Why the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Need Cities to Succeed

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses the United Nations at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York. (Photo: United Nations Photo/ Flickr)

Last September, New York was filled with optimism as heads of state and government officials adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) during the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit (25-27 September, 2015). Members of the urban development community also met in the city, celebrating the inclusion of SDG 11, which focuses on cities. However, among the discussions was general uncertainty about what, exactly, the SDGs mean for cities.

What we do know is that cities will be critical for the success of the SDGs, since urbanization will be a defining process of the 21st century. Indeed, 54 percent of the world´s population now live in urban areas and this percentage is only expected to rise. Cities also generate almost three quarters of the world´s economic wealth. At the same time, cities consume enormous amounts of resources, producing the majority of the world´s greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, the fight for sustainability must be first and foremost led by cities—and the SDGs should capitalize on this.

Determining Cities’ Roles in Achieving the SDGs

On September 27, representatives from various UN agencies, mayors, NGOs and others met in New York at an event held by Cities Alliance and the Global Taskforce (GTF) to discuss the urban dimension of the SDGs.

On the surface, there seems to be only one urban SDG–SDG 11—that aims to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. However, representatives of cities and city networks have been emphasizing that other SDGs also have specific urban components. For example, because cities are often places of vast economic inequality, achieving goal 10 – to reduce inequality within and among countries – requires that special attention be paid to marginalized groups in urban spaces. Thus, effective implementation of many SDGs requires collaboration between cities, local authorities and other actors working on urban issues. This point is also emphasized in a forthcoming study by Prof. Philipp Misselwitz (Urban Catalyst Studio, Berlin), which shows that 65 percent of the SDG targets may not be fully achieved without the involvement of local, urban actors.

However, not all attendees of the Cities Alliance and GTF event agreed with this view. Some cautioned that implementing the urban dimension of all SDGs would be a resource-intensive and ambitious undertaking; more specifically, they said it would require UN member states to commit to providing major resources and support to their cities. Under their reasoning, it would be more realistic to focus on achieving the targets of SDG 11 alone.

Situating the role of cities within the SDGs is not an easy task, and will be discussed further in the coming months as the Habitat III conference (Quito, October 2016) moves closer. The UN’s Habitat III (and its outcome document, the New Urban Agenda) will provide an opportunity to explicitly shape the role and capacities of cities in implementing the SDGs.

How Habitat III will Affect the Future of Urban Sustainability

Considering the growing relevance of cities to global sustainability, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has much to benefit from a strong New Urban Agenda that synergizes with the SDGs. To ensure that the two policies work together productively, the New Urban Agenda should incorporate all of the urban dimensions of the SDGs.

However, the New Urban Agenda must also go above and beyond the SDGs to recognize and push cities to their full potential. The Agenda should also identify and address areas in which the SDGs fail to sufficiently incorporate urban dimensions, and develop appropriate indicators. These indicators will ultimately influence which policies cities implement and define how progress is tracked.

National governments also play a large role in ensuring that urban areas make progress, and should provide the necessary support for urban areas to become sustainable. Thus, the New Urban Agenda should also outline the regulatory, organizational and financial means that cities require to steer urbanization processes.

Forging a strong yet realistic New Urban Agenda will require a lot of work. To smoothen the process, urban policy makers must be made aware of their responsibilities in working to achieve the SDGs. It is vital that decision makers at all levels of government understand the pivotal role that cities play in achieving the SDGs, and actively unlock their full potential in the New Urban Agenda.

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