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

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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.

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