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

Cities will be front and centre at next year’s high-level review of how the Sustainable Development Goals are implemented so far. Before that, advocates have some ideas about what needs to happen to foster greater implementation of SDG 11.

Starting July 10, 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 UN 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 urbanisation, 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).

Additional local and state leadership on implementing the SDGs is critical, especially in the absence of more leadership from the federal level.

Cynthia Woodside, Bread for the World

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. UN 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 US working group of civil society organisations focused on seeing the SDGs put into action.

She says she’s “heartened by the energy and enthusiasm with which US 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.

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 organisers say the site is likely to fully launch in August.

“Over the last half year, I am encountering a heightened interest in the localisation 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 UN commission for the region.

This story was published with permission from Citiscope, a non-profit news outlet that covers innovations in cities. More at Citiscope.org.

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