Main Issue

Humanity, for the first time, has become an urban species. The number of people living in towns and cities has grown more than fivefold since 1950 and a decade ago overtook those living in the countryside. Cities already consume over two-thirds of its energy and account for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. They are increasingly choked by traffic, air pollution, and waste production

How we design and build our cities of the future will be critical for the health and well-being of our people, our economies, and our planet. If managed well, compact, resilient, inclusive, and resource-efficient cities could become drivers of the economy, contributing to local livability, global environmental benefits, and global public goods. Cities can offer effective entry points for major investments in global environmental benefits in the context of local, national, and global level actions.

Meeting the production and consumption needs of urban populations for food, energy, water, and transport significantly strains rural and urban ecosystems, locally and globally. Physical expansion of urban areas can directly compromise the provision of ecosystem services vital to cities, for example those provided by forests—clean air, providing water catchment integrity, helping to control storm water and conserving energy. Policies need to consider the linkages between cities and the surrounding peri-urban and rural areas as well as the broader trans-boundary ecological burden. Urban planning, governance systems, and services—including water, sanitation, transport and land markets—also need to address gender and inclusion and promote equal opportunities to achieve greater social, economic, and environment benefits.

What We Do

Cities are essential to sustainable development. The good news is that cities are already in action and are taking advantages of opportunities to enhance sustainability. Many mayors and municipal authorities of bigger cities are already championing more sustainable and inclusive development. Developing or refining basic capabilities in urban governance, planning, and finance will enable local authorities to make cities attractive and sustainable places to live and work.

Recognizing the critical role of cities for sustainable development and the risks of inaction, the GEF joined forces with key entities to launch a global program on sustainable integrated urban development. The program approach integrates several sectors and issues—transport, energy, solid waste management, biodiversity and ecosystem conservation, climate change, and urban governance. To further strengthen opportunities for cutting-edge support, learning and knowledge sharing, the program also launched a Global Platform on Sustainable Cities (GPSC). 

Through the Global Platform on Sustainable Cities, the GEF is promoting cities as natural places for integrated solutions that generate multiple global environmental benefits. Cities offer fertile ground to integrate operations of interdependent systems of water, energy, transport, health, education, and security services. There are strong environmental, social, and economic cases to be made for integration of these human systems with natural systems. For instance, the development and management of watersheds and forests, as well as urban and peri-urban agriculture, as elements of green infrastructure in and around cities, offers compounding benefits for global climate change mitigation and local urban adaptation and resilience while diminishing air and water pollution.

While each of these priorities can be tackled independently or through disparate investments, the potential for negative tradeoffs can be greatly amplified in the absence of an integrated urban plan. Furthermore, the need to promote synergies in delivering both development and global environmental benefits will be lost. Hence the GEF approach is to promote integrated and holistic urban planning that aligns multiple priorities for long-term sustainable growth of cities.


The Sustainable Cities program supports city-level projects in 28 urban jurisdictions across 11 recipient countries, through US$151.6 million in GEF grants, leveraging US$2.4 billion in co-financing. The Impact Program is contributing towards avoiding or reducing more than 100 million metric tonnes of CO2e in greenhouse gas emissions.

Looking Ahead

During GEF-7, the newly launched  Sustainable Cities Impact Program will continue to support countries with clear aspirations for mainstreaming sustainable and integrated urban planning for their major cities. The IP will further enhance GEF support for cities to pursue sustainable urban planning and implement spatially integrated solutions towards achieving efficiency in energy, buildings, transport, urban food systems, management of municipal waste, and utilization of green space and infrastructure. The Impact Program will further strengthen the GEF’s catalytic impact by enhancing the Global Platform on Sustainable Cities and will contribute to multiple global environmental benefits through decarbonization, improving biodiversity conservation, reducing land degradation, and eliminating hazardous chemicals.

The Impact Program will bring cities and global expertise together and provide a forum where cities can tap into best practices for sustainable urban planning, and also share their experience with others. This will help cities better capture opportunities to increase the productivity of existing urban infrastructure, and incorporate innovations with the potential to revamp how cities are developed and operate across a range of areas.