October 9, 2014

Sustainable Development Goals Should Aim to Make Cities Inclusive, Resilient, Safe and Livable

By: Eugenie L. Birch

Within a year, the UN General Assembly will replace the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), universally applicable goals that will drive the implementation of sustainable development on a global scale.  Urbanists need to pay attention.  In particular, they should be concerned with the key question: Will the 193 nation-member states acknowledge the urbanization mega-trend and recognize the transformative power of cities as they construct the goals?

While urban-focused scholars and practitioners know that incorporating the needs of cities is clearly an imperative, it is not obvious to national leaders. So, why not?  And what can we city-lovers do about it? To answer these seemingly simple questions requires a review of the SDG process and a look at the various debates around the goals as they pertain to cities.

The SDG Process

The upcoming SDG program grew out of two important streams of UN work. The first stream was its Conference on Sustainable Development, otherwise known as “Rio+20,” held in 2012 to review two decades worth of work on sustainable development. The outcome document from Rio+20, The Future We Want, called for the creation of the SDGs, and also noted the importance of well-planned and managed cities in the realization of sustainable development. 

The second stream of work that led to the development of the SDG program was the Millennium Summit (2000), which explored the role of the UN in the 21st century, and resulted in the creation of the MDGs, eight goals to frame development in the Global South.  The MDGs were a first-time attempt to focus development policy and funding on the reduction of poverty through improvements in health (child and maternal mortality and diseases such as HIV/AIDs and malaria), gender equality, food security, environment, and education for a 15-year period.

From these two streams, the UN introduced the Post 2015 Development Framework, a program to create an SDG strategy that would complete the unfinished business of the MDGs and offer additional initiatives. Among other items, the Post 2015 Development Framework involved the creation of the Open Working Group (OWG), a 70-nation subcommittee of the UN General Assembly, which was tasked with proposing SDGs. The OWG has proposed 17 potential goals, and of particular note for urbanists is the one that reads: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable accompanied by seven targets related to spatial issues: planning, housing, transport, public space, environmental impact (air pollution and solid waste), cultural heritage and disaster preparedness.”

The Stakes and the Debates

The stakes are high for the SDGs because they will bring a good deal of notice to the global consensus on what issues need attention.  Further, the framework will apply to all nations, not only the developing world.  All national governments will craft policy responses and programs for domestic and foreign investment and issue annual reports to the UN on their progress. Due to this built-in UN monitoring systems, civil society’s heavy involvement in the deliberations and ongoing press coverage, the world will be watching.

As part of the ongoing deliberations, debates about the SDGs revolve around three issues. The first is the number of goals. The second is identifying what should be mainstreamed (i.e. understood to be applied to all goals) and what should have its own stand-alone goal.  The third is establishing distinct transformative targets (and measurable indicators) for the selected goals.

These debates have many implications for the cities and human settlements goal. First, while most observers believe that the current 17-goal proposal is too unwieldy, they are not in agreement about which ones to eliminate or combine. As a result, the cities goal might be vulnerable to collapse or mainstreaming. Such an approach would not only weaken the holistic approach now contained in the cities goal but also would eliminate attention to the spatial aspects that a cities goal underlines. No other goal has now or would focus on physical places. Second, some observers claim that a stand-alone goal on cities and human settlements goal would heighten the so-called rural urban divide. This plaint is spurious in the 21st century because cities, human settlements and rural areas exist along a synergistic continuum. Rural areas need cities to market their goods; cities need rural areas to safeguard regional ecosystems services.  A modern approach recognizes these relationships (as does the current cities goal) and calls for enhanced national, regional and local planning to protect and strengthen them.  

Third, urbanists have established empirically that the battle for sustainability will be won or lost in cities. At a minimum, they cite three reasons: 

1. Demographic dominance – Urban population is now 54% of the total population, and projected to grow to 66% within three decades;

2.  Agglomeration and the potential to promote increased personal incomes through economic growth – Seventy percent of the global GDP is produced in cities; and

3. Capacity to support environmentally responsible development – While cities produce up to 80% of greenhouse gases, their per capita consumption of energy in compact development is lower than that of other settlement patterns.

So What Can We Urbanists Do?

Urbanists must pay attention. We must bolster the empirical research.  We must repeat and amplify how place matters in our writings, and speeches as the negotiations go forward.  We must contribute to ongoing urban convenings, especially to the UN Climate Change Conference (Paris, 2015) and to Habitat III (2016), the first UN conference after the passage of the SDGs. We must add our voices to these major convenings and to the documents that grow out of them, which will help shape the trajectory of cities in the coming decades. Together, we can advocate for a rejection of business-as-usual urbanization in favor of an approach that would yield inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements. 


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