The leading role of small and mid-sized cities to achieve sustainable development

The leading role of small and mid-sized cities to achieve sustainable development


Nowadays, 55% of the world’s population lives in cities[1], with more than 80% of global GDP being generated in cities. According to the World Bank,[2]  by 2050, nearly 70% of the population will live in cities worldwide.

As widely explored by the development literature, having Paul Krugman and his proposed New Economic Geography, in 1991[3], as precursors  populational concentration brings several problems (or externalities as economists like to label), such as pollution, criminality, unaffordable living costs for housing and consumption, long hours for commuting, among others.

According to the United Nations, cities are responsible for about 70% of global carbon emissions and over 60 percent of resource use[4].  The Goal 11 was created in the 2030 Agenda, to promote a more inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable city development, calling all countries for action to promote prosperity while protecting the planet.

Promoting sustainable urban development, mainly in developing countries, is one of the key challenges for the next century. Populism is a complicated topic that emerges in every national election. This problem is even stronger on the local agenda, with different shades.

The year prior re-election, mayors tend to invest heavily in infrastructure that can be seeing, though not necessarily needed. New and shiny pavement on main roads, health facilities, schools, leisure squares, and other public monuments are common. They are built or inaugurated, even if not finished, to show that the mayor is working to foster a re-election or elect the chosen successor. Nevertheless, the needed and long-lasting infrastructures such as sanitation and sustainable, well-planned infrastructures, are left behind, term after term. In Brazil around 40% of municipalities in Brazil don’t have sanitation systems and in the North Region, only 16% have swamp systems[5], since this “needed” infrastructure cannot be seen, it is not a priority for some politicians

Moreover, in Latin America, the reality and size of the cities vary tremendously. Brazil, for example, has 5.570 cities, with metropolitan areas as Sao Paulo with more than 21 million inhabitants, in a country with 212 million people.[6] São Paulo alone represents 10% of Brazil’s total GDP[7], higher than 4.305 cities combined[8]. The same is true in Colombia, with more than 1.123 cities and Bogota metropolitan area concentrating more than 10 million inhabitants[9], and the GDP portion reaches 25% of the country’s total[10]. Mexico, with 2,446 cities and Mexico City area with a population density of almost 22 million people–in a country with 127 million–representing more than 15% of its population,[11] and 16% of the total GDP.[12] Likewise, Argentina with 44 million inhabitants, 13.5 of which living in Buenos Aires metro area, and with a GDP participation of 19%.[13] The singularity of Argentina is that 90% of the total population live in cities.[14] These numbers show that in Latin America, the population is mostly concentrated in some few cities, with a vast majority of small and mid-sized cities.

These discrepancies in the populational distribution bring other kinds of problems. The focus of federal governments for investments and actions (also due to electoral purposes and voting concentration) and most of the qualified labor force goes to these big cities, leaving the rest of the countries with a lack of capabilities, investments, and attention for sustainable development.

Federal governments, in general, have policies and a national plan for investment, sustainable development, environmental protection, and other aspects of inclusive growth. Unfortunately, though, this reality usually doesn’t land on the needed ground. Smaller and mid-sized cities do not have the proper capabilities, human resources, financial resources, well done and important projects and investment strategies, because most of these are focused to the big centers where, as said, the resources are, and the projects can have visibility, showing the work made by governors and international actors.

To tackle the problem of green growth in Latin America, local, national authorities and international actors such as development banks and development agencies must focus on the differences between and inside countries. It is needed to put the foot on the ground and study the investment in a case-by-case scenario.

Macro studies and studies in visible areas are mostly already in place. Additional resources are usually put to the review of these studies, consuming resources that would be better used in other places. Studies in smaller and remote localities, micro-plans to city and neighborhood levels are needed. Experienced specialists are needed to make the studies and foster the local capabilities, providing constant training and capacity building programs.

The awareness to the population of the benefits of good sustainable infrastructure is also another point that needs focus on. Citizens need to understand that sustainable infrastructure is not just a park, a cyclo-way, a photovoltaic solar panel, or a wind-turbine; a swamp system that will last for 100 years or a bridge that will last after a heavy rain-event are also examples of sustainable infrastructure. They also need to be aware that costs can be higher, and the construction takes more months to be ready, however in the long run will last and will be economically viable, with less public and private costs in the future.

International actors should take some small and mid-sized cities and some of their neighborhoods to make case studies, promote coordinated work, with synergies from different agencies from United Nations, Development Banks, and NGOs. These cases should later scaled up and replicated in other similar cities. Using marketing strategies, seminars, capacitation, and promoting a frank, open dialogue with the communities can create a virtuous cycle, helping to fight against populist approaches at the municipal level and, by consequence at federal levels.

Due to most Latin American countries’ reality Latin American countries, which has many more small and mid-sized cities than big cities, the focus of action should be in these cities. A bottom-up and scaled-up approach is the key to promote sustainable development. This requires some patience and joint work from different actors, mainly from international institutions, but only this way, Goal 11 and other SDG goals can be achieved.





[1] The trivial definition of what is a city indeed involves a complex understanding the New York University and European Commission definitions methodologies are being used as the two standards by United Nations in its definitions. In general terms cities are defined as an: urban extent is defined as the total area occupied by the built-up area and the urbanized open space. The built-up area is defined as the contiguous area occupied by buildings and other impervious surfaces.


[3] Increasing Returns and economic geography. Journal of Political Economy, 1991.