Behind the push for an “urban SDG”

Aromar Revi, director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bangalore, makes the case at the UN for a development goal explicitly related to cities. Revi was one of many urbanists around the world who pushed for the urban sustainable development goal."

As Citiscope reported this week, a United Nations Open Working Group handed urbanists a victory last month when it included a specific goal for cities in a broader list of goals for improving the lives of people around the world.

The final list of “Sustainable Development Goals” for 2016 to 2030 still requires approval of the UN General Assembly. Nevertheless, including the urban goal in the final draft was a big step for the UN, which hasn’t always recognized the importance of cities in human development.

The move represented the culmination of an extensive campaign by local governments, urban scholars and activists around the world. Here’s how they mobilized their effort.

A critical role was played from the start by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, or SDSN. That’s an international group launched by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in August 2012 to mobilize technical expertise from academia, civil society and the private sector to further sustainable development. It has co-chairs from China and France and one of its driving forces is  Columbia University’s Earth Institute director, Jeffrey Sachs, a leading figure in the push for worldwide development goals and a strong proponent of an “urban SDG.”

Aromar Revi, director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bangalore, undertook a major role for the network as strategist and articulate public spokesman. He was joined by Cynthia Rosenzweig of Columbia University, an authority in the study of climate change’s impact on agriculture and cities.

The group’s informal planning for an urban SDG campaign started early in 2013 and was launched formally in New York last September.  Important players representing cities in both the developed and developing worlds signed on from the start.  They include United Cities and Local Governments (the Barcelona-based umbrella organization of city organizations worldwide), Metropolis (which represents major metro cities), Cities Alliance (focused on slum upgrading) and ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability (working for climate change response in cities globally.)   

As the organizational effort gathered steam, the Rockefeller Foundation offered space at its conference center in Bellagio, Italy to assemble two dozen key SDSN members to compose a core document on the case for the urban SDG.  Fully aware of the early odds against success, notes Revi, “We started the effort as an act of faith and daring,” determined to “get this moving.”

Building support

A core document on the need for an urban SDG was written, with a team of some 25 supporters and allies joining in the effort.  The next month, at a UCLG conference in Rabat, Revi made an impassioned plea for the urban SDG. He told some 2,000 local government representatives in attendance that they represented, cumulatively, cities with half the world’s population and two-thirds of the global economy.  The time was at hand, he said, to go to their national governments and the UN to make a strong case for an city-focused goal.

Those national governments were represented by a 70-member UN working committee given the task of drafting an initial set of SDGs. An early version of the committee’s work was silent on the need for an urban goal, which both worried urban activists and spurred them to action. Rosenzweig went to work on persuading doubtful delegations, including those from the United States, Great Britain, Canada and India. She presented charts, based on scientific projections, showing serious problems for their nations’ chief cities in water supplies, poverty levels and dramatically rising average temperatures in the 2030-50 time frame.

But in the UN working committee, there was significant pushback. Some said a city-focused goal was a nice idea, but there was no basis in the intergovernmental process for it.  Others worried that an urban goal would erode international aid for rural areas, or favored tailoring a goal related specifically to transportation or infrastructure instead.

Urban SDG supporters responded by stepping up their research, building their organization, and recruiting new supporters. By December, two new high-profile partners were brought in, representing opposite poles of the urban world. One was the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, representing many of the world’s largest and richest cities. The other was Shack/Slum Dwellers International, representing some of the world’s most impoverished neighborhoods.  Rohit Aggarwala of Bloomberg Associates, key in the outreach to C40 Cities, notes that by February, more than 30 cities had formally endorsed the idea of a city SDG. C40 chair Eduardo Paes, mayor of Rio de Janeiro, subsequently worked further to get major cities involved.

Revi, in remarks at the UN’s Open Working Group, tried to defuse rural-urban tensions. “The fate of cities and rural areas are two sides of the same coin,” he said. “You cannot have sustainable cities without having sustainable agriculture and addressing the issue of rural prosperity. Cities cannot survive without food, without water, without ecosystem services. The two function back to back.”  

Lining up the votes

Rhetoric alone, however, would not carry the day. Proponents amassed a social media campaign, using the Twitter hashtag #urbanSDG. And the campaign needed a more hands-on strategist working directly with individual UN delegations on goal language and lining up votes. That role was filled by Maruxa Cardama, executive project director for Communitas, a coalition of a number of NGOs working in the sustainable urban development field and associations of local governments.

Working closely with UN-Habitat and ICLEI, with support from the Ford and Charles Leopold Mayer Foundations, the Communitas strategy included commissioning papers from “experts fused with grassroots knowledge” that might help in advancing a city goal.  Pressing for a favorable working group vote for an urban goal, Cardama began with such “friends of sustainable cities” as Singapore and Sweden (co-chairs of “The Group of Friends of Sustainable Cities,” a group of 29 UN delegations pressing for sustainable urban development).  

Then Cardama consulted with a broad range of delegations, even serious doubters.  She gauged positions, suggested alternative target language comfortable to the delegates, and worked to ease concerns — especially on the ticklish question of rural areas’ interests being overshadowed by a city goal.  France, Germany and Switzerland became early allies.  Egypt, silent at first, provided helpful language around what targets would be associated with the goal. India turned from an opponent to collaborator with the election of Narendra Modi, an urban enthusiast promising the development of 100 “smart” cities in the next decade, as the country’s prime minister.

In the meantime, the World Urban Campaign, chaired by Eugenie Birch, Nussdorf professor of urban research at the University of Pennsylvania, was pressing for the urban goal.  The UCLG mobilized its constituency.  The #UrbanSDG campaign lined up 225 cities, regional governments and organizations in favor. 

Finally, on July 19, the working group — skeptics included — unanimously approved a full set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including the urban SDG as goal number 11. As drafted, the goal aims to “Make cities and human settlement inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.”  The goal is backed up by specific targets, such as eliminating slum-like conditions, reducing urban sprawl and ensuring universal access to safe and sustainable urban transit. (See the full list of the draft goals and all of the targets related to the urban goal here.)

The urbanists’ job is not done yet. The complete set of proposed new goals is due for additional debate and refinement starting later this year; final UN General Assembly ratification won’t occur until September 2015.

Disclosure: Citiscope is an associate member of the World Urban Campaign, referenced above. The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, also referenced above, are funders of Citiscope.)


A place for cities in the Sustainable Development Goals

Behind the push for an “urban SDG

The “urban SDG”: an explainer

Comparing the MDGs and the SDGs

On the record: What supporters of an “urban SDG” are saying

Join a conversation about the “urban SDG” on

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Neal Peirce is the founder and editor-in-chief of Citiscope. Full bio

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