SDG indicator on public space too narrow, advocates caution

Statistical experts are meeting this week in Bangkok before a November deadline to offer final recommendations on how to measure the new Sustainable Development Goals.

Some are worried the landmark new development target on public spaces is being weakened by indicators that are too narrow. (SDOT Photos/Flickr/cc)

While many have been celebrating the recent landmark — and, for some, surprising — adoption by the United Nations member states of a collective target promoting public space, some are now expressing concern that the potential of this landmark pledge could be weakened when a technical committee meets this week.

At issue is the further solidification of the “indicator” metrics by which governments will be prompted to measure progress on the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 15-year framework that includes the target on public space. These indicators remain under debate by a committee called the Inter-agency and Expert Group (IAEG-SDGs), made up primarily of representatives of national statistical offices.

[See: Toward a global action plan for public space]

Amid the fanfare of the U. N. agreement on the SDGs last month, one issue has lingered: How to measure them. While the world now has a 15-year roadmap consisting of 17 goals and 169 targets, determining how countries keep up with their commitments is another matter entirely. This is especially so for ideas that are new to the global development agenda — such as those for Goal 11, the landmark urban-focused SDG.

The key tool by which these measurements will be accomplished are the still-under-consideration indicators. This week, the body tasked with defining those metrics is meeting in Bangkok, before a 30 November deadline by which it will need to submit a proposed set of these metrics to U. N. Statistical Commission. (Full information on this week’s meeting is available here.)

[See: Integrating urban ‘living rooms’ into global development]

Yet ahead of that meeting, some are worried that more nuanced measurements are in danger of becoming the victim of compromise. This includes the indicator to measure one of the most unusual of the SDG targets — that on public space.

Broadening measurements

The target on public space — formally, Target 11.7 — calls for “universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, particularly for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.” At present, this ambitious goal is set to be measured by a more straightforward benchmark: “area of public and green space as a proportion of total city space.”

Some are warning that this metric is too basic, and they’re looking to the IAEG to rectify these concerns.

“This indicator does not capture an important aspect of the target, which is the safety aspect,” wrote UN-Women’s Papa Seck in a comment on a draft list of indicators circulated in August. “If women and girls are to enjoy a life free from violence, authorities need to ensure that public spaces are free from any form of violence, including sexual violence.”

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

The one-month public consultation on the draft list of indicators yielded hundreds of pages of comments from civil society, academia and the private sector. Goal 11 alone was the subject of more than 300 comments, including many that focused on Target 11.7, on public space.

Others worry that an exclusive focus on green and open space doesn’t measure the full scope of public space, much less public space that meets the target’s lofty goals.

“A focus on green spaces ignores other important spaces that make up the public realm — like streets, markets, civic buildings and public squares,” said Ethan Kent, vice-president of the Project for Public Spaces. “I worry that this kind of framework will obscure other critical public space issues such as access, quality, distribution, community participation and governance.”

As statisticians wrangle over numbers this week, key experts are hoping that a more nuanced measurement of public space will succeed.

UN-Habitat is confident that all the benefits public space can bring will prevail in the acceptance of this indicator,” said Eduardo López Moreno, UN-Habitat’s point person for the IAEG who is also closely following progress on Goal 11. “This target has had some level of opposition perhaps because of the innovative approach — the need to integrate spatial analysis and change the way of doing things.”

Second meeting

The formal process by which the indicator on public space came about began in earnest in June. At that time, the IAEG met at U. N. Headquarters in New York to hash out a draft list of indicators for monitoring the SDGs. The meeting was marred by the oil-and-water mix of statistical experts and political delegates, who had starkly different views about how to proceed with the work.

[See: Development indicators group starts off more political than technical]

Since that rocky start, the IAEG has settled into a more productive mode over the past several months, according to close observers of the process. This work has all been vitual — the Bangkok meeting, which runs 26-28 October, is only the group’s second in-person convening.

“The New York City meeting was not very successful,” concedes Moreno. “But since then, a collaborative platform has been created, which has been an extremely useful process.”

Moreno anticipates significant progress this week by the IAEG, on the indicator around public spaces as well as for the 10 other targets that make up Goal 11. This includes settling the indicators on slums, cultural heritage and disaster risk reduction, strengthening urban planning, and providing financial support to least-developed countries.

The Bangkok meeting will produce another, more refined list of proposed indicators, after which additional minor amendments will be accepted through mid-November.

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