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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Lessons and Challenges in Transit Planning

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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!