Urban SDG campaigners celebrate success, acknowledge shortcomings

A cities-focused development goal is a reality. Now what?

NEW YORK — A remarkable two-year campaign came to a conclusion Friday, when world leaders at the United Nations unanimously adopted a set of global development priorities that includes a landmark goal on cities.

But the congratulations were brief as the collection of urbanists, mayors, scholars, philanthropists and activists who made the case that urbanization merits a place on the global development agenda convened after a weekend U. N. summit to discuss an obvious question: What’s next?

[See: All of Citiscope’s coverage of the urban SDG]

This past weekend’s Special Summit on Sustainable Development was the capstone to a years-long process to define what would replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire this year. At the Rio+20 summit in 2012, U. N. member states agreed to hash out the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which would apply to all countries, whereas the MDGs only applied to developing countries. Shortly thereafter, a concerted advocacy effort, the Campaign for an Urban Sustainable Development Goal, convened to make sure cities would not be left out.

After intense lobbying to secure a place in the draft goals followed by hard-nosed negotiations to maintain that spot, the campaign achieved its objective. With the ink now dry, the campaign can point to “Goal 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.”

On Monday, the Communitas Coalition, a key part of the campaign, gathered many of the group’s members at the Ford Foundation to celebrate its accomplishment and chart the way forward. Don Chen, the director of Ford’s Metropolitan Opportunity unit, said, “We are filled with optimism, excitement and humility.”

‘Easy track’

For city watchers, the U. N. summit was bookended by two prominent gatherings. While the Ford event closed the proceedings, they were kicked off the previous Thursday when mayors from around the world, led by New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, agreed to support the SDGs — not just Goal 11, but the whole package, in recognition of local governments’ role in achieving sustainable development.

[See: In New York, global mayors gather to commit to the SDGs]

“There was no failure but clearly an alert, because we might be seeing the international community taking the easy track right now, instead of embracing all challenges.”

Maruxa Cardama
Executive director, Communitas Coalition

Over the weekend, a representative from nearly all 193 U. N. member states — many of them heads of state or government in town for the 70th session of the U. N. General Assembly — declared their commitment to what’s known as the Post-2015 Development Agenda, although hardly any mentioned cities or urbanization.

At the Ford Foundation on Monday, the UrbanSDG Campaign and its extended community were still processing the whirlwind of activity from the action-packed weekend.

“The summit was very inspiring, motivating and encouraging,” said Gino Van Begin, secretary-general of ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability. “You could feel the spirit in the room when the goals were adopted.”

ICLEI’s official position on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development asserted that the SDGs should be seen as a floor, not a ceiling, in terms of government action on sustainable development. The group also is urging that the goal pave the way toward the next two major international summits, the Paris climate negotiations and next year’s Habitat III conference on urbanization.

Maruxa Cardama, the executive director of the Communitas Coalition, has followed the SDGs process since its inception. In light of the relatively limited attention that urbanization received in the halls of the General Assembly in lieu of more traditional development concerns, she was cautious but not pessimistic.

“There was no failure but clearly an alert,” she said. “Because we might be seeing the international community taking the easy track right now, instead of embracing all challenges.”

[See: At U. N., traditional development concerns overshadow sustainable urbanization]

Indeed, national governments do not yet appear to have fully grasped the significance of what the Post-2015 Development Agenda means for their public-policy priorities. According to those closest to these processes, the paradigm shift is massive. “The SDGs have virtually redefined sustainable development,” said Thomas Gass, assistant secretary-general of the U. N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Moreover, that shift did not come from diplomats. “Civil society pushed open the doors of the U. N. and let some oxygen in,” Gass continued. “Groups like [the UrbanSDG Campaign] have brought intelligence and depth to a process that might have been just political.”

Echo chamber?

With the campaign’s success comes responsibility, as advocates now must ensure that national governments — who still run the ship at the United Nations when it comes to monitoring progress on sustainable development over the next 15 years — meet their requirements under Goal 11.

For Cardama, the answer lies in the “inextricable interlinkages” between the goals, which in her opinion make the new document a “universal agenda” rather than a collection of disparate parts.

[See: Inextricably interlinked: The urban SDG and the new development agenda]

“We must be able to justify with practical tools, specific partnerships and indicators how working on sustainable urban development can help accelerate the pace for implementation on gender, governance, energy, health and infrastructure — and therefore, economic growth and poverty reduction,” she said.

The indicators are a set of measurements that will benchmark the 17 goals and 169 targets. They are currently being negotiated and are expected to be adopted at an upcoming meeting of the U. N. Statistical Commission early next year.

[See: Hundreds of comments offered on indicators for urban SDG]

This success-turned-responsibility has thus set the tone for members of the campaign. “It is a time of celebration but also of implementation,” Van Begin said, echoing nearly every speaker at Ford. The group allowed little time for self-congratulating.

“We have a lot of explaining to do,” said Eugénie Birch, chair of the World Urban Campaign. “We’re in our comfort zone here, but a lot of people out there don’t agree with us.”

She gently chided the audience for talking amongst itself too much and not adequately explaining the relevance of sustainable urbanization, reflected by the short shrift the issue received at the U. N. compared to issues like climate change.

“Seventy percent of greenhouse gases come from cities,” she said. “We need to get that message out.”

Other key leaders for urban advocacy likewise recognized the movement’s shortcomings in changing the conversation across the street at U. N. Headquarters.

“The United Nations has forgotten about space,” said Aromar Revi, director of the Indian Institute of Human Settlements. “If not embedded in space, the question of how doesn’t actually play out.” His argument reflected the failure of national governments to contextualize the overarching development issues, like poverty and climate change, in an urban setting.

Cardama also wants to push for broader outreach that would engage the urban crowd with other lobbying groups.

“The task for the sustainable-urban-development community is to help the other constituencies behind the goals to enforce accountability in national governments,” she said, “so everybody sees that sustainable urban development is as much of a priority as the other 16 goals are.”

Even the private sector, which lined up to commit to the SDGs at a star-studded forum on Saturday headlined by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, barely acknowledged urbanization, despite the huge financial opportunities it represents. “And here we expect the private sector to invest in the future of cities,” Birch said.

A spokesperson for the U. N. Global Compact, which oversees the private-sector effort, cited commitments to SDG 11 made by Japanese engineering firm Kokusai Kogyo to “low-carbon urban planning” and Dutch chemical manufacturer Royal DSM.

A new agenda

While Habitat III was hardly mentioned during the SDGs summit, the crowd assembled at Ford called it the next opportunity to benchmark progress toward the implementation of Goal 11. Gass cited the cities conference alongside next May’s World Humanitarian Summit as “important pillars that we have to make sure shore up these shared vision of humanity.” Ford’s Chen called Habitat III “the inflection point and launching point for the next stage of tasks.”

But as momentum builds just over a year before the world’s urban experts gather in Quito, there was a mixture of stocktaking and handwringing. “Since 1996, there has been very little analysis of the impact of Habitat II,” noted Michael Cohen, director of international affairs at the New School, a New York university.

[See: Fractured continuity: Moving from Habitat II to Habitat III]

In part, that may be due to a something that Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos candidly admitted to. He asked the audience what the expectation was ahead of Habitat II in 1996, which ultimately yielded the Habitat Agenda. When Joseph Schechla of the Habitat International Coalition, a stakeholder network, recited the agenda’s key points, Clos readily affirmed that the Habitat Agenda has been ignored.

“I don’t want the same thing for Habitat III,” he said. “We need now in one year to provide a set of ideas, policies, et cetera, that can change the paradigm and can be the initiation of a change to the approach of urbanization.”

Pointing out that there will be three billion more people on the planet in the next 40 years — growth that will also double the global urban population — he asked, “What will be the implementable message of Habitat III?”

That’s a question that remains under discussion and debate.

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