Forging a New Global Partnership for Cities in the Post-2015 and Climate Agenda

The clock is ticking for the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, a set of eight global development targets whose expiration date hits in 2015. What will replace those targets, processes and priorities as the global development community moves into the critical decades ahead? The Post-2015 Development Agenda is the process — already well underway — by which a vast array of stakeholders, led by the UN and its associated agencies and partners, has set out to define the future global development framework that will succeed the MDGs and guide international efforts to cope with an array of interrelated crises, from urban poverty to climate change.

On Wednesday at the World Urban Forum in Medellín, the WUF7 side event "Forging a New Global Partnership for Cities in the Post-2015 and Climate Agenda" brought together an impressive group of panelists to examine the role of cities in shaping that agenda and setting those goals. The panel, led by John Romano, Global Policy Fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), focused much of its attention on the ongoing process to define the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), established as the MDGs' successor at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (aka Rio+20) held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012.

Matt Boms, Communications Manager for the Communitas Coalition, began with a detailed look at the intricate process of meetings, consultations and reports that will lead to the final definition of the SDGs. Much of that work will be done by the SDGs Open Working Group (SDGs OWG), whose "innovative structure" involves 30 seats shared by 70 countries, which are grouped in pairs or troikas in an attempt to blend efficiency and consensus and are being chaired by Hungary and Kenya. Having held eight "thematic stock-taking sessions" between March 2013 and February 2014 that led to the establishment of 19 focus areas, the OWG is now in a "negotiation phase" until July 2014 as it moves toward the presentation of its report to UN General Assembly (UNGA) this coming September.

What happens in that "negotiation phase" matters a lot, as Boms made clear. On the way to September's report to the UNGA, those 19 "focus areas" are being shoehorned into eight "clusters" — leading toward an end result that may include a specific global goal for cities, or may scatter the "urban targets" across a range of focus areas, an approach known as "mainstreaming" that would represent a dramatic departure from the siloed structure of the MDGs. Three sessions of the SDGs OWG before summer will "navigate the streamlining and clustering of focus areas and provide responses to counterfactuals such as infrastructure, the rural-urban continuum and mainstreaming."

Boms also detailed Communitas' own involvement in the coming months — for instance, a Communitas-International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) workshop in May — and called out a Petition for an Urban SDG on Change.org, which petitions the SDGs OWG to make "Achieve sustainable cities and human settlements" its own Sustainable Development Goal.

Shelley Poticha, Director of the NRDC's Urban Solutions Program, served previously in the Obama administration as a senior official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, notably with the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. "For the SDGs, we have some great models to build on, in the United States and internationally," Poticha said. Urban sustainability must be "rooted in economic resilience and empowerment," she affirmed, emphasizing the need to "invest in local communities rather than promoting sprawl" and insisting that "the unique characteristics of each community need to be respected." "We want to reinvest in cities," Poticha said, but stressed that "we need new tools, we need new ways of helping cities and communities," citing the "huge amount of waste in the way our tax dollars are spent." In this respect, she considers Partnership for Sustainable Communities, whose "livability principles" have reached 145 cities and regions nationwide, to be a textbook case of how to do it right, in terms both of community engagement and of concrete results.

Alisa Zomer of the Governance, Environment and Markets (GEM) Initiative at Yale University presented research done in the Philippines on planning for urban climate change impacts, focusing on metropolitan Manila and examining the impact of international processes such the SDG process on actual events on the ground. "For this study," said Zomer, "my question was, 'How do international processes influence urban adaptation at a local scale?'" Zomer asked: "What is the connection between climate change and disaster? The recent IPCC report talks about increased storm events or severity of storm events, which Typhoon Haiyan was essentially the test case for. I was looking to metro Manila because it has a population of 12 million, 30 percent of whom live in informal settlements. So in many ways it's an ideal test case to see how international projects influence domestic decision-making." The megalopolis has high incidences of earthquakes and tropical storms, "which is the case with many tropical coastal cities." Zomer described the interrelationships between top-down efforts such as multi-hazard mapping, interactive and crowd-sourced maps, and comprehensive land use plans on the one hand, and bottom-up vulnerability assessments and community resilience building on the other — examining the range of stakeholders involved in these efforts and considering challenges to coordination, communication, and capacity.

Don Chen, Senior Program Officer at the Ford Foundation, provided a glimpse of the prehistory of the current process, discussed linkages between the post-2015 development agenda and the climate agenda, and described the role the Ford Foundation has played. The genesis of the MDGs, said Chen, came about when "a few guys in a room... decided to put together this ambitious set of goals" with "not much civil society input." On the one hand, said Chen, "it did focus attention on the issues"; on the other hand, its language about "improving the lives of 100 million slum dwellers" was vague enough that some governments took it as a pretext for actions that were less than helpful. Still, Chen said, the net result was positive and laid the groundwork for significant progress.

Now, Chen noted (invoking Jeffrey Sachs), the convergence of climate change and the waning of the MDGs has created "a unique moment in global policymaking." This is so "especially now that the SDGs are universal, not just the Global South," he said, adding that "the stakeholders on all sides don't really have credibility across that gulf." While officially "agnostic" on the issue of mainstreaming urban targets into other goals versus creating a standalone goal for cities, he confessed to secretly wanting both — "focused attention, but also linkage."

The Ford Foundation has been involved in these efforts on multiple fronts, said Chen, not least in its numerous grants and consultancies overseas. "By a stroke of luck, we happen to be down the street from the UN," Chen observed; as a result, the Foundation has hosted lots of convenings "because we can." The Ford Foundation has also partnered with other foundations, including the Rockefeller, Hilton, and MacArthur Foundations, and supports journalistic endeavors such as Citiscope and Urb.im, as well as "pilots that will be part of this agenda" — all serving the essential goal of "bringing stakeholders together for shared vision."

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