Cities are civilization’s main stage. More than half the world’s people now live in urban areas, and, like never before, cities are the arenas for addressing the most pressing environmental problems and tackling challenges of sustainable development. With the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change, national leaders formally recognized cities’ central importance to a coalescing global development agenda. The Habitat III conference held in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016 aimed to define a “new urban agenda” with a broad scope, that includes human settlements of all sizes and integrates social equity considerations into urban and national development planning. Habitat III’s new urban agenda also strives to determine pathways for sustainable urbanization – growing our cities in ways that promote human well-being and enhance environmental health. Urban sustainability’s new prominence and prioritization at the top of the global development agenda represents a moment with critical implications for global environmental health and societal harmony. Researchers, policymakers, and citizens must build a broad base of knowledge on the forces that shape urban lives in order to seize the moment and help shape cities’ development trajectories. >50 % of the world‘s population live in urban areas today. There are many groups and indices that examine urban sustainability, yet these efforts are often sector-specific, regionally-focused, and one-dimensional in scope.1 Standardized metrics and definitions are also lacking, making it difficult to compare urban sustainability initiatives from one city to the next. If we cannot agree on what “urban” and “sustainable” mean, forging a path towards a sustainable urban future is a non-starter. As city governments experiment with sustainability initiatives, their efforts must be measured, assessed, compared with one another, and improved upon, or else we risk missing the results and losing the benefits that these programs can bring to everyone. The global community of urban researchers needs to create a standardized framework of novel urban sustainability metrics in order to realize the potential that cities hold. Measuring the urban environment in a manner that is both accurate and meaningful to city-dwellers is very challenging. And assessing the relative successes and failures of urban environmental policy is even more difficult. In most urban areas, policies lag behind environmental hazards as cities’ dynamism outpaces governments’ capacity to manage them. Cities are in continuous flux – those in the developing world have expanded at such a breakneck pace in recent decades that their growth has been difficult to manage and their environmental change tough to measure. We observe this phenomenon even in centrally planned cities like Beijing, where rapid industrial and urban growth has led to extreme levels of air pollution. The Chinese government has vowed to clean up the air, pledging blue skies over Beijing within a decade, yet pollution in the country’s second-tier cities is worsening, following a similar trajectory to Beijing’s. Nearly one in f ive deaths in China can be attributed to foul air. Cities all over the world, from Indianapolis to Cairo, face similar challenges: more than 95 percent of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution are exposed to air quality levels that exceed World Health Organization limits.

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