An urban Sustainable Development Goal. Why? And what?

By David Maddox

Next year, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted by the United Nations after the Millennium Declaration, are set to expire. The next set of global development goals, which are supposed to be more environmentally focused — the Sustainable Development Goals — are currently under discussion at the UN and elsewhere, including The Nature of Cities. Thomas Elmqvist wrote a piece on the justifications for an explicitly urban SDG; and a group of 12 writers participated in a panel to discuss just what an urban SDG would look like.

A consensus has emerged among members of the UN's Open Working Group over the inclusion of a few stand-alone goals — such as on food security, water access, energy and health. But a list of almost 25 other candidate themes needs to be reduced or merged. An explicitly urban SDG is a contender, although it is not guaranteed to be included.

The arguments for an urban SDG are many. Global expansion and acceleration of urbanization is transforming the social and economic fabric of nations. Cities are responsible for the bulk of production and consumption worldwide, and are the primary engines of economic growth and development. Roughly three-quarters of global economic activity is urban, and as urban populations grow, so too will the already huge urban share of global GDP and investments. Cities are home to extreme deprivation and environmental degradation, with one billion people living in slums. In many countries the number of slum dwellers has increased significantly in recent years, and urban inequality is deepening.

Given the profoundly transformative impact of urbanization, also highlighted in many contributions to TNOC, many believe that failure to develop a goal around sustainable urbanization would be a significant missed opportunity — possibly disastrous — to unlock the potential of a truly sustainable development agenda. In short, the huge role that cities play in efforts to achieve livability, resilience and sustainability clearly argues for an urban SDG.

What would such an SGD look like? What would it contain? A diverse panel of thinkers from multiple disciplines was convened by TNOC — social activists, advocates for the rights of slum dwellers, experts in transportation, ecology, NGO leaders, and others, 12 in all — and offered a broad set of specific recommendations. They are too extensive to write about in detail here, but several themes emerged.

  • An urban SDG should include a specific focus on inclusion and the rights of the poor in cities and target universal access to land, services, shelter.
  • It should increase capacity for participatory, integrated urban planning, management, and decision-making.
  • Ensure universal access to safe and green public space.
  • It must strengthen resilience to climate change, man-made and natural disasters.
  • Promote just and equitable economic development and natural resources management that is sustainable across the urban-rural gradient.
  • It must provide universal access to affordable, equitable, safe and sustainable urban and peri-urban transport for connected and healthy communities.
  • These focus areas or targets must also include ideas on how such targets might be achieved.

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