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The sustainable development of cities is increasingly recognized as crucial to meeting collectively agreed sustainability goals at local, regional and global scales, and more broadly to securing human well-being worldwide. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include a goal on cities (Goal 11), with most other goals and targets have urban applications and multi scalar implications for their implementation. Further, the interdependencies — including synergies and trade-offs — among the various SDGs are greater in cities, presenting both challenges and opportunities. A systems approach is urgently needed in urban research and policy analysis, but such an approach rarely features in current analysis or urban decision-making for various reasons. This paper explores four questions: why a systems approach is necessary, what defines such an approach, why has this rarely been adopted in practice, and what can be done to promote its use. We argue that a systems approach can reveal unrecognized opportunities to maximize co-benefits and synergies, guide management of inevitable trade-offs, and therefore inform prioritization and successful solutions.
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