Cities Will Give Definition to SDGs


2015 was a big year for global leaders to “commit” to sustainability and climate change.  In September of 2015, over 193 United Nation state members convened at the UN for the Sustainable Development Summit. The purpose of this convening was to formally adopt a new sustainable development agenda with the 3 major goals of (1) ending extreme poverty; (2) fighting inequality and injustice; and (3) fixing climate change. The meeting would establish seventeen sustainable development goals (SDGs) to address sustainability on three focal points of economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection. A few months later in December, more civil and state leaders, as well as leaders from the public and private sectors, met in Paris for COP 21. The convening closed with a new framework to address climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. Both convenings occurred at a particularly urgent time politically because you can’t address poverty without addressing climate change. World saved, job well done! If only it were that easy. Both these agreements are non-legally binding—which is the basic global equivalent of “scout’s honor.” Additionally, they are both quite broad turning global climate change adaptation into a game of “Marco, Polo.”

What is preventing these meetings from becoming just another set up for a future agenda?


How then can we move the SDGs  from being a game to actually being a transformative strategy plan?

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In the face of nations twiddling their thumbs post COP 21, the frontiers of climate change adaption and mitigation will be shaped and advanced by cities. They are already doing the work. Urbanization, especially within the Global South is on the rise. Although in 2014, the respective populations of Africa and Asia were mostly rural-living (40% and 48%), by 2050, those regions are projected to become urban by 56% and 64% respectively.  That will translate to a projected 2.5 billion people added to the world’s urban population, nearly 90% of which will be concentrated in Asia and Africa. (Source: UN). Cities, especially the growing mega-cities of the world are the epicenter of many sustainable planning shortcomings. The solution towards urbanization is not to avoid its complexity. The solution, though difficult, is to embrace it. After all, sustainability and its implementation is challenging and unwieldy.

Cities are the incubators to develop and prototype planning experiments of the SDGs. Of the seventeen goals, I’ve selected two with examples of how planning can incorporate and implement the SGDs.

Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

6.1: by 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking after for all

The sixth largest city of the Philippines, Zamboanga, faces unpredictable rains, worsening floods and drought, and storms that are all contributing to water insecurity and scarcity. As response, in 2012 USAID launched a program, Water Security for Resilient Economic Growth and Stability (Be Secure) to promote urban resilience to climate change. The project has incorporated various strategies including, building local adaptation capacity (i.e. monitoring and repairing leaks) and upgrading water infrastructure such as sewage systems to limit contamination of the local groundwater supply. Specifically, one of the strategies that also creates economic opportunity is to engage and train out-of-school youth to repair the leaks and perform other plumbing needs. This last example embodies the multiple sectors and solution thinking required to address water scarcity (Source: News Security Beat).

Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.

14.1 by 2015, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, particularly from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution.

In Beijing, China, the Ministry of the Environment (MEP) and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD) want to reduce the percentage of waters in urban areas designated as “foul and filthy” to less than 10 percent of the total by 2020, with clean up completed by 2030. The independent organization, Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, who has done mapping work on air and water pollution want to harness citizen assistance through two different apps, Blue Map mobile app (created by IPE with government data) and We Chat.  Chinese citizens will be able to publicly see maps of polluted river sites (via the former app) and also contribute photographs and descriptions of potential polluted sites for investigation by MEP officials (through the latter app). Mobile technology can be an affordable and participatory way to gather data necessary for climate change solution.

An important mode of planning that cities will need to incorporate more vigorously and regularly is insurgent or radical planning. Insurgent planning is to give the tools of planning to non-traditional planners. The purpose of this planning is to allow the people who live and understand the context of urban problems best to be able to contribute thinking and action to their solutions. More so, allowing non-professionals to contribute to the planning process is an important component of climate justice and building equity into sustainability. For additional example of insurgent planning or “citizen scientists,” visit New Security Beat.

Zamboanga and Beijing represent two examples of cities taking steps forward to address climate adaptation through the urban lens. Although not explicitly detailed in this post, other cities that are tackling urban climate change include Quito, Ecuador, Durban, South African, and New York City among many others. Their successes and failures will provide models of climate change adaptation that other cities may look to and build upon. As cities lead the way in climate change adaptation, hopefully the climate change game of Marco, Polo will become less random, and more strategic. The world depends on it.



The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: a framework for inspiration


The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are both sweeping in their scope, as well extensive in their level of detail. According to the official press release, Dr Joan Clos, Under Secretary General and Executive Director of UN-Habitat, stated that “urban planning is in crisis today, but that, the principles and recommendations contained in the Guidelines can help to tie together different objectives while pointing to the crucial questions of equitable and sustainable development.” In its report, the Governing Council of the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN HSP) also explains that “the guidelines are intended to be a framework for improving global policies, plans, designs and implementation processes that will lead to more compact, socially inclusive, better integrated and connected cities and territories that foster sustainable urban development and are resilient to climate change.”

Many of the guidelines are general in nature, whereas others are fairly specific. For example, they include ensuring access to energy for all by the year 2030, while also doubling the rate of energy efficiency. They also call for reducing by half the total number of people living in poverty by 2030, while completely eliminating “extreme poverty.” Despite the detail and specificity of these ambitious goals, the UN HSP explains in its report that the goals are meant to serve as inspiration for urban and territorial planners, and that no international enforcement mechanism is currently in place.

The SDGs are all relevant to sustainable planners three main considerations of environment, economy and equity, and many relate to more than one of those considerations. The SDGs provide a framework for how planners can strive to balance all three considerations appropriately in order to include regional and global equity while promoting sustainability.

However, because of their ambitious nature, I predict that the practical applications of the SDGs will depend significantly on whether a given city, its state or its country chooses to adopt a legal framework to enforce these principles.

The changes required to meet these goals also vary considerably depending on location. For example, developed countries such as the U.S. may already possess the resources to provide clean water and sanitation to all residents, and we are simply waiting for policymakers to mandate it (as they failed to do in Detroit). In other countries, such as South Africa, the law has already mandated a universal right to clean water yet the government is struggling to build the infrastructure to deliver it. And in most nations the challenge has yet to be addressed in a uniform way on the national scale at all.

The SDGs do attempt to address these disparate difficulties in meeting development goals by asking developed nations to contribute a small but specific percentage of their gross national income to aid other nations with development (0.7 percent to all developing nations, and 0.2 percent to the least developed nations). However, without an enforcement mechanism it’s easy to imagine some of the more specific SDGs, including this one, falling by the wayside. Although the target year of 2030 is rapidly approaching, I’m hopeful that the UN will work toward creating a system to help enforce the SDGs on the international level, while providing strong incentives for nations to implement them at other levels of governance as well.

The greatest promise of the SDGs is that they present a more integrated planning framework than is currently found in most U.S. city plans, according to the literature. Schrock et al.’s article that assessed equity in local U.S. climate and sustainability plans found that as of 2015, most U.S. climate and sustainability plans do not address equity in any meaningful way. Meanwhile, Berke’s 2007 article surveyed general city plans to discover that most did not explicitly discuss sustainability. Clearly more work needs to be done to integrate the principles of sustainability and equity within planning for economic growth. Planners can refer to the UN SDGs in order to make their plans more comprehensive and more equitable, as well as to help articulate in detail to policymakers, the public and other stakeholders the benefits of an integrated approach that ties complex issues such as transit development, agriculture and building standards with equity. If the SDGs become the new norm for sustainability plan frameworks, it will constitute a major development over the status quo.