responsive planning.

The wellbeing and safety of residents is an underlying factor for the social functioning of cities. The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims to end domestic and racial violence by promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, strengthening institutions and increasing access to justice. Cities can become safer places through more equitable development, fair, humane and effective crime prevention and justice systems.

Social justice and rights

Social movements battling structural injustices based on aspects such as age, ethnicity, gender and indigeneity have the potential to reshape urban environments, creating more inclusive places. The UN Global Compact - Cities Programme aims to support cities aligning their sustainable development with the principles of the UN Global Compact on human rights, labour, environments and anti-corruption. The programme provides their global network of cities signatories with resources, capacity building, partnerships and targeted projects. Urban policies in Australia could benefit from engaging more closely with international best practice models to retain social cohesion and advance prosperity throughout society.

Sustainable development

The sustainable development of cities is a key component of addressing climate change, with cities consuming 75 per cent of the world’s natural resources, producing 50 per cent of the planet’s waste and generating 60 to 80 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The transition to a more sustainable urban environment is highlighted in the UN's SDG 11 ‘Sustainable cities and communities’, which aims to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

A key objective of several global networks is to assist cities in becoming more resilient and sustainable. For example, the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy is a global alliance between cities to support their transition towards a low-emissions and resilient society. Key initiatives include strengthening research and innovation to enable climate action and use of data to inform adaptation and mitigation strategies and enable local investments and implementation. Implementing innovations from global initiatives can help Australian cities adapt better to environmental risks, like climate change, and become more environmentally sustainable.

Policy implications

The UN's New Urban Agenda, Global Compact Cities Programme and the Sustainable Development Goals represent a global vision to shape the sustainable development of cities. These international policy frameworks outline possibilities to strengthen national, state and local government responses to addressing emerging global challenges and to transition urban policies. International approaches to issues such as social justice and inclusion, safety, resilience and sustainability offer a strategic opportunity for Australian cities to achieve more equitable, inclusive and sustainable outcomes.

Future lines of inquiry

  • What are particular strengths of Australian cities and how can these contribute to the progress of sustainable development internationally?
  • What are effective approaches in achieving equitable, inclusive and safe urban environments?
  • How can international policy frameworks on sustainable urban development be translated into the Australian context?
  • What are international best practice examples of resilient and sustainable urban transitions and how could these be implemented in Australian cities?