The world is urbanizing more rapidly than ever before, and cities in developing countries are growing at an even higher pace. While cities contribute to global economic growth, they are also drivers of environmental degradation. Cities consume 80% of global energy, are responsible for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions, generate huge amounts of waste and pollution, and are rapidly encroaching into natural habitats. Urban sprawl is leading to poor living conditions, making cities highly vulnerable to climate change, and threatening the biodiversity surrounding cities. By 2050 as much as 70% of the global population is predicted to live in cities, which makes it even more important to shift towards compact, low-carbon, resilient, and inclusive cities.

Recognizing that cities are key to achieving global environmental and sustainability goals, the GEF launched the Sustainable Cities Integrated Approach Pilot in 2016 as part of the GEF-6 cycle (2014-2018). The program is now under implementation, supporting 28 cities in 11 countries with integrated urban sustainability solutions, and the Global Platform for Sustainable Cities (GPSC) helps facilitating city-to-city exchange and knowledge creation. Building on the experience and lessons learnt from this pilot, the Sustainable Cities Impact Program in the GEF-7 cycle (2018-2022) advances the integrated approach of urban planning and implementation under its brand name UrbanShift. The program is supporting 23 cities in 9 countries, and focuses on integrated urban planning, low-carbon infrastructure, sustainable waste management and nature-based solutions for urban sustainability. UrbanShift brings together global, national, and local stakeholders, and engages with city-based organizations and the private sector to work towards common sustainability visions.

The GEF’s Sustainable Cities program adopts an integrated and systems-based approach for urban sustainability. It targets systemic barriers to advance sustainability solutions which include institutional, political, and financial constraints, uncoordinated urban policies, siloed land use planning, lack of knowledge and technical capacity, and limited engagement of stakeholders in decision-making. The Sustainable Cities program takes a holistic approach of strengthening urban governance and planning, supporting investments in innovative and impactful sustainability solutions, catalyze innovative financing and business models, and facilitate global collaboration and partnerships to shift from ‘business as usual’ path towards urban transformation.  

In total, the GEF’s Sustainable Cities program work with 50 cities across 17 countries, through $310 million in GEF grants, leveraging nearly $4 billion in co-financing. The program aims to reduce more than 250 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable management of nearly 1 million hectares in addition to climate resilience benefits and socio-economic benefits of vulnerable communities. The map below shows the cities participating in the GEF-6 and GEF-7 cycles of the program.






GEF grant financing


co-financing leveraged

Objective and Structure

The objective of the Sustainable Cities program is to support cities in developing innovative sustainability solutions and strengthening institutional capacity to move towards a net zero carbon, nature positive, inclusive and resilient urban future.

The program aims to deliver impactful development outcomes at large scale and with multiple global environmental benefits, through two interlinked components:

  1. Country and city-level interventions with on-the-ground projects in participating cities, working  together with city officials, urban actors and national governments to create innovative models for implementation of integrated sustainability solutions and investments in selected cities and countries.
  2. A global platform and coordination project to connect participating cities with global expertise and cutting-edge research for integrated urban planning, city-to-city knowledge exchange, learning and sharing of best practices.

As the country and city-level investments lead to both local and global environmental benefits, the global platform will enhance the potential for amplifying the benefits across many more cities in recipient countries.

The Sustainable Cities Integrated Approach Pilot in GEF-6 is led by the World Bank in partnership with the African Development Bank (AfDB), the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA), Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), UN Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the World Resources Institute (WRI), C40 Cities, and ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.

In GEF-7, the Sustainable Cities Impact Program under its brand name UrbanShift is led by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and the implementing partners include WRI, C40 Cities, ICLEI, UNDP, the World Bank, and ADB.

Green Recovery

To support its response to COVID-19, the GEF created the COVID-19 Response Task Force which has published a White Paper on a GEF COVID-19 Response Strategy to help identify the future risks linked to emerging infectious diseases and human welfare linked to environmental degradation. The paper calls specifically on cities to strengthen and extend their networks and focus on sectors that can support ecological transformation and job creation, such as decentralized urban energy, local food systems, and retrofitting buildings.

Cities are at the frontline of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to economic, social and health crises on top of the environmental crisis. During these challenging times, the GEF’s Sustainable Cities program is working with cities to deliver multiple environmental benefits while supporting economic growth and livability. The program contributes directly to areas linked to green recovery, such as protecting natural areas around cities from urban sprawl, integrating resilience, creating new green jobs and livelihood opportunities in cities, and mobilizing private sector investments and innovation.

The integration approach of the Sustainable Cities program is enabling cities to take a green recovery path through integrated planning, improved governance and global collaboration, supporting cities and countries to build back better.