Four years ago, during the final days of the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development, attendees recognized that a global development framework can be successful only if it includes a strong focus on the places where people live. Indeed, in our increasingly urbanized world, addressing global poverty and inequality requires a territorial approach.

At the same time, attendees also recognized the challenge of creating coherence between various global agreements and goals related to development, poverty alleviation, urbanization, and climate change. And they understood that doing so was crucial, because in the coming years world leaders would hope to advance these goals at the Paris climate negotiations, through the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and at the Habitat III conference on urbanization.

It was against this backdrop that the Coalition for Sustainable Cities and Regions in the New UN Development Agenda, known as Communitas, came to be. With support from the Ford Foundation, Communitas quickly evolved from an inchoate idea to a platform for global advocacy. The coalition assembled a group of partners—core partners ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, the Network of Regional Governments for Sustainable Development (nrg4SD), the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), and the Tellus Institute, as well as a diverse advisory committee—to work to connect diverse social, economic, and environmental movements that share an interest in the sustainable development potential of cities and regions.

In those early days after the Rio conference, Communitas set out to ensure that cities and regions are seen as a crucial part of the sustainable development agenda. And today, the coalition is recognized as an instrumental player in the expansion and adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes SDG 11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” Communitas has also been a key player in articulating the outcome of the UN Habitat III process: a New Urban Agenda, which emphasizes the need for balanced, integrated urban and territorial development, and creating links between urban and rural areas.

Taken together, these two global frameworks confirm that inclusive, safe, prosperous, resilient, and sustainable urban and territorial development has the power to trigger transformative change—and so can and must be a development priority. Within it, cities and regions have earned their place as a critical focus: The SDGs simply cannot be achieved without the support and action of local and state governments. And localizing all the SDGs is essential to the achievement of the overall 2030 Agenda and the New Urban Agenda.

Now, with cities and regions being widely acknowledged as central to sustainable development, it is time for Communitas to wind down and pass the baton to the organizations and governments that will work on implementation—in line with our original plan. In this shift toward implementation, we hope others will be able to draw on some of what Communitas has learned and accomplished.

Lessons from the Communitas method

Our coalition’s international, philanthropy-funded, multi-stakeholder, and knowledge-based approach was critical to our success. Communitas reminded the UN system and governments at all levels that philanthropy plays a crucial role in enabling cross-sector collaboration, as well as in supporting civil society and encouraging local and state governments’ engagement in intergovernmental processes. The coalition’s international character underscored that getting urban development right is a universal challenge and an opportunity for developed and developing nations alike. As a multi-stakeholder effort, it helped show that it will take a diverse range of participants to make our cities more vibrant, sustainable places, rich with economic opportunity. Finally, with its unique blend of technical expertise, Communitas was able to offer technical input that both assisted intergovernmental processes and empowered collaboration across sectors.

Partnerships like the following, initiated by Communitas, helped maximize cities’ and regions’ potential as drivers for sustainable development, so that no one and no place is left behind:

Partnerships for integrated territorial development

Entities such as UN-Habitat, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Centre for Regional Development (UNCRD), the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), and the government of Colombia—whom we have been honored to count as core collaborators—are working with civil society, planners, and academia to further urban-rural synergies. These groups are collaborating to provide governments at all levels with tools to help cities perform their territorial functions across administrative boundaries, and to do so with a systems approach.

Partnerships for youth empowerment

The UN Major Group for Children and Youth (UN MGCY) and ICLEI are working toward the establishment of the Cities 2030 Young Professionals Programme, an effort to revitalize local governments everywhere by employing young professionals who have knowledge and experience in sustainable development. Together, local governments and the youth-led organizations of the UN MGCY can ensure that cities and towns are energized by young talent—which, in turn, will strengthen sustainable development.

Public-private partnerships for urban infrastructure

Working with local and regional governments, as well as representatives of Public Services International (PSI), the World Bank, and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), Communitas has initiated sorely needed conversations on public-private partnerships (PPPs) for urban infrastructure, and the role of development banks and municipal finance in the cause of sustainable development. Communitas has produced a set of draft principles for PPPs for urban infrastructure and will ensure that this work continues to animate the efforts of the UN, governments at all levels, and other stakeholders working to establish PPPs that truly serve people and the planet.

Toward a more sustainable future

The Communitas Coalition was a simple idea with an ambitious outlook, and we are proud to have helped jump-start important partnerships for a more sustainable future. The next steps to ensure that the global agendas have a meaningful impact will be taken by the diverse stakeholders who helped make these historic frameworks a reality, and by governments at all levels. When connected to global frameworks on climate change, disaster risk reduction, and financing for development, the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda represent an important opportunity to right past wrongs and build a more sustainable future. By continuing to work together, we will rise to meet that opportunity.