Cities are playing an increasingly vital role in global sustainability. Yet there is still little systematic and international evidence on the recognition and formal role of cities in multilateral affairs. Where and how are cities acknowledged as part of global efforts? How do the United Nations frame this ‘urban’ contribution to major international processes and agendas? To offer some initial evidence‐based pointers to this set of problems, we present an analysis of explicit references to cities in major UN frameworks (n = 32) underpinning the current Agenda 2030 on sustainable development. We investigate how cities are cited to determine the role, key themes and contextual trends framing the engagement between United Nations and cities. Contra arguments for the uniqueness of the current ‘rise’ of mayors, our review demonstrates a weak rise in the recognition of cities over time in UN frameworks and shows historical continuity in this acknowledgement since the 1970s. Our review confirms that two prevailing themes determining this are those of ‘development’ and the ‘environment’ but other issues (like ‘infrastructure’ and ‘health’) are following closely behind. It also highlights acknowledgment of cities as ‘actors’ is on the rise since the 2000s and raises fundamental questions as to the status of cities internationally. We argue it becomes imperative to more systematically and strategically think of the role of cities in the UN system, but also flag that raises fundamental challenges for multilateral governance.
- Diplomats need to speak of and to cities more regularly: rather than a ‘novelty’, cities have been repeatedly called upon by the United Nations over the last 50 years, with a growing formalised recognition as international ‘actors’.
- When establishing ‘cities’‐oriented projects and programmes, UN agencies and diplomats need to engage with a vast and already existing variety ‘urban’ recognitions, accounting for at least 1,246 acknowledgments in 32 UN frameworks since 1972.
- Connecting across sectors is fundamental: whilst climate is often the most visible domain of global city action, developmental issues have been as central as, if not even more important than, environmental ones in driving the acknowledgment of cities in global agenda.
- A high‐level UN panel or expert review on the international status of cities in the UN system is needed: cities have been invoked by United Nations frameworks in a number of differing ways, as actors, as places or as issues, with limited indication as to their actual role and function.