Commentary

Inextricably interlinked: The urban SDG and the new development agenda

A framework of 17 interconnected stories.

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As humankind, we sit on a ticking bomb of environmental, economic, social and cultural challenges, all of which are interconnected. Yet we also have available an untapped treasure of opportunities and tools that cry out for transboundary vision and action for the peoples and by the peoples of the world. Sustainable urban development at the city and regional scale is among these waiting opportunities.

The excellent news is that 2015 is shaping up to be a game changer in multilateral action on sustainable human development. Three intense years of multilateral negotiations, which have set unprecedented standards of quality around multi-stakeholder and civil society engagement at the United Nations, have now come to a close.

[See: Urban SDG and Habitat III safe as marathon negotiations reach consensus]

This month, and for the first time in history, world leaders will collectively adopt a universal agenda on sustainable human development agenda – the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and its 17 global Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs.

This is an integrated agenda with social, economic and environmental challenges as well as opportunities targeted on an equal footing. The SDGs are inextricably interconnected in the quest for poverty eradication, inequality reduction and climate action as overarching aims.

The second piece of excellent news is that we can proudly celebrate the inclusion of SDG11 — “Make cities and human settlements safe, inclusive, resilient and sustainable” — among the 17 SDGs. Today, cities are home to half of the world’s population and three quarters of its economic output, and these figures will rise dramatically over the next few decades.

“Sustainable urban development at the city and regional scale is understood as inextricably interlinked with the other drivers for sustainable human development — with the other 16 SDGs.”

With the inclusion of SDG11 in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the international community is recognizing that urban development, with its power to trigger transformative change, can and must be at the forefront of human development.

[See: Sustainable cities: Key to future development and governance]

Moreover, since the 17 SDGs constitute an indivisible and integrated framework, the international community is also acknowledging that the achievement of SDG11 can accelerate the pace for achieving the other SDGs — and vice-versa.

This means that sustainable urban development at the city and regional scale is understood as inextricably interlinked with the other drivers for sustainable human development — with the other 16 SDGs.

Indivisible

From a technical and academic perspective, the true list of interlinkages between the 17 SDGs would be very extensive. From the point of view of strategic and integrated planning and management, however, particular attention needs to be given to the following links between SDG11 and the other goals.

SDG1, on poverty eradication, provides for linkages in terms of urban poverty and the morally abhorrent reality of people trapped in slum-like conditions with a lack of or unacceptable standards of housing and provision of public services. SDG1 also captures links to security of land tenure.

SDG2, on food and sustainable agriculture, presents linkages to poverty-related rural-to-urban migration, and hence spatial planning at the city and regional scale for sustainable territorial development across the rural-urban continuum. This includes consumption of land in the urban periphery as well as city and regional food systems.

[See: The New Urban Agenda’s rural-urban conundrum]

SDG3, on health and well-being, links to sustainable low-carbon transport, the reduction of premature deaths caused by air pollution, and healthy urban lifestyles.

SDG4, on education, is linked to access to education by the urban poor and those facing vulnerability, as well as to the synergy between skills sets and local jobs.

SDG5, on gender equality, evokes linkages in terms of security of land tenure, access to public services, participation in local decision-making, and of the percentage of women elected to local and regional government.

[See: Habitat III is a critical opportunity for grass-roots women]

SDG6, on water and sanitation, suggests linkages in terms of spatial planning and of safe, affordable, sustainable and universal provision of a service that, across the globe, is primarily the responsibility of local and regional governments.

SDG7, on energy, is linked to the safe, sustainable and universal provision of energy as a standard responsibility of regional and local governments. This goal is also linked to enabling sustainable low-carbon transport through adequate spatial planning, as well as to local and regional codes for energy efficiency in public and residential buildings.

SDG8, on employment and economic growth, captures links with the local informal economy as well as with economic regeneration and development strategies aligned with local and regional needs and assets for prosperity and jobs.

SDG9, on industry, innovation and infrastructure, presents linkages with cohesive territorial development across the rural-urban continuum. This goal also presents links with infrastructure for economic growth, social cohesion and provision of public services, and with community resilience.

SDG10, on inequality, is embedded in links with the prevention and eradication of inequalities already at the neighbourhood level in order to avoid that unacceptable situations of social, economic, political and environmental injustice go hidden behind national averages.

[See: Citiscope’s coverage of Goal 11, the urban SDG]

SDG12, on sustainable consumption and production, enhances linkages to local supply chains, waste prevention and management, and public procurement.

SDG13, on climate change, presents interlinkages in terms of mitigation of greenhouse-gas emissions, of which cities are currently responsible for 80 percent at the global level. This goal also enshrines links to territorial adaptation to climate change and community resilience.

SDG14, on oceans and marine resources, and SDG15, on ecosystems, forests, desertification and biodiversity, both evoke the critical linkages between the environmental impact of cities and planetary boundaries. These goals remind us that, in the absence of sound spatial planning and integrated management, cities can ultimately nullify the social, economic and environmental advantages of agglomeration.

SDG16, on peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice and effective, accountable and inclusive institutions, is inextricably linked to the realization of local democracy and government accountability, to capacity-building at all levels of government, and to the empowerment of participatory democracy and engaged citizens in every community.

And finally, SDG17, on the partnerships for the SDGs, evokes the need of synergetic and cohesive multi-level governance — the vertical integration between different levels of government. This goal also underscores that it is only through multi-stakeholder partnerships that the transformation towards sustainable urban development can happen — thus, the horizontal integration across sectors and between actors.

Interlinked policymaking

These interlinkages are perhaps self-explanatory for academics and urban-development practitioners who have been juggling the increasing complex beasts that are our contemporary cities.

“It is profoundly disconcerting that today only around 30 countries have national urban policies.”

To date, however, the practice of interlinkages in policymaking has seldom been embedded in international frameworks. Further, such an approach has not been sufficiently put into practice by governments at any level.

Cities in their socio-cultural, economic and environmental complexities contain a multitude of systems — indeed, cities can be thought of as systems of systems. Yet for far too long, the planning and management of cities has been dominated by thought and action that takes place in silos.

This has resulted in the aggravation of the interconnected challenges that sustainable urban development represents. It has also resulted in the unfortunate waste of its opportunities.

In this post-2015 era of a universal and integrated framework for sustainable human development, the SDGs represent a beacon of hope for making the transformation toward sustainable urban development happen. And for making sure that no one is left behind, a central goal of the entire new development framework.

[See: Local linchpins: Mayors commit to the SDGs]

Making sure that this takes place, however, will require strong participation by governments and policymakers at all levels. Strategic frameworks and plans at the national level, for instance, are a 21st-century must-have for sustainable urban and territorial development. Further, national urban policies, adapted to the needs and assets of a country, its regions and cities, must be incentivized by international frameworks and implemented at the national level.

In this, however, there is a long way to go. With 70 percent of the global population projected to live in cities by 2050, it is profoundly disconcerting that today only around 30 countries have national urban policies.

Will SDG11, as a driving force for sustainable human development, be enough of an incentive for national governments to get their act together? All we know today is that the bomb keeps ticking. Yet actually, we also know one other thing: We now have the tools to disarm it.

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Maruxa Cardama

Maruxa Cardama is the founder and executive coordinator of Communitas, the Coalition for Sustainable Cities & Regions in the New UN Development Agenda. Maruxa is also an associate fellow at the Tellus Institute and previously ran nrg4SD, an international organization of subnational governments. In 2010-12, she co-facilitated the engagement of subnational and local authorities in the UN Rio+20 conference.