SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
If you read the final two chapters of the Bible (Revelation 21‐22), you will see that the city operates like an ecosystem. It’s a place where everything works together for good. The bounty and beauty of the environment are celebrated as nature is incorporated in the city’s very design. A thirst‐quenching river flows and trees yield nourishing fruit. Health and wholeness are sustained all year round. But there’s no sunlight or moonlight, because God’s glory extinguishes the darkness of night.
This holy city doesn’t just celebrate nature. God’s light shines both on nature and human culture and creativity: streets, walls, nations and tribes. The city gates never close ‐ everyone lives in a safe neighbourhood. This is what the new Jerusalem is like. It is a place where God dwells among the people.
Human beings have long built cities seeking to provide people with safety, community and the promise of a better future. We want to be able to meet our own needs, also doing our best to ensure that our children can meet theirs. This is sometimes called ‘sustainable development’. On our own, we have never succeeded; yet Christians are told not to despair but to be hopeful. The prophets call us to concern ourselves with the welfare of human communities and seek justice in our cities.1 Glen Stassen, In Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace, observes that sustainable development is, in part, the result of welfare and justice. What might welfare and justice in a city look like today?
First think about what injustice and a lack of welfare look like. In a nation like Brazil, they might look like the favelas on the outskirts of major cities. Favelas were originally considered temporary residences for immigrants moving from the outlying country to the cities to build a better life. But making a new start requires money and opportunity, and many immigrants were pushed out of the urban centres. For the most part, favelas failed to receive public services, with some still having no sanitation, electricity, medical care, education, public transit or city planning. With no viable economy, drug trafficking and violence run rampant. Residents often live in inadequate housing. Many favelas have been wiped away in mudslides or floods because of their geographic locations.
The Salvation Army has a serving presence in favelas2, but Salvationists are also encouraged to learn from people who are disenfranchised. What lessons do residents of favelas have to teach us?
In recent years, a number of favelas have been building communities of resilience by working hand in hand with the land and with each other. They govern themselves creatively and sustainably. Informal waste collection systems are organised. Bicycles are commonly used for transit. Houses are constructed on stronger foundations, providing protection from natural disaster. Vegetable gardens are grown for nutritional benefits. Forests and wildlife are seen as natural resources to be protected. People support one another when there is need. A number of residents claim that they live in a favela not because they have to but because they choose to.3 One nongovernmental service worker observes: ‘Everyone knows everyone. There aren’t walls around the houses, everything is open.’ Sounds a little bit like the city of God, doesn’t it?
However, it will be challenging for favelas to develop some other components of SDG 11 if they continue to be neglected by their municipal governments. Let’s continue to live in hope that increasing support will be given to disenfranchised communities and that welfare and justice will be achieved for everyone.
1 Jeremiah 29:7; Amos 5:15
- God is in the midst of cities and communities because he cares about them. Genesis 28:16‐19 we read: 'When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”' See also Psalm 46.
- We are encouraged to pray for the most vulnerable, and work for and with them ‐ see Exodus 22:21‐24 and Psalm 68:5.
- Along the way, we can be inspired by the vision of a transformed city – the new Jerusalem! ‐ see Hebrews 13:14, Galatians 4:26 and Revelation 21‐22.
- In thankfulness to God for the gift of healthy human communities and the relationships we enjoy within our cities (Hebrews 10:24‐25; Psalm 133:1; Isaiah 45:18).
- Pray for Salvation Army ministry in areas of urban poverty. The Salvation Army was born in the urban slums of Victorian England and still there are many Salvationists around the world seeking to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. May God’s will be done in our own cities today just as it is in Heaven (Matthew 6:10).
- Pray for those who are part of Salvation Army ministries across the world, that they will not grow weary of doing good (Galatians 6:9).
- For government authorities in developing countries. Pray that they will be moved by the cries of those living in poor conditions and that they will respond in just and compassionate ways (Matthew 14:14).
- Pray for governments around the world that have signed up to the SDGs, that they will continue to show commitment to the just transformation of cities and city life (1 Timothy 2:1‐2).
- Find out what is happening in your local area in terms of development and governance. Think about what helps and what does not help your community. With this knowledge, look out for and support the initiatives that will be beneficial ‐ such as new buildings, programmes and organisations.
- Become an active member of your community. Join local associations of residents and get to know your neighbours. Take part in local events. In this way, you will take greater ownership of your town or city and have a greater say in its running and development.
- Go for a prayer walk, either alone or with friends. As you journey through your community ‐ or a part of it ‐ pray for the people who live and work in the streets and buildings you pass.