Post-2015: SDGs & “local” implications



Two major events occurred in 2015 in order to outline the next 15 years of the world’s environmental agenda:

  1. September 25-27, 2015: UN General Assembly which adopted a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  2. November 30 – December 11, 2015: The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

In this post, I focus on the SDGs and conceptualizations of their “local” implementation. I do this by looking at a critique of the MDGs by David Satterthwaite, unpacking some complications when considering “the local,” and revealing how the SDGs may address both of these concerns.

To begin with, for context, the video below by This Week in Global Health gives a short but insightful comparison between the MDGs and the SDGs:

In the early 2000s, David Satterthwaite highlighted contradictions of the MDGs, urban development, and development “experts.” I would like to consider his past insights to see how they may be relevant to the current SDGs. Satterthwaite (2003) wrote a paper titled, “The Millennium Development Goals and urban poverty reduction: great expectations and nonsense statistics.” One of his arguments is that “the institutional structures and processes of international donors and national governments can be incompatible with the effective achievement of poverty reduction.”

According to Sattherthwaite, the problem with institutional structures and processes include the disconnect between foreign “expert” planning and local implementation; the difficulty of monitoring local progress from far off international headquarters; and dumping of large funds versus the slow, discrete, and diverse allocation of funds needed on the ground. This highlights what seem to be classic tensions between top-down and bottom-up approaches and between the global and the local.

Satterthwaite is most likely not simplistically or blatantly saying that local is “good” and global is “bad.” His statements, however, hint toward this conclusion, making his arguments somewhat problematic.

Gillian Hart (2010) considers the evolution of “the local” as a concept in development rhetoric:

… the rhetorical focus of the [Basic Needs thrust of the 1970s] was on the relative efficiency of small-scale forms of production, what Mohan and Stokke (2000) call “revisionist neoliberalism” is marked by a convergence on “the local” as both more efficient and more democratic. The turn to “the local” has gone hand in hand with the invocation of “civil society” understood—in good liberal fashion—as a distinctively separate sphere from “the market” and “the state”, and a key site for the production of social capital.

Hart is not saying that a “convergence on ‘the local'” is necessarily bad or evil, but that there are contradictions, nuances, and complexities that need to be unpacked if the goal of focusing on “the local” is to be equitable poverty alleviation.

First of all, what is meant by “local”? As Henri Lefebvre has said, “The space that homogenizes has nothing homogenous about it.” One example of this is the phenomenon of elite capture in community-driven development projects, resulting from the heterogeneity of power in “local” spaces. Satterthwaite does not unpack this.

Second (and I believe Hart is emphasizing this), the focus on “the local” is at times coupled with a conceptualization that “the state” is inefficient and the process of “the market” naturally optimizes benefits. The state’s job then is to get out of the way and foster the growth of markets. Local areas then should make themselves appealing to businesses, like flowers are to bees. Those which are the most attractive become developed. There are multiple problems with this type of regime; the most blatant being that this kind of “development” does not consider social equity nor environmental sustainability.

So, this brings us to the SDGs.

No matter how much the United Nations (UN) reached out to “local” groups during their formation, the SDGs, like the MDGs, are inherently top-down when it comes to implementation. In this sense, Sattherthwaite’s arguments against the MDGs are relevant for the SDGs. I have two questions concerning this: Does there continue to be a tension between the global and the local in the SDGs? And, do the SDGs address Hart’s arguments about “the local”?

The above video has pointed out that the SDGs are more “horizontal” than the more “vertical” MDGs. What do they mean by this?

“Horizontal inequality” is inequality between culturally defined groups, while “vertical inequality” is inequality between individuals. Stewart (2002) argues:

Unequal access to political/economic/ social resources by different cultural groups can reduce individual welfare of the individuals in the losing groups over and above what their individual position would merit, because their self-esteem is bound up with the progress of the group.

A UN “Development Issues” report (Winkel 2015) states:

Much of the discussion of [horizontal inequality] is centered on issues of conflict between groups, whereas [vertical inequality] has risen as the much more common lens through which to view issues of inequality. Interestingly, a considerable part of the discussion of inequality in the SDGs actually concerns horizontal inequality, as there are many issues related to access and equal opportunity as well as a number of provisions against discrimination.

The SDGs focus a lot on being “inclusive” as well as equality for certain groups:

  • Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all
  • Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  • Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  • Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  • Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  • Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  • Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
So, what does this have to do with “the local”?

The SDGs’ focus on inclusivity can lead to a stronger need for global institutions to engage more intimately with local governmental and non-governmental institutions. This partially addresses some of Satterthwaite’s concerns. “Experts” from these global institutions would be compelled to move beyond simple models of utility optimizing individualized “Econs” (Thaler 2015) and tap into local knowledge about the dynamics between groups — and, first of all, what groups are important and why are they important in each context? This requires a dialectical process between global “experts” and local knowledge holders (à la Sangtin Writers and Gramsci).

The focus on more “horizontal” equality also addresses some of Hart’s concerns in two ways: (1) Since the focus is on groups and not individuals, heterogeneity within “the local” will become more apparent. For instance, instead of simply counting the increase in the number of individual children who go to school, for a more “inclusive and equitable quality education,” it must be asked from which social group does this increase come from and which groups are being excluded? (2) Goal 8 and 10 partially address some of the concerns related to “revisionist neoliberalism,” or the reliance on the natural process of “the market” for the development of “the local.”

In conclusion, the SDGs are an inherently top-down agenda, yet their success relies on their realization at the local level. Satterthwaite highlights this concern for the MDGs and Hart complicates the notion of the “local.” I believe that the SDGs address both their concerns, but of course not fully. What is not addressed I’ll leave for another blog post.



  • Gramsci, Antonio. “Prison Notebooks, Volumes 1-3.” (2011).
  • Hart, Gillian. “D/developments after the meltdown.” Antipode 41.s1 (2010): 117-141.
  • Lefebvre, Henri. The production of space. Vol. 142. Blackwell: Oxford, 1991 as quoted by Merrifield, Andy. Henri Lefebvre: A critical introduction. Taylor & Francis, 2006.
  • Sangtin Writers Collective and Richa Nagar. “Playing with fire: feminist thought and activism through seven lives in India.” (2006).
  • Satterthwaite, David. “The Millennium Development Goals and urban poverty reduction: great expectations and nonsense statistics.” Environment and Urbanization 15.2 (2003): 179-190.
  • Stewart, Frances. Horizontal Inequality: a Neglected Dimension of Development. WIDER Annual Lecture 5. (2002) Helsinki: UNU-World Institute for Development Economics Research.
  • Thaler, Richard H. Misbehaving: The making of behavioral economics. WW Norton & Company, 2015.
  • Winkel, John. Inequality and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Rep. no. 4. United Nations, 21 Oct. 2015. Web. <;.
Top image source: 

Lessons and Challenges in Transit Planning


As the populations of most countries continue to urbanize, planners are faced with the challenge of worsening traffic and air pollution conditions. Generally speaking, as incomes rise, more individuals choose to purchase vehicles. At the same time, congested roadways lead to decreased quality of life for a city’s residents, in addition to contributing to global climate change.

While rail systems have the advantage of being quiet and reducing congestion, they are often costly and time-consuming to build. For this reason, bus systems are often seen as a more practical solution for quickly providing well-connected and cheap public transportation on the local level.

The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in Curitiba, Brazil was originally developed in the 1970s, and has won awards as recently as 2013 for smart green design. It utilizes transit-oriented development, linear corridors, carefully designed bus stops and buses with multiple entrances to increase efficiency and minimize idling, one of the primary sources of bus air pollution. According to official information, in a metropolitan area of 3 million people, 1 million take the bus each day, a large percentage compared to other cities:

Curitiba’s bus system is an improvement over less carefully planned systems. For example, the article on Environmental Justice in Transportation Planning discusses the impact that auto pollution has on the health of low-income and minority people. In the U.S., people in households earning less than $10,000 a year have a higher rate of asthma than those earning more, and the asthma mortality rate for African Americans is six times that for white Americans.

In many cases, idling buses contribute significantly to these health problems. For that reason, activists in West Harlem opposed a 1988 project that would have located a second diesel bus depot adjacent to junior high schools. They successfully advocated for clean energy alternatives, eventually resulting in the creation of the “Clean Fuel Bus” program in 2000. The MTA’s current fleet consists of a combination of hybrid-electric buses and those powered by natural gas.

Bill Clinton passed legislation in 1994 that calls on U.S. planners not to approve projects that disproportionately increase pollution in low-income or minority communities when other alternatives exist. The Waterloo case study, published some years later, demonstrates how planners can use GIS technology to assess an area’s particulate matter and noise pollution levels and examine their correlations with race and class before sighting new projects, something which was not part of the earlier West Harlem and Curitiba planning processes.

Back to the Curitiba example, despite its successes, the model also contains cracks. According to the article, the BRT never reached into Curitiba’s farthest, poorest suburbs. Furthermore, demographic changes in the city over time have challenged the core model.

In part because of the city’s planning successes, it has attracted migrants from elsewhere around Brazil, as well as become one of Brazil’s richest cities. Therefore, the model’s early successes have ironically contributed both to crowding of buses as well as a relatively high percentage of the population owning cars compared to elsewhere in Brazil. Simultaneously, this article suggests that the BRT system has not continued to receive comparable levels of government support over time, and that many vehicles are in need of repairs. Collectively these pitfalls to one of the core challenges of modern city planning: trying to plan for sustainability in a continually unstable and changing environment, with growing populations, shifting economies and changing political climates.

GIS information like that presented in the Waterloo case study would be helpful for planning transportation developments that are just and contribute to sustainability by ensuring that air pollution is kept below federal standards and that low-income and minority communities aren’t put disproportionately at risk. Ideally, planners would have access to projected information about population and economic growth as well – however, most of the time this is something that is difficult to predict more than a few years in advance. For most cities, a combination of rail and alternative fuel rapid buses can create the backbone of a strong and efficient public transportation system, distributing access to different areas of the city to promote even access and growth. Paired with public planning projects to encourage mixed-use developments near stations, this can encourage a transit-oriented development pattern with the potential to expand over time.

Realistically, in the foreseeable future most city’s transit systems will need to continually grow to keep pace with demand.  A well-funded public transit authority that is dedicated to principles of sustainability and environmental justice seems necessary to ensuring that transit systems are capable of growing and adapting with time. Possibly a degree of public involvement and oversight from a broad cross-section of the public can help ensure not only that environmental justice concerns are addressed, but also that planners are aware of and in a position to address the concerns of other communities. For example, the efficiency and comfort of a public transit system contribute to whether people with means choose to support the public system both with their individual consumer choices and with their votes as opposed to driving cars. And buy-in across many neighborhoods and economic levels could contribute significantly to a project’s success.

According to a recent news article, the Bay Area, pictured above, now has the third worst traffic of any U.S. city, San Francisco’s once-strong public transit system failed to adapt to changing demographic conditions. Adapting is key!


Pro-Poor Sustainability Planning


Pro-poor sustainability planning is possibly the 4 words that requires the most unpacking this semester. As most of this semester has greatly scrutinized the concept of sustainability, so we can leave that aside.

However, how are we to understand poor? International convention (including multinational organizations such as the UN, World Bank, etc) have identified $2/day as extreme poverty, then there are also the concepts of housing, health, and time poor. How then, can policies be pro-poor? Ideally, this concept should be centered on the empowerment of people experiencing a type of poorness (economic, health, housing, time, etc), yet if that were the case, poor would not be so passive in this concept. Conjuring up an image of planning being done onto the poor. The passiveness of this term illustrates a type of top-down thinking, institutional forces acting upon not even people, but a quality that is not even self defined, but labeled.

In Kakwania and Pernia’s (K and P) article in trying to tackle this concept, the nice language of “policies and programs that mitigate inequalities and facilitate income and employment generation for the poor, particularly women and other traditionally excluded groups.” reeks of state driven neutral terms such as mitigate and facilitate, foreshadowing the style of analysis to come. The conceptualization of the poor in this case are non-actors, as the policies and programs are the actors that will facilitate income and employment generation.

It is precisely this thinking that Roy’s article challenges through the description of these traditional planning epistemology. That the informal is an unplanned space, that women and traditionally excluded groups are unplanned poor, both of which needs to be re-conceptualized in ways need to be recognized by the state and understood to be active actors.

Though K and P’s article goes on make a case against trickle down development, yet their definition of pro-poor growth can be described as such “Broadly, pro-poor growth can be defined as one that enables the poor to actively participate in and significantly benefit from economic activity.” Thereafter, rattling off a number of vague policy ideas, but nothing substantive. They conclude with an analysis the effects of these pro-poor policies in the most macro-sense possible, measuring GDP, incidences of poverty, and measuring the effect of inequality, in Laos, Thailand, and Korea.

The brilliance of economics is its ability to distill massive and chaotic life into neat and inert variables to explain a market based (which, in the field of economics, encapsulates everything) scenario. This also happens to be its worse quality as moving parts and actors are “held constant”.

If we are to truly conceptualize pro-poor policy we need to switch our mode of thinking of how planning applies to the poor, and what those goals should be. Are tools such as indices and indicators the best way to measure advancement of poverty alleviation? The approach of the state also inevitably brings along with it market forces that inevitably forces formality onto those being helped, and then summarily displaced, similar to the anecdote in Roy’s piece that even those who are resettled into government housing will give up their right to it because they do not want to live in a situation where an interruption of payment can strip away their rights.

Even one of the more radical forms of government, Bhutan, which concerns itself with Gross National Happiness is market based. However, there are anchoring philosophies that temper market forces to serve four main pillars which include sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and the establishment of good governance. What Bhutan identifies is the importance of the maintenance of the cultural and environmental components of their country as a part of how they measure “wealth”. Until more countries adopt these priorities, the chances of a pro-poor sustainability plan to address the complex nature of those living in close connection to the environment will not be successful.

Within our topics in metropolitan planning course, one policy that is seen as pro-poor is the creation of college savings accounts for all of its citizens. Matching funds have been proven to improve the rate of high school completion (6x) and college matriculation (3-4x). Yet Black and Brown students are dropping out of post-secondary education at greater rates than their peers. These policies also completely ignores the greater access to education of their Asian and White counterparts.

The universal college savings account is akin to the nature of pro-poor sustainable planning, issues arising from resource and service deprivation are addressed by band-aid approaches that fail to truly empower its intended audience.