UNESCO Learning Cities – Drivers for sustainable development

Cities are vital in responding effectively to the challenges of emerging economic, technological, environmental and social changes which underline the need to foster capacities for adaptation, creativity and, most importantly, learning that continues throughout life. Fostering these capacities through lifelong learning is at the heart of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities.

Cities are home to 55 percent of the world’s population. According to projections, this figure will rise to 70 percent by 2050. Across most high-income and upper middle-income countries already around 80 percent of the population live in urban areas.

Cities are hence key to the world’s efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. They are vital in responding effectively to the challenges of emerging economic, technological, environmental and social changes which underline the need to foster capacities for adaptation, creativity and, most importantly, learning that continues throughout life. Fostering these capacities through lifelong learning is at the heart of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities.

How everything started

The modern concept of a learning city emerged in the early 70s, originating from that of a “learning society”. It is a people-centred and learning-focused approach, which provides a collaborative, action-oriented framework for working on the diverse challenges that cities are facing. Learning cities enable citizens to make informed judgements and decisions and to become agents of change and transformation.

The concept was further developed and in 1992 the OECD presented a report entitled City Strategies for Lifelong Learning. Based on the analysis of city practices, the report states that cities are the most important geographical entities for organising lifelong learning.

In 2012, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning established the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC). Today, 229 members from 64 countries are engaged in developing holistic and integrated approaches to lifelong learning. The network promotes policy dialogue and peer learning among its members, fosters partnership, provides capacity-building, and develops instruments and resources to encourage and recognise progress in building learning cities.

Cities are a driving force for lifelong learning

While cities differ in their cultural composition, as well as in their social, political and economic structures, many characteristics of a learning city are common to all of them. Learning cities facilitate lifelong learning for all; they help to realise the universal right to education, promote education for sustainable development, establish flexible learning pathways and support skills development for employment. Learning cities put people in the centre of development. They promote education and lifelong learning for all and, with this, facilitate individual empowerment and social cohesion, economic and cultural prosperity, and sustainability.

Although in many countries municipal governments have only some or no jurisdiction over the formal schooling system, they are usually responsible for a great number of non-formal learning spaces. They oversee community learning centres, libraries and museums and often support various community learning initiatives. They engage with partners from a variety of sectors to design, develop and implement non-formal and informal learning programmes, ensuring that education continues and learning programmes are available to those who need them most.

Cities reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that lifelong learning can be a lifeline. When during the pandemic – which rages most severely in urban areas around the world – citizens were and still are in dire need of information on how to contribute to containing the spread of the virus, care for themselves and their communities, learning programmes for people across all ages were of utmost importance. During this emergency situation, UNESCO learning cities have proven that they are up for the challenge. Many member cities have demonstrated their resilience in responding to the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, relying on a lifelong learning approach. Their coping actions were shared in a series of webinars hosted by UIL between March and June of 2020, which explore how the community has become a relevant setting to disseminate health and hygiene information and provide other required services.


In Kashan, Islamic Republic of Iran, the TV programme Every Home, A Health Base is an initiative comprised of various health-related educational contents, as well as programmes designed to promote a sense of community among the people of Kashan. With the advent of COVID-19, the programme was broadcast daily and played a significant role in raising public awareness and fostering higher standards of hygiene. It was a positive collaborative venture between the local education and health departments, which aimed to increase citizens’ knowledge about COVID-19, including how to help sick relatives.

Another example is the City of Gdynia, Poland, which has formed partnerships with local volunteer groups and non-governmental organisations to maintain regular contact with vulnerable families and attend to their needs. Neighbourhood centres in the city have established online meetings, activities and integration initiatives. Local residents use these platforms to access hygiene information and offer support, DIY (Do It Yourself) ideas and more.

The COVID-19 pandemic has once again underlined the importance of lifelong learning in facing global challenges. The complexity of the challenges will continue to increase – and lifelong learning can help citizens around the world to understand them and take appropriate action. Undoubtedly, cities will play a key role therein. The UNESCO learning cities provide excellent examples of how to make it happen – driving change towards sustainable development and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

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