We have a likely urban SDG. Now, for indicators

Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson addresses the 46th session of the U.N. Statistical Commission, March 3. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

When the Special Summit on Sustainable Development takes place in New York in late September, the 193 U. N. member states will finally agree on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will drive the global development agenda for the next decade and a half. It is likely that a hard-fought goal on cities will be among them.

Last July, after a U. N. working group released its short list of 17 proposed goals, the coalition behind the Campaign for an Urban SDG campaign cheered: They had made the cut. Draft Goal 11 now reads: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.”

This is a significant turnaround. Cities only obliquely made it onto the last major global development agenda, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are set to expire this year.

Target 7.D of the MDGs reads, “Achieve, by 2020, a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers.” Not only does this target refer exclusively to the urban poor, rather than to cities as a whole, but it’s also a mere subset of an actual goal, that of “ensuring environmental sustainability.”

With the new language in the SDGs draft, however, it appears the world is finally recognizing the role cities will play in global development in coming decades and beyond. “Nothing is finished until the ink is dry, but the stars seem to be aligned in that direction,” says Eugénie Birch, chair of the World Urban Campaign and a staunch supporter of the urban SDG.

While some member states, most notably the United Kingdom, have raised concerns that there are too many SDGs, the general momentum appears to favour maintaining the current list. Several official statements, including a resolution passed by the U. N. General Assembly in September and a synthesis report that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued in December, have reinforced this sense. The urban SDG also enjoys the support of the Group of Friends of Sustainable Cities, led by member states Sweden and Singapore.

Signposting progress

Having won the battle, however, those pushing for an urban SDG must still win the war. In this case, that means the debate that is now taking place at the detailed level of indicators — a series of metrics behind each of the lofty goals and their more specific targets, by which actual action will be measured.

“One needs to benchmark and measure progress on every goal, and therefore you need indicators to do this,” Birch says.

If the goals are the big-picture themes, then the targets constitute the conceptual framework for implementing them. The urban SDG, for example, specifies targets on housing, transport, planning, heritage, disasters, environment, public space and rural-urban linkages.

Each target, while focusing on a topic area within the broad theme of “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” cities, must in turn be signposted along the way. Doing so allows any observer, from governments to civil society to donors, to determine progress being made before 2030, when the SDGs will expire.

For example, Target 11.7, one of the targets under Goal 11, reads: “Provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, particularly for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.”

Such a target may seem straightforward. Yet in fact it is a minefield for those trying to discern specific indicators that can measure a target’s success or failure.

“If you look carefully at the language of the goal and the language of the targets, each adjective could have its own indicators,” Birch says.

Just for Target 11.7, for instance, one could benchmark “universal”, “safe”, “inclusive”, “accessible”, “green” and “public”. In turn, each of these terms would rely on a different kind of indicator. Examples of proposed indicators for this target alone include “area of public space as a proportion of total city space” and “number of street intersections per square kilometres”, among several others.

Just as stakeholders representing varying agendas extensively debated the merits of each proposed SDG and their attendant targets, those same groups are now gearing up to engage on the indicators with an eye to every detail.

Some women’s groups, for instance, are focusing on two aims under Goal 11: Target 11.7, as explained earlier, and Target 11.2. This latter covers transport systems “with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons.”

“Do cities have the capacity to measure these things?” Rachael Wyant, governance campaign coordinator for the Huairou Commission, which represents women’s interests, asks. “What about things that are hard to quantify?”

Competing lists

The indicators debate also comes at a time when the world is experiencing a data revolution, with a seemingly infinite number of new ways to measure and quantify facts and figures.

For this reason, the World Urban Campaign’s Birch is pushing for indicators at multiple levels, to track progress at the global, national and subnational levels. In other words, some indicators — including those under the urban SDG — are specific to cities and metropolitan areas rather than to countries as a whole, and will need to be measured as such.

Thus far, only one entity outside of the United Nations, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), an external group set up by the U. N., has published a full list of indicators that could serve as a model for the final package. As such, that list has offered grist for outside groups to offer criticism and feedback.

The Campaign for an Urban SDG, for instance, had some quibbles with the SDSN indicators for Goal 11. In particular, the group felt they relied too much on national-level data and not enough on metrics specific to lower-level governments such as cities and metropolitan governing bodies.

In January, the Indian Institute for Human Settlements hosted the Campaign at its Bangalore campus. The result, the Bangalore Outcome Document, offered its own list of indicators. In turn, the SDSN adopted 95 percent of the Campaign’s alternative proposal in a revised working draft released in February.

Such detailed discussion and debate is taking place within the United Nations, too, with both member-state delegations and the U. N. Statistical Commission currently mulling over the indicators. The latter held its latest session the first week of March, during which the indicators were a major topic of discussion in both the main and side events.

Some civil society observers are pleased with the progress made in recent weeks.

“It appears that the core global set of indicators will be complemented at the national, regional and local level, which provides a very relevant space for us,” says Maruxa Cardama, the executive coordinator and co-founder of Communitas, the Coalition for Sustainable Cities and Regions in the new U. N. Development Agenda, who attended the Statistical Commission session.

The next major milestone in the indicator debate comes 20-24 April, when a major Post-2015 Development Agenda intergovernmental negotiation takes place in New York. At that gathering, the scientific work of the U. N. Statistical Commission and the political process pursued by member-state delegations, currently running in parallel, will meet in an attempt to square their differing approaches to the indicators.

Ultimately, the discussion around indicators is such a complex — and important — one that it is currently scheduled to extend for another year. While the U. N. General Assembly will vote on the SDGs in September, the indicators will not be settled until March 2016.

On that timeline, the Habitat III conference in October 2016 will be the first opportunity at a U. N.-wide level to discuss the practical implications of the goals, targets and indicators with a particular focus on Goal 11 and its implications for the New Urban Agenda.

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