Education International
Education International

UN: Education should be the foundation of sustainable cities

published 20 October 2016 updated 24 October 2016

The Habitat III agreement on the New Urban Agenda acknowledges the strong links between sustainable urbanisation and education for all.

A new agreement on inclusive cities has been adopted by the United Nations in Quito, Ecuador. Titled Habitat III, it focuses on making cities inclusive, resilient, safe, sustainable and participatory. Significantly, it includes references that underline the strong link between quality education and better cities.

The agreement was concluded at UN Conference on Housing (Habitat), from 17-20 October. These conferences take place in a bi-decennial cycle (1976, 1996 and 2016). This conference, Habitat III, was convened to reinforce the global commitment to sustainable urbanisation and to focus on the implementation of a New Urban Agenda. It is also one of the first United Nations global summits after the adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda.


The summit comes in the context of the unprecedented challenged posed by urbanisation. By the middle of this century, four out of every five people may live in towns and cities. Over the past two decades, harmful trends like the deterioration of the Earth’s biosphere or the increase in poverty and social inequality have accelerated. This has happened despite efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the 2000–2015 global development and anti-poverty agenda.

Within the new Sustainable Development Agenda adopted by the UN in 2015, education has been recognised as critical in addressing environmental and sustainability issues and ensuring human well-being. “Increased educational attainment helps transform lives by reducing poverty, improving health outcomes, advancing technology and increasing social cohesion,” according to UNESCO.

Role of education

The Global Education Monitoring Report (GEMR) has devoted Place, one of its 2016 issue’s chapters, to the link between education and urbanisation. Place states that the transformation needed for a cleaner, greener planet requires “integrative, innovative and creative thinking, cultivated jointly by schools, governments, civil society organisations and companies. This collaboration calls for education that goes beyond the transfer of knowledge and desirable behaviours by focusing on multiple perspectives – economic, ecological, environmental and sociocultural – and by developing empowered, critical, mindful and competent citizens”.

According to the GEMR text, education can contribute to the realisation of new forms of citizenship, entrepreneurship and governance that centre on the current and future wellbeing of people and the planet.

Contribution to urban governance

Place argues that cities are engines of knowledge-based innovation and growth. Conversely, education influences cities and is key to taking advantage of their physical and social capital. The chapter provides evidence that education can have positive effects, such as reducing crime, and be used in good urban planning by encouraging sustainable transport, for example. At the same time, cities can be characterised by massive inequality, including in education, which can foster disillusionment, discontent and sometimes violence. Education needs to be viewed as a critical element of urban governance and planning arrangements to ensure that the opportunities of urbanisation outweigh the challenges and result in more inclusive, environmentally sustainable and prosperous cities.