As nations assess progress on SDGs, questions linger about the cities goal

Cities will be front and centre at next year’s review. Before that, advocates have some ideas about what needs to happen to foster greater implementation of Goal 11. (KreativKolors/Shutterstock)

Starting today, the global development ecosystem turns its collective attention to New York for a two-week-long status update on where efforts stand to eliminate poverty while bolstering equality and sustainability.

This is the annual check-in on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a 15-year framework that went into effect last year. In the coming days, 44 countries will offer formal reports at U. N. Headquarters on their efforts to implement the 17 goals and 169 related targets. Fifteen other countries took part in last year’s review, known as the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF).

For the most part, cities and SDG 11, the goal focused on sustainable urbanization, are not explicitly on the agenda at this year’s HLPF, despite the growing recognition that urban areas are where much of the progress in implementation will need to take place. That’s by design: The HLPF will operate on a four-year cycle, with each session focusing on a handful of the goals. This year’s review explores progress on Goal 1 (on poverty), Goal 2 (hunger), Goal 3 (health and well-being), Goal 5 (gender equality), Goal 9 (infrastructure) and Goal 14 (oceans).

Cities will be front and centre at next year’s review, during what is shaping up to be an extremely busy year for the global urban agenda. And before that, advocates have some ideas about what needs to happen to foster greater implementation of Goal 11. Discussions with close watchers of the issue in recent days suggest a mixed picture of growing energy in certain circles combined with a sense of frustration at a lack of adequate global infrastructure and oversight to prod action and highlight innovative examples from which others can learn.

So, where are we on Goal 11? Nearly two years after it was adopted, that remains a question with no clear answers. U. N. Secretary General António Guterres’s new report on “progress towards” the SDGs offers an inconclusive starting point. As of May, the study finds, 149 countries are in the process of developing national-level urban policies. That’s an interesting statistic, but it’s also the only current cities data provided in the study. Otherwise, it offers only broad, fairly outdated urban trends around slum populations, rates of urban expansion and densification, solid waste and air pollution.

[See: Where is the local voice in the SDGs review process?]

Still, more granular reports — and concerns — are trickling in. Cynthia Woodside, with the anti-hunger group Bread for the World, leads a U. S. working group of civil society organizations focused on seeing the SDGs put into action. She says she’s “heartened by the energy and enthusiasm with which U. S. cities have embraced the promise” of the goals but warns that the implementation process is missing an important element of coordination.

“Additional local and state leadership on implementing the SDGs is critical, especially in the absence of more leadership from the federal level,” she said. Even the major philanthropic entities that have played an enormous role in nurturing the global cities agenda in recent years don’t yet share a common focus, Woodside says. “It would be useful if both old and new city-level initiatives were more closely coordinated and tied into the goals,” she noted.

“There are some efforts underway to do so,” she continued, “but a more coordinated approach would have a powerful impact on the pace of social, economic, and environmental change needed to meet the interconnected goals.”

Spreading best practices

As Woodside indicates, there is anecdotal evidence suggesting growing interest among cities across the globe in SDG 11, which covers urban planning, housing, transport, public space, waste management and more. But some practitioners warn that the lack of high-level coordination is translating into missed opportunities on the ground.

“A more coordinated approach [on SDG 11] would have a powerful impact on the pace of social, economic, and environmental change needed to meet the interconnected goals.”

Cynthia Woodside
Bread for the World

Roger Gervais works with accessibility issues around aging and disability in Ontario, Canada. He says he sees significant opportunity in Goal 11 for its potential to affect policymakers’ thinking about the built environment, especially to push back on the dangers of poorly designed buildings.

[See: Here’s the list of Sustainable Development Goal targets that have a role for cities]

But Gervais says he’s running into problems figuring out how others are implementing Goal 11 — and what could work in Ontario. He says he’d like to see “an online database of SDG 11 best practices”.

“Our global efforts to implement the SDGs … need to benefit from the efficiency of case studies, evidence-based technical standards, site plans and architectural floor plans and any other built-environment information that could be readily available for review,” he said.

“Expanding further with technical accessibility details, site plans and floor plans would take it the next level for [anyone] who may wish to replicate great projects,” Gervais continued. Countries “with limited resources could significantly benefit from all aspects of a project — concept to completion — being at their online disposal, especially in countries where building codes or local standards aren’t as advanced as those available for review at no charge.”

[See: The SDGs don’t adequately spell out cities’ role in implementation]

Some efforts are indeed underway to put together such online clearinghouses of information, although all remain nascent efforts. In the Asia-Pacific region, for instance, three groups have been collaborating over the past year on a project called the Urban SDG Knowledge Platform. While still in a beta phase, its policy database includes several dozen projects, and organizers say the site is likely to fully launch in August.

Delegates participate in the first day of this year’s High-Level Political Forum in New York, 10 July. (Kiara Worth/IISD)

“Over the last half year, I am encountering a heightened interest in the localization and implementation of the SDGs among urban communities in the Asia-Pacific,” said Jae Hyun Park, a programme officer at the Seoul-based CityNet who oversees the Urban SDG Knowledge Platform. The platform is a joint project between CityNet, the Seoul metropolitan government and the U. N. commission for the region.

But, he continued: “It is still the case that many cities are not exposed well enough to innovative urban development cases, new practices in urban governance, and — perhaps most importantly — the challenges and lessons learned from other cities in implementing sustainable urban practices … This also greatly hampers progress towards achieving the SDGs.”

[See: How Baltimore is using the Sustainable Development Goals to make a more just city]

Several other groups are also working on efforts around information-sharing platforms on how to implement the SDGs in cities more broadly, including the Localizing the SDGs project, the U. N. Development Programme’s UNDP 4 Urban platform (also soon to be relaunched) and others.

“For us in UNDP, addressing urban risk has never been more critical: The world population continues to grow, climate change contributes to ever more frequent and intense disasters, and more and more people are moving to cities,” said Magdy Martínez-Solimán, U. N. assistant secretary general and director of UNDP’s Bureau for Policy and Programme Support. “Since the launch of its Sustainable Urbanization StrategyUNDP has stepped up efforts to enhance global understanding of the various issues and challenges posed by rapid urbanization, building capacity of the governments on enforcement and implementation of laws.”

While SDG 11 has provided new impetus for the agency’s work, staff members caution that the urban components of the framework run much broader.

“Definitely with SDG 11 adopted, we have a goal and more focus with renewed energy,” said Sangita Khadka, a communications specialist with the agency, “but also we need to be mindful that SDG 11 cannot stand by itself — it is very closely embedded to all other goals that we have been working on and the way UNDP works in development.”

HLPF criticism

Such knowledge-sharing platforms are only part of the concern, however. Others point to the HLPF process itself — and its related methods for monitoring and reporting progress — as constricting city efforts to implement the SDGs in general, including Goal 11.

In a commentary published today on Citiscope, the global network United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) unveiled early research on the 63 countries that have submitted reports to the HLPF over its first two years. Of those, UCLG finds, just 37 included local governments in related consultations — and a quarter of those suffered from “concerns with the quality of the consultation process”.

“With no relevant place for reporting from a local perspective or for showcasing what is being done at the local level,” UCLG notes, “we risk missing an opportunity to enhance the visibility of the role of local and regional governments in achieving the SDGs.”

[See: Are cities on track to achieve the SDGs by 2030?]

For now, this gap means it falls to the cities community as a whole to undertake the critical work of underscoring the interconnections between Goal 11 and the other SDGs, advocates say.

“Until (and even after) there are adequate mechanisms in the HLPF sessions that deal with cities directly, the urban development community has to act to drive home priority interventions that will secure both SDG 11 and the urban relevance / application / implementation of all other SDGs,” Susan Parnell, a co-founder of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, said in an email.

“There has to be an overt and clear articulation of how the framing of each goal would benefit from spatially and institutionally explicit expressions of developmental priority across and in each goal,” she noted, “like reducing urban air pollution or maximizing walkability in the health goals, or ensuring skills development for urban jobs in education or a focus on night-time security for gender.”

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

UCLG and other groups operating under an entity called the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments are now working to create a global reporting mechanism for local government implementation actions that could eventually be funnelled into the HLPF.

This year’s HLPF explores progress on Goal 1 (on proverty), Goal 2 (hunger) Goal 3 (health and well-being), Goal 5 (gender equality), Goal 9 (infrastructure) and Goal 14 (oceans). Cities will be a key focus of next year’s review. (UCLG)

A key element of any reporting regime, however, is the data that is being reported upon — and here, too, there are concerns that city opportunities to implement the SDGs are being undercut. Each of the 17 SDGs sits upon a series of more-specific targets, which in turn sit upon a series of metrics that governments will actually report on, thus informing the progress updates that power the HLPF process.

But while the goals and targets of this framework were approved and adopted in 2015, technical work on the indicators continues, bogged down by the complexity and politics of the undertaking. As countries meet this month for the second HLPF, only two of Goal 11’s indicators have been approved — out of 15 total. Still up in the air are knotty issues over how to measure “direct participation” in urban planning, for instance, or money spent on conservation and heritage. In many places, no coherent data on these issues exists.

[See: Can we actually agree on indicators to measure urban development?]

And as with the broader HLPF mechanism, local governments are complaining that they are being shut out of the process. That means a weaker voice advocating for indicators that more explicitly track progress at the city-to-city level.

“Indicators are a critical dimension of the SDG reporting process,” states a position paper from the official lobbying group of local authorities in the U. N. system ahead of the start of this year’s HLPF. “… We therefore request stronger involvement of local and regional governments in the process of defining indicators and call on national governments and UN Agencies to involve sub-national governments in the discussion around monitoring and reporting of SDG 11.”

Just ahead of the HLPF, a high-ranking U. N. official appeared to recognize some of these concerns. “Because of the comprehensive reach and the level of ambition of the SDGs, a vital role of the HLPF will be to imbue a sense of subsidiarity to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda,” Thomas Gass wrote in a commentary. “We must move decisively towards a paradigm that mobilizes and empowers. A paradigm that recognises and supports decentralised action, and national and local ownership.”

System in flux

So what explains this lack of high-level coordination around SDG 11? There are at least three important elements here.

“It is still the case that many cities are not exposed well enough to innovative urban development cases, new practices in urban governance, and — perhaps most importantly — the challenges and lessons learned from other cities in implementing sustainable urban practices … This also greatly hampers progress towards achieving the SDGs.”

Jae Hyun Park

First, analysts point out that the urban community has yet to coalesce around a single leadership figure or institution. While the movement around global health, for instance, is able to follow closely the agenda and lobbying of the World Health Organization (WHO), the cities corollary — UN-Habitat — has never been as powerful or well-funded a voice. Further, UN-Habitat currently is embroiled in a political fight for its future, undergoing a major assessment by the U. N. secretary-general amid a budget crisis.

[See: Questions raised over composition, timeline of UN-Habitat assessment]

Second, the multilateral system itself is enmeshed in great flux. This began with what amounted to a watershed remaking of the global development system in 2015-16, which saw the adoption of at least five new decades-long development agendas, including the SDGs but also the Paris climate agreement and New Urban Agenda. Close observers of this process expressed surprise to Citiscope that the institutional jostling over the cities agenda amid this new development landscape has lasted as long as it has — and continues.

Amid this jostling, of course, have been the twin shocks of global economic downturn and a rise of the populist, nationalist politics embodied by U. S. President Donald Trump and others. Multilateral mandates still exist in this new world, but their momentum inevitably has slowed, at least for now.

Third, there continues to exist a far older issue with how the U. N. system is set up. This line of analysis suggests that the current growing pains underscore not a problem with SDG 11 but with the fact that the United Nations has done little to move beyond its founding charter as a body of nation states.

[See: The United Nations risks stifling its own progress on sustainable urbanization]

“The lack of clear cities-focused mechanisms in the HLPF sessions is pretty much symptomatic of how the U. N. is still very much not fit for cities, and vice-versa,” said Michele Acuto, director of the University College London City Leadership Lab, who is currently writing a book on the issue.

“Until any proper reform takes place, UN-Habitat is relatively weak, underfunded and with an unclear and outdated mandate,” he continued, “whilst possibly bigger actors that could link SGD 11 across the SDGs — for instance, the WHO or World Bank — have been struggling to articulate a solid urban vision and put in place visible urban initiatives.”

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Carey is news editor for Citiscope.  Full bio

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