In New York, global mayors gather to commit to the SDGs

Local authorities underscored central links between cities and sustainable development.

Mayors from some 40 cities around the world pledged to support the implementation of the new Sustainable Development Goals, 24 September. (Greg Scruggs)

NEW YORK – “Mayor” was the most common salutation at a New School event here last night, with dozens of top city officials from around the world joining a ceremony to mark mayoral commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which will be finalized Friday at the United Nations.

Brought together at the behest of the U. N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), the mayors of 40 cities — including host Mayor Bill De Blasio, fresh from Pope Francis’s evening prayer service — gathered from every continent. One after the other, each took to the podium to highlight the inextricable link between cities and sustainable development.

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

Together, the mayors committed to a declaration welcoming and pledging their support for the SDGs, particularly Goal 11, the urban SDG. Among several points, including climate action, the leaders said they would develop an “integrated and holistic sustainable development strategy” before 2020, to ensure that the SDGs are achieved within their jurisdictions.

“To achieve these ends, we call upon national governments and the UN to strongly advocate for the localization of The 2030 Agenda, including crafting relevant sets of global and national monitoring indicators that respond to local and subnational circumstances,” the declaration states. “We encourage countries to establish environments that unlock the development potential of local and regional governments, and local stakeholders, by creating an enabling institutional framework at all levels and localizing resources.”

The mayors also called on “international and regional financial institutions and the private sector to jointly explore adequate financing mechanisms to address the increasing investment needs of urban areas, particularly in developing countries.” The declaration built on a pledge made by some 65 mayors at an unusual event at the Vatican this summer.

[See: Pope Francis, mayors pledge action on climate and the urban SDG]

Still, no one denied the challenges ahead — described by Copenhagen Mayor Frank Jensen as “daunting” — to implement the ambitious Post-2015 Development Agenda. “They’re ambitious because they have to be,” said SDSN director Jeffrey Sachs. “Our backs are at the wall. We’re at the edge of the cliff with climate change.”

But first, it was time for some deserved congratulations. Master of ceremonies Aromar Revi, director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, acknowledged the two-year campaign to ensure an urban-focused SDG that resulted in Goal 11. But he also highlighted that goal’s connections with other goals.

“To implement the SDGs, it’s at least 11 other goals dealing with water, education, health, energy and ending poverty,” Revi said. “This is not only a gathering around Goal 11, but SDG 11 plus 11 more.”

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

U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed this point in a statement delivered by Joan Clos, the secretary-general of Habitat III, next year’s major U. N. conference on cities.

“As we move toward COP 21 and Habitat III, let us also remember that one of the defining features of the new agenda is that the goals are integrated and holistic,” Clos read on Ban’s behalf. “Efforts are meant to have an impact across the clear spectrum of the agenda. That is how we will leave no one behind.”

Mayoral leadership

“While the United Nations usually talks about challenges, mayors talk about solving problems,” Revi said. “Our mayors here have led the way across the world” on sustainable development.

The mayors present ranged widely, from strong voices in their respective countries to those struggling for respect. Mayor Marcio Lacerda of Belo Horizonte, the sixth-largest city in Brazil, is also president of the National Mayors’ Front, which represents 150 municipal governments. Given that Brazil is 85 percent urban and the fifth-largest country in the world, its leading mayors organization is a powerful platform.

“We encourage countries to establish environments that unlock the development potential of local and regional governments, and local stakeholders, by creating an enabling institutional framework at all levels and localizing resources.”

Global mayors
A Declaration of Cities’ Commitment to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda

By contrast, in Kingston, the Jamaican capital, local government existed at the whim of the national government until recent constitutional changes finally enshrined municipal powers. That move allowed Mayor Angela Brown-Burke some measure of job security.

“Prior to that, with a simple stroke of a pen, a local decision could be dissolved if taking a decision that the national government doesn’t like,” Brown-Burke said. “When you have that level of uncertainty, it is often difficult to make bold decisions.”

Copenhagen’s Jensen is more than convinced he can make bold decisions — for instance, by making his city the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. “We need national governments to create a framework, but in the end it’s up to us to create the change needed,” he said.

Above all, he told mayors to be empowered by their constituents. “In this room at this very moment is the capacity to make the world a better place,” Jensen said. “We have an access no one else has — direct access to our citizens.”

Mayor Khalifa Sall of Dakar, Senegal, has had his own tussles with national government prerogative over local financing issues. He leaned on citizen accountability to keep national governments in check.

“Africa today is perceived as a land of corruption,” said Sall, who is also president of the Africa branch of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), a global network. “We must restore a virtuous government that favours development without trying to enrich itself.”

Preparing for disaster

A decade ago, cities on opposite sides of the world were struck by disaster in back-to-back years. The Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunami of 2004 devastated Aceh province in Indonesia and its capital, Banda Aceh. A year later, Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, in the United States, an event whose grim 10-year anniversary was commemorated last month.

Both cities have recovered significantly since these tragedies struck. Today, both also hope to share their experiences with the world, especially in light of global climate change making such events more frequent and SDG 11’s emphasis on disaster-risk reduction.

Banda Aceh Mayor Illiza Saaduddin Djamal pledged to make her city into a global model for resilience. “We have recovered from disaster and are now reaching out to share our experience,” she said. Citing the call from UCLG to “localize” the new development agenda, she insisted that disaster planning and risk reduction be enacted at the local, not just the national, level.

[See: Localizing the Habitat III agenda]

Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans subtly reaffirmed this point by referring to Hurricane Katrina as a “manmade disaster”. He also pointedly referred to the “federal levees” that burst, implying that the U. S. national government, not the city, was responsible for the infrastructure failure that led to the devastating floods.

“No other city better understands the SDGs than New Orleans, because we have lived it and felt the pain,” he said. Landrieu cited Goal 8, on economic growth and employment, as particularly relevant to his city, in addition to Goal 11. “We can’t leave anyone behind,” he said, echoing the Post-2015 motto.

The mayor also described how New Orleans is learning from the Dutch on how to live with water, by investing in porous pavement, establishing sustainability standards for schools and libraries, and funding public transit and bike infrastructure. Landrieu then made his own call to action.

“It’s up to the mayors the world over to find the resources, build the coalitions to solve the problems,” he said. “We have to do it all — we can’t do it one at a time … We have to do it now.”

[See: New disaster-risk framework seen as first step toward sustainability]

Toward the New Urban Agenda

Clearly glowing from having just met Pope Francis, New York City Mayor De Blasio gave an impassioned vindication of the pope’s message, which linked cities and climate change.

“The papal encyclical talks about climate change in the strongest, clearest, bluntest terms of any document anywhere, and puts it in a moral framework,” he said. “If anyone hesitated previously to recognize the depth of the challenge, that encyclical puts to rest any impulse to incrementalism or partial solutions. It demands urgent and larger solutions now.”

[See: Pope Francis, the urbanist]

Like his fellow mayors, De Blasio publicly pushed nation states to act in light of local commitments, including New York City’s recent pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as part of the Under 2 MOU.

“We all know national governments must go farther, and the Paris conference looms as a deadline. There is a profound urgency about the fate of the globe,” he said. “We at the grass roots need more than ever to set the pace. Our actions speak louder than words — we change minds by showing what’s possible.”

[See: Cities, regions commit to deep emissions cuts ahead of SDGs summit]

The focus on climate change, however, did not obscure some hard urban realities.

Mpho Franklyn Parks Tau, the mayor of Johannesburg, pointed out that a third of his city’s young men neither have a job nor are currently in school. New Orleans Mayor Landrieu likewise acknowledged that more than half of African American men in his city are unemployed. And De Blasio noted that 46 percent of New Yorkers live at or below the poverty level.

To that end, Maria Duarte, Ecuador’s minister of housing and urban development, invited the assembled mayors to Quito next year, to take part in Habitat III. Yet while it would seem like an obvious priority to ensure local authorities’ participation in the cities conference — which will set urbanization strategy, called the New Urban Agenda, for the next two decades — as yet the role that mayors and others will play in Quito remains up in the air.

[See: U. N. General Assembly opens with Habitat III rules to resolve]

Indeed, while this weekend’s SDGs summit has overshadowed much else at the U. N. General Assembly’s 70th session, Habitat III remains firmly on the agenda. In the aftermath of a failure to agree on Habitat III rules of procedure earlier this year, the assembly will now need to decide on a key question: Will mayors and other local authorities play a formal role in negotiating the New Urban Agenda, or will cities be forced to sit on the sidelines of the cities summit?

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