Cities respond: Testing the urban SDG indicators

With the Sustainable Development Goals now finalized, all eyes turn to the critical task of defining how to track progress on these global aims. How are local authorities responding to the usefulness and feasibility of the Goal 11 indicators?

A child looks on as people board a bus Kisumu, Kenya, in January 2008. Safe, accessible, efficient and affordable transportation is a key target that authorities will soon be required to start measuring under the new urban-focused Sustainable Development Goal. (James Akena/Reuters/Landov)

This weekend the U. N. General Assembly formally adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — in many ways an unprecedented achievement, as 193 countries around the world committed to the agreement. Starting in January, the SDGs will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with a broader, more holistic approach to measuring transitions to sustainability. In addition, whereas the MDGs applied only to so-called developing countries, the SDGs will apply to all countries, regardless of income or human development status.

Of particular interest for Mistra Urban Futures is, of course, Goal 11, about sustainable urban development. Never before have countries and heads of state and government attached such significance to the cities of their countries. For the first time, the crucial role of cities — particularly since they are subnational units — in addressing the global sustainability challenges has been acknowledged as relevant for the United Nations, an intergovernmental organization, as the basis for data reporting.

[See: Initiative aims to bolster subnational data as key to measuring SDGs progress]

However, this is only the beginning. Ahead lie some considerable challenges, where perfect solutions may be hard or even impossible to find. Certainly using the same yardstick to compare a vibrant and expanding multimillion-inhabitant city such as, for instance, Lagos, Nigeria, and the orderly, intermediate city of Gothenburg, Sweden, would not make much sense.

Each of the SDGs sits atop a range of more-detailed targets as well as specific metrics, known as indicators, by which those targets are to be measured. While the goals and targets were each finalized at the U. N. General Assembly this weekend, the indicators remain under development and debate.

Mistra Urban Futures had the opportunity to try out the suggested indicators and targets for the urban SDG in a pilot project. All four of our international platforms, in Kisumu (Kenya), Cape Town (South Africa), Manchester (U. K.) and Gothenburg (Sweden), as well as Bangalore (India), were designated as test beds for the indicators as such. But a key part of the project was also to test for the work and resources needed to produce the necessary data to report on the indicators.

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

These five cities provide a remarkably representative sample of the diversity of urban contexts and conditions around the world, being secondary or intermediate cities in their respective national systems. They are located in both the Global South and North, possessing very different institutional capacities on the part of their local authorities. They also experience diverse levels of poverty, un- and underemployment, economic diversity, and dynamism or stagnation, as well as differing social and environmental conditions.

Hence, if the targets and draft indicators are perceived as relevant and can be demonstrated to be practicable in these cities — or if we know what modifications are needed — then the prospects of Goal 11 becoming a useful tool for national and urban local authorities will be greatly enhanced.

The findings

The pilot project’s findings were published recently, and they offer a few key points to keep in mind for the start of the global work process to come.

The first of Goal 11’s targets concerns housing, informal settlements and “slums”. This is very hard to measure in a comparable way, and all pilot cities had problems providing robust and reliable data. “Inadequate housing” was considered a better term than “slum”, as it includes access to basic services, tenure security and quality of housing across the participating cities.

“In order for the indicators to be useful on a local level, they cannot be too general in scope and range, and local authorities need to be directly involved in the implementation and reporting processes. At the same time, for global comparisons, too many details will make it harder to see the worldwide picture.”

[See: SDGs expert group flags ‘slums’ definition in key urban indicator]

The second target is about providing safe, accessible, efficient and affordable transport for all citizens. This is regarded as a fundamental target to achieve sustainable development; the challenge is to find feasible and valid indicators. The tested indicators concerned accessibility to public transport and the total number of kilometres of high-capacity public-transport systems. The test-bed cities suggested replacing the latter one with an indicator related to travel time.

The third target concerns more equitable and efficient land use. The participating cities contested the suggested indicators, arguing that more suitable ones would account for variations in land use. The main recommendation for the indicator is to move beyond a simple yes or no answer and to link it either to the five UN-Habitat principles for sustainable city planning or to the International Guidelines on Urban and Territorial Planning, which the agency recently published.

The fourth and fifth targets deal with cities’ cultural heritage and disaster risk prevention. Both were considered somewhat complicated, with the pilot cities finding them either difficult to define and measure or too dependent on local contexts to be comparable. Recommendations called for the harmonization and standardization to be more explicit in order to facilitate the comparison of data across cities.

Similar recommendations hold true for the sixth and seventh targets, on environmental impact and access to green and public space. Our study showed that data availability, reliability and comparability was very unevenly distributed across the five cities.

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

There are also several overall challenges to defining the Goal 11 indicators. Two such concerns, for instance, will be in striking balances between comparability and policy relevance, as well as between the call for high reporting frequency and the potential for that reporting to become burdensome. A third challenge will be drawing on well-established data sources and allowing for openly sourced data.

Our pilot study clearly shows that in order for the indicators to be useful on a local level, they cannot be too general in scope and range, and that local authorities need to be directly involved in the implementation and reporting processes. At the same time, for global comparisons, too many details will make it harder to see the worldwide picture.

Bottom-up approach

The project’s results, considerations and recommendations are now left to the United Nations’ statistical experts, which will develop the targets and indicators until sometime next spring, when they will be implemented in the global SDG work.

Even with these limitations and simplifications in mind, adopting these goals, targets and indicators is a most impressive achievement. The fact that cities worldwide now will begin to compare data, progress and ambitions on sustainability issues is a big leap forward.

[See: Urban SDG campaigners celebrate success, acknowledge shortcomings]

The pilot project also illustrates a “bottom-up” approach, where local data can be fed upstream, through a sometimes-complex system of statistics as well as policies and strategies. This would contribute to further strengthening the cities as stakeholders and significant actors for sustainability work. Importantly, this also can be seen as an important step forward in terms of the inclusion of local and regional policymakers, as well as citizens all over the world, in this work.

At the same time, this process has to be considered as an acceptance of the potential of cities to act on these pressing issues. The initiatives taken by city leaders across the globe to form groups such as the Compact of Mayors, the Nordic Mayors’ Initiative, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and others illustrate not only the will to take part but also the capacity to do so. And as cities in many ways seem to be more flexible and objective-oriented, while also bearing the necessary political mandate from their local communities, they have to be regarded as significant political forces, especially together.

[See: Citiscope’s coverage of cities pushing for a global role]

Now that the urban SDG has been adopted, we look forward to starting work with the world’s cities and to contributing to a better world by adding the recommendations and conclusions that will come out of this work, all for the benefit of the citizens worldwide.

Note: Mistra Urban Futures supports Citiscope.

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David Simon

David Simon is the director of Mistra Urban Futures, in Gothenburg, Sweden, and professor of development geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. He specializes in development-environment issues, with particular reference to cities, climate change and sustainability, as well as the relationships between theory, policy and practice, on all of which he has published extensively.

Photo credit: Henrik Sandsjö