United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11: SUSTAINABLE CITIES & COMMUNITIES

Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

[Sally Bray, NIST International School, Bangkok, Thailand]

This goal advocates developing cities that are environmentally sustainable, and communities that are equitable and diverse, focusing on: access to affordable housing and basic services; safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable public transport; inclusive, integrated and sustainable urbanization; protecting and safeguarding the world’s cultural and natural heritage; protecting the poor and people in vulnerable situation affected by disasters, including water related disasters; reducing the adverse effects of the environmental impacts of cities, especially relating to air quality and waste management; universal access to accessible, green and public spaces; special attention to people in vulnerable situations including women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons.

According to the Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, Report of the Secretary-General, (April 2020), as of 2008, the percentage of people living in urban areas outnumbered those living in rural areas. In 2018, over 1 billion people, roughly 24 percent of the urban population lived in slums with inadequate access to viable housing, no running water, limited waste management, overcrowded public transport and limited access to formal health care. 

The Pandemic is only worsening this situation as many people are at high risk of losing their livelihoods as cities lockdown and restrictions place greater strains on businesses and infrastructure.

This blog post highlights children’s books and literature we can use to promote a better understanding of what a Sustainable City and Community might look like .


Out of the Way! Out of the Way! by Uma Krishnaswami and Uma Krishnaswamy (2010) / India

Simply told and beautifully illustrated, this picture book follows the rescue, growth and impact of a tree growing in the middle of a road in India. A sapling is rescued by a small boy in a village in India. As he cares for the tree and it starts to grow, he is constantly told, “Out of the way!” as the busy villagers hustle around him. The dirt road is paved. The village becomes a town, and then a city with cars, buses and trucks constantly swerving to miss it, but the tree remains, offering shade, comfort and a home to a range of people, animals and birds – even in the middle of the city.

[Access to green and public spaces]


Potatoes on Rooftops: farming in the city by Hadley Dyer (2012) / Canada

This nonfiction book aimed at Upper Elementary / Middle School is about “growing food in cities”. It covers a range of different garden types and explores how they can be utilized in an urban environment. 

Divided into four parts, the book looks at food use and waste in cities, changing the urban landscape and urban gardening communities. 

[Sustainability, communities]


Milo and the magical stones by Marcus Pfister (1997) / Switzerland / Translated from German by Marianne Martens

A picture book that can be used with students of all ages. It’s unusual in that at a certain point in the story, the reader can choose the Happy Ending or the Sad Ending — and both are provided thanks to split pages. (A great mentor text when students are writing their own stories and having to decide on an ending.)

In this story a community of mice live on an island and enjoy the sun and warmth of summer, but spend the winter huddled in their caves dreaming of the summer sun. One day, Milo finds a strange glowing stone, which turns his cold, miserable cave into a warm and comforting home. Of course all the mice want stones for themselves, but one of the elders warns, “The stones belong to the island, you must give something in return.”

If you follow the Sad Ending, the mice each follow their own greed and extract all the warm stones, which literally undermines the structure of the island and psychically isolates each member of the community. Disaster ensues. If you follow the Happy Ending, the mice learn to ration the valuable resource that provides heat and to take care of the island that provided it — upholding both the island and the community.

The story highlights the need for balance between what we take and what we give back to the environment. 

[Environmental awareness, sustainability, community]


Uno’s Garden by Graeme Base (2006) / Australia

Uno’s garden follows the changes wrought by the arrival of men into a previously untouched forest populated by fantastical and magnificent creatures, and one completely ordinary snortlepig. As Uno build’s his home and more people arrive, as the small town becomes a village, then a city, then a megacity the animals begin to disappear until finally the last snortlepig is no more. Then… the people abandon their cheerless, overcrowded and dirty city, leaving Uno to  rescue the last remaining tree. Uno and his family then begin the long and arduous job of re-establishing the forest and luring back the animals that had gone. The math shown in the book, further highlights the ease of destruction, and the hard labor and time needed to undo the damage.

[City growth and environmental impact, community, endangered animals]


A Forest in the City by Andrea Curtis, illustrated by Pierre Pratt (2020) / Canada

“Imagine a city draped in green… is this a city you know?” 

The first book in a new series by Groundwood Books called ThinkCities, this beautifully illustrated, narrative nonfiction examines an urban forest, from above and moving down through the levels of the city, underground and then back up again moving through a tree’s trunk, branches and leaves. The discussion ranges from how to maximise the growing conditions for trees and plants in an urban environment  to how those same trees and plants benefit us emotionally as well as physically.

The ThinkCities series will focus on new approaches to urban development as a response to climate change, population growth and increased density. It will examine the challenges and risks involved in planning cities that are more resilient, sustainable and offering the inhabitants a better quality of life. The second book in the series is called City of Water.

[City infrastructure, sustainability and environmental awareness]


Anthropology for Kids: Future City by David Graeber and Nika Dubrovsky (2018) / Combination of English and Russian / Workbook – free download

Not your typical library book, but a resource you should share with teachers. This is a free (downloadable) 100-page workbook about “how people’s ideas of cities have changed through history and in different cultures,” as the introduction says, and it was written to help young people “begin creating the kind of city in which you’d want to live when you grow up.”

Starting on page 88 of the workbook you will find some “Study Material,” drawing on examples, experiments and experiences from literature and history, related to the 30 different kinds of cities readers are asked to imagine. Don’t miss them.

David Graeber and Nika Dubrovsky are the husband and wife team behind the website Anthropology for Kids, though unfortunately David Graeber, an internationally famous anthropologist and anarchist activist (author of books like Debt: The First 5000 Years and Bullshit Jobs) died unexpectedly in 2020, so a lot of the projects listed on the website are probably on hold.


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The Lion of Mars by Jennifer L. Holm (2021) / USA

I know we are trying to highlight books outside the dominant publishing domains, but this recently released American book fits SDG 11 so well and on so many different levels.

Life on Mars is not as easy as you might think. This Middle School novel follows the trials and tribulations of Bell, a young, cat loving orphan who has lived most of his life in the US colony on Mars. The colony is almost completely self-sustaining with hydroponics and solar power, however as time passes, the technology ages and breaks and repairs become more and more difficult. Parts and supplies coming from Earth are becoming more and more difficult to get approved with long delays and a minimum of three month delivery for important materials – and then the adults start to get sick.

When only the kids are left standing, they set off to ask for help from the other colonies, despite the rift which had separated the US colony from the others, and directly against the wishes of the adults in charge back on Earth. After a difficult and fraught journey, the children make contact with the other colonies. The difference between their own isolation and struggles, and the joy and community spirit experienced through the collaborative efforts of the other colonies is immediately obvious. The help they so desperately need is willingly given with no expectation of payment of return favors. New friendships and alliances are eventually formed and the lives of the US colonists are transformed.

[Community, collaboration, sustainability]


The story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnston (2014) / Canada / Set in Canada
Prairie Fire by E.K. Johnston (2015) / Sequel

The time is an alternate future, the setting is a town in southwestern Canada. Imagine dragon slayers are necessary because dragons are attracted to carbon emissions. So wherever there are factories and industrialization, dragon slayers are needed to control the carbon-hungry dragons. And every dragon slayer needs a bard. This story is told — with wit and snappy dialogue — by one such bard.

Listen! For I sing of Owen Thorskard: valiant of heart, hopeless at algebra, last in a long line of legendary dragon slayers. Though he had few years and was not built for football, he stood between the town of Trondheim and creatures that threatened its survival. There have always been dragons. As far back as history is told, men and women have fought them, loyally defending their villages. Dragon slaying was a proud tradition. But dragons and humans have one thing in common: an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. From the moment Henry Ford hired his first dragon slayer, no small town was safe. Dragon slayers flocked to cities, leaving more remote areas unprotected. Such was Trondheim’s fate until Owen Thorskard arrived. At sixteen, with dragons advancing and his grades plummeting, Owen faced impossible odds armed only with a sword, his legacy, and the classmate who agreed to be his bard. Listen! I am Siobhan McQuaid. I alone know the story of Owen, the story that changes everything. Listen! [Goodreads blurb]

[Sustainability, environmental impact]


Want by Cindy Pon (2017) / Author was born in Taiwan / Set in Taipei
Ruse by Cindy Pon (2019) / Sequel / Set in Shanghai

This dystopia, set in Taipei, imagines a city where only the rich can afford to be healthy and breath clean air.

Jason Zhou survives in a divided society where the elite use their wealth to buy longer lives. The rich wear special suits that protect them from the pollution and viruses that plague the city, while those without suffer illness and early deaths. Frustrated by his city’s corruption and still grieving the loss of his mother, who died as a result of it, Zhou is determined to change things, no matter the cost. [Goodreads blurb for Want]

NB: The author is the co-founder of Diversity in YA with Malinda Lo and part of the We Need Diverse Books advisory board.


Just a quick mention: An old favorite of mine – Mortal Engines (2001), a dystopian thriller by Philip Reeve, first in the series known as The Hungry City Chronicles, involving megacities on traction which lay waste to the countryside around them — was made into a film in 2018, so check your Netflix. Although not really eligible for this post, as it is a UK book by a UK author, it is still very relevant to SDG11.


Sally Bray is an Australian Teacher Librarian who has been working in school libraries for over 33 years. She has worked in a range of school libraries, both Elementary and Secondary in Melbourne, Australia; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Guayaquil, Ecuador; and is now the Secondary Librarian at NIST International School in Bangkok, Thailand. An avid reader, dancer, life long learner and dragon lover, Sally is dedicated to encouraging her students to read widely, deeply and with a greater commitment to the world we live in.


Note: all the books highlighted during this month of SDGs can be found on this GLLI Goodreads shelf.

What are your favorite books for SDG Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities? Please share them in the comments. Let’s make this a conversation and work on the goal together.

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