India’s Urban 20 Stirs New And Innovative Priority Areas

By Hitesh Vaidya September 16, 2023

India’s presidency has brought focus to the urban sector by creating focussed working groups to deliberate on infrastructure financing and future of cities

India’s Urban 20 Stirs New And Innovative Priority Areas
The U20 advocates for clean, sustainable, just, affordable, and inclusive energy transitions, adoption of circular economy practices and system-wide behavioural change. Shutterstock

Every once in history, there come moments when stars align. These are transformative moments when multiple forces speak in one voice to make ‘positive change’ possible. We are sincerely convinced that the world is experiencing one such moment, when we see tremendous alignment between the New Delhi G20 Leaders’ Declaration and the concerns foregrounded by cities unanimously as part of the Urban 20 (U20) deliberations this year. Let us pause to celebrate this alignment, convert ‘intentions to action’ and orchestrate global efforts to get the urban story right! 

The technical secretariat for U20 India, the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA) believes in the power of the ‘urban constituency’ to address global developmental agendas and shape a better future. It is perhaps time to recognise the potential of cities to become principal agents in addressing the pressing challenges faced by our planet, achieving safe, resilient and just human societies, and delivering on the commitment of global climate action. 

More than half the world lives in urban areas presently and cities will be home to about 2/3rd of the world population by 2050. Taking into account only the G20, an average 80% of their population lives in cities. Cities contribute more that 80% of the global GDP. The coming decade will witness continued rapid urbanisation especially in the Global South and by 2050, a quantum jump will be experienced in the requirements of urban infrastructure and resources as well as economic opportunities. As primary engines of growth and centres of trade and culture, cities can exert significant influence on the global development agenda. At the same time, cities are also the most vulnerable to impacts of climate change, disasters, environmental degradation, resources depletion, and socio-economic inequities with millions of people living in highly dense settlements. Given this sheer volume, an urban ‘focus’ would enable to maximise the outreach of the G20 objectives. 

Thus, cities have to be at the frontline for developing effective solutions to pressing global issues and it is the right time to harness the potential of urbanisation as a catalyst to drive the ‘right’ kind of growth that is sustainable, inclusive and equitable. This has been recognised by the G7, which established the Urban7 (U7) in 2022 and the Japan Designated Cities Mayors’ Association in 2023 that were special groups to collect voices from local leaders and cities. The G7 Hiroshima Leaders’ Communiqué clearly mentions: “We acknowledge the significant role of cities, their associations, and networks as actors in our transformation towards sustainable development. We commit to foster exchange among and with cities.” 

While Urban 20 has been a prominent engagement group under G20 since 2017-18, past G20 Leaders’ Declarations have not adequately acknowledged the critical role urban areas can play in achieving global sustainable development agendas. India’s presidency has brought focus to the urban sector by creating focussed working groups to deliberate on infrastructure financing and future of cities, which has been reinforced by situating the ‘urban’ perspective in the New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration as well, making India’s presidency the first to do so. 

The G20 Leaders’ Declaration speaks about a number of action areas that are closely aligned with the six priorities highlighted by the U20 Communiqué. First and foremost, U20 highlighted the importance of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the implementation of which, was also one of the most prominent agendas of the G20 Declaration. Other overarching convergences are seen in areas such as the reform of Multilateral Development Banks and placing gender equality at the forefront of all developmental policies. Furthermore, both the U20 and G20 recognise the critical importance of harnessing the potential of youth to drive positive change. 

Another significant overlap is reflected in encouraging environmentally responsible behaviours. The U20 advocates for clean, sustainable, just, affordable, and inclusive energy transitions, adoption of circular economy practices and system-wide behavioural change, echoing the G20's commitment to accelerate efforts towards achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. Additionally, both groups highlight the need for gender-responsive and environment-resilient solutions, as evidenced by initiatives like the LiFE mission. 

Championing 'local' culture and economy is another priority of the U20, reflected in the G20 Leaders' Declaration. The U20 and G20 seek to leverage the cultural sector for inclusive growth and realise Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) while safeguarding vulnerable populations. This priority also aligns with the G20's recognition of cultural heritage and local enterprises. 

Acceleration of climate finance is one of the key priority areas where both the U20 and G20 converge. They emphasise the importance of mobilising climate finance, blending public and private funds etc. The G20 calls for a Green Climate Fund replenishment and endorses data-related solutions, flexible, sustainable finance actions, and global disclosure standards. There is a shared commitment, both direct and indirect, to mobilise climate finance, enhance adaptation funds, and set ambitious climate finance goals. Acknowledging the private sector's role and promoting financing mechanisms for developing countries and investments in green technology are also common objectives. 

Catalysing digital urban futures is another area of alignment. Both G20 and U20 prioritise access to digital services and infrastructure, and advocate an inclusive, open, fair, and secure digital economy. They recognise the potential of digital technologies in promoting culture and heritage and stress the importance of digital upskilling and reskilling and halving the digital gender gap by 2030 and emphasise the significance of emerging technologies like AI. Additionally, both the U20 and G20 have recognised the importance water security and urban planning for shaping future cities. 

India’s U20 cycle has been a great success and brought to the table many new and innovative priority areas for global thinking and deliberation. It is an opportune moment for India to emerge as a global thought leader and provide hand holding support to Brazil and subsequent cycles to ensure that the relevance and role of the urban sector gets enhanced within the G20 framework. In fact, for the first time in the history of G20, its presidency will be under countries from the Global South for four consecutive cycles (Indonesia, India, Brazil, South Africa). This presents a tremendous opportunity to foreground perspective of the Global South and build South-South partnerships and collaborations specifically on urbanisation challenges. 

While we celebrate India’s G20 achievements, as a way forward, it is important to seize the moment, recalibrate our own urban strategies as a country and translate the values and objectives of such global forums into collaborative practices and concerted action on ground.

(Hitesh Vaidya is director, National Institute of Urban Affairs, New Delhi
Nilesh Rajadhyaksha & Kanak Tiwari are programme directors, Urban Strategy Unit and Head, Urban 20 (U20) technical secretariat)