Innovation is a defining characteristic of current trends in urban development, and in governing experiments in urban sustainability that aim to build inclusive, resilient and sustainable cities, as per Sustainable Development Goal 11 and the New Urban Agenda.

This paper contributes to the literature on governing urban environmental sustainability transitions, with a focus on emerging cities in the Global South. Secondary cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America are adopting a number of innovative governance models to drive adaptive futures in the face of resource or political constraints – be it through donor initiatives, coordinated national policies, public-private partnerships, business experiments, local government action, transnational municipal networks, community-based adaptation measures, practices in self-governance or hybrid forms of the above.

Our paper employs a multi-level governance framework to chart out the actors, drivers, financial conditions, barriers and the inclusivity and sustainability outcomes in eight different governance models. Six of the cases are drawn extensively from literature, while two case studies reflect on our primary, multi-method engagement in the cities of Nakuru (Kenya) and Udon Thani (Thailand). We then delineate the critical issues and key lessons from these cases to trace elements of “good urban governance” that are relevant to planning urban transformations in the South.