Urbanizing the sdgs: from property-led development to sustainable human development of cities

Shahyd, Khalil (2018). 'Urbanizing the SDGs: From Property-led Development to Sustainable Human Development of Cities' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


The idea of development as expansion of capabilities and freedoms is widely recognized as a “breakthrough” in the field of development economics. The debate inspired by insights of Mahbub-ul Haq and Amartya Sen have had far-reaching implications for our understanding of the process of development and for the ways and means of promoting it. The emergence of the human development paradigm underpinned by Amartya Sen’s conceptual framework on capabilities also broadened existing understandings of both poverty and development. The merits of this approach have been recognized by its rapidly widespread proliferation which consequently has placed human focused poverty reduction at the center of global development agendas.

The idea that progress should be conceived as a process of enlarging people’s choices and enhancing their capabilities is the central premise of the human development report launched by the UNDP in 1990. The report quantified through the Human Development Index (HDI) that people are the real wealth of a nation. The basic objective of development then is to create an enabling environment for people to live long, healthy and creative lives. This may appear to be a simple truth. But it is often forgotten in the immediate concern with the accumulation of commodities and financial wealth. Perhaps the most enduring, contribution of the HDI to our thinking about development lies in showing that levels and trends in human development can and do differ significantly from levels of income and trends in GDP growth.

Despite the richness of the debate on development at the international level, the urban scale has remained largely untouched by those conversations. Urban development is still dominated by a single model that can be termed as "property-led development" or gentrification. Without bringing that model into question, successful implementation of the SDGs in cities, that reduces them to nothing more than individual quantitative targets, will be mediated through the development of property and the built environment and lead to greater pressures on inequality and displacement. 

 Property-led urban development was initially a public sector strategy to encourage economic growth within downtown, inner and central-city regions by creating the conditions under which real estate investors are drawn to and can extract value from a place.

By the mid-1970s, the national governments in many industrialized economies began to withdraw financial support for urban physical redevelopment schemes leaving cities with few alternatives than to convert more areas of the city to investment frontiers. Cities that had not previously relied on gentrification (i.e. property-led development) began to explore means to attract real-estate investment. By the 1980s, efforts to encourage property redevelopment by the private sector took center stage as the dominant urban development model. Under this model, cities are required to pursue the highest valued land uses for redeveloped areas as a means of maximizing the value of the land base.

While the human development approach broadened our understanding of development beyond economic growth at the international level, cities continue to function in a framework where growth is the dominant priority, and investment in human or social development are seen as irrelevant to the property driven growth model.

How can the capability approach contribute to critically thinking on the nature of development and how to promote it at the urban scale? The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are unique in that they integrate social outcomes with outcomes that target the built environment to produce a holistic development frame. SDG 11 on making  cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable acts as both its own individual target but also a spatial scale where multiple targets combine to remake the development path of cities.

Still, implementing the human development approach at urban scale will have to similarly contend with property and the built environment as the primary fulcrums that drive urban development.

To date, much of the discourse on local implementation of the SDGs has focused on, "winning the day" by securing their formal adoption by cities, states and other government entities. As such SDG initiatives have been limited to getting the right data and measuring progress. Not irrelevant topics but they miss the opportunity and necessity of facilitating a transformational dialogue on rethinking development at the urban scale during a time when alternatives are sorely needed. 

Implementing the SDGs at the urban scale require rethinking the purpose and practice of development at the local level. It must be about more than housing and property development but how the urban built environment serves to enhance human capabilities and functioning.

Using the built environment as a point of departure this paper will develop a case study of low income energy efficiency programs and the production of “non-energy benefits”, as a means of making a link between the build environment and social development in a way that supports human development. Non-energy benefits, sometimes referred to as non-energy impacts, are any positive consequence of energy efficiency improvements outside of saving energy. These include direct benefits to health, employment and increased consumption expenditure, in addition to pollution and climate benefits from the reduction of emissions from power generators.

SDG7 on: Ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy specifically calls for doubling the rate of energy efficiency improvement by 2030 and offers the clearest opportunity to engage cities in an effort to retrofit and enhance the built environment while achieving substantive gains in human and social development.

By focusing on SDG7 as a starting point, the SDGs through the deliberate integration of social outcomes and the built environment offer the frame for an alternative development in cities. One that builds an alternative to property-led development based on a model for an urban sustainable human development.

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