How the U.N. Is Grappling With the Role of Cities in Sustainable Development

Cities are home to a majority of the human race for the first time in history. But finding a place for them in the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals for the next 15 years has proven surprisingly controversial. 

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The U.N.'s Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals convened in January 2013. Some 18 months later, it approved a set of 17 development goals for the world's people, including a goal explicitly related to cities. (U.N. Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

Has an “age of the city” arrived—an era in which cities not only make up a majority of the world’s population, but in which their prosperity and security, their central role in the human enterprise is recognized, even by their nation states?

A global coalition of advocates for the urban cause believe they’re on the brink of a major breakthrough with a United Nations goal focused on the global urban future, included in the successor to the widely-publicized Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of the past 15 years.

The eight goals of the MDGs are generally credited with getting national governments, NGOs, and aid organizations on the same page about issues to focus their development work on. Worldwide, the MDGs have been credited with contributing to meaningful drops in rates of extreme poverty, HIV infection, and child mortality, among other improvements.

But the MDGs expire in 2015, sparking a broad international discussion about what should replace them. Next to come will be a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for another 15 years. A high-level U.N. working group was created to sort through hundreds of ideas for goals.

Urban activists joined in the debate. And after an extensive campaign, they saw their efforts rewarded July 19 by inclusion of a specific urban goal—to “Make cities and human settlement inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.” The goal is backed up by specific targets, such as eliminating slum-like conditions, reducing urban sprawl, and ensuring universal access to safe and sustainable urban transit. (See the full list of the new goals here.

If the city goal makes it through to final ratification in September 2015, it will mark the U.N.’s strongest expression ever of the critical role of cities in the world’s future.

Approval didn’t come easily. Representatives from a number of countries—among them Great Britain, the United States, Argentina, Canada, Israel, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal—were initially skeptical. They argued cities were already covered within other goals on the list—for example, ending poverty and hunger. Some also feared an explicitly urban goal would imperil attention and international aid flows to rural areas.

So far, however, the urbanists’ view that few of the world’s problems can be solved without well-functioning cities is prevailing.

Josep Roig, executive director of United Cities and Local Governments, the Barcelona-based umbrella organization of city organizations worldwide, puts it this way: “I look at the main goals—to end poverty and hunger, provide quality education, provide water and sanitation for all, build resilient infrastructure, provide economic growth, and more—and then I ask: Where will all that be decided and take place? And suddenly it’s clear: It will be at the local, the city level across the world.”

Or as Kaveh Samiei, a Tehran architect and academic, put the case in a commentary on the Nature of Cities website, “If urban issues are mainstreamed across the other sustainable development goals, the role of cities will disappear.”

Finding a voice

One reason why the prospect of an urban goal matters is that many national governments don’t give city governments the financing and legal authority to adequately serve their citizens. The lack of a city voice has also been evident in international forums.

For a long time, the United Nations viewed urban issues primarily through the lens of housing. This idea stemmed from 1976 at the Habitat I conference in Vancouver, which launched an organization called U.N.-Habitat (the former United Nations Center for Human Settlements, headquartered in Nairobi). International interest in cities still remained somewhat peripheral even 20 years later, on the occasion of the Habitat II conference in Istanbul. That meeting was still largely housing-focused, with an emphasis on the growing number of slums in the developing world.

A mid-morning meal program at schools in Timor-Leste encourages kids to come to school. Achieving universal primary education is one of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals for the 2000-2015 period. (UN Photo/Martine Perret)

Global interest in cities was kindled, however, by the massive waves of urbanization impacting first Latin America, then China and East Asia, and most recently India and Southeast Asia—some 70 years after Western Europe and the United States had become predominantly urban. But by the time the MDGs came into existence in 2000, cities were not an explicit focus. Those goals (see them all here) did address city-relevant issues—water and sanitation, ensuring universal primary education and environmental sustainability, for example. But they were silent on the underlying issues of city infrastructure, safety, resilience, governance, and planning.

International views toward cities began to shift around 2007 when it became clear that cities, for the first time in history, were home to a majority of the human race. A remarkable new wave of scholarship, websites, and news focus on world cities surfaced. Universities, foundations, corporations, and global society as a whole seemed to discover and debate the challenges of an intensely urbanized world.

Attendance by urbanists at the biennial World Urban Forums, most recently in April in Medellín, has been increasing by the thousands. U.N.-Habitat has transitioned from a housing-focused agency to one concerned with broad issues of slum prevention and city planning. United Cities and Local Governments played an active role in mobilizing cities to speak up for their interests. A World Urban Campaign of activists, NGOs, and businesses was founded, with organizational support from U.N.-Habitat. (Disclosure: Citiscope is an associate member of the World Urban Campaign.)

And in 2012, a broad range of progressive steps for sustainable cities was endorsed by the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. The conference’s recommendations included a process to replace the MDGs with a new set of goals that are “action oriented, concise and easy to communicate, limited in number, aspirational, global in nature, and universally applicable to all countries while taking into account different national realities." That step was subsequently endorsed by the U.N. General Assembly.  

Marathon effort

The job of drafting the new set of goals fell to a 70-member U.N. Open Working Group established in January 2013. When an early draft of new goals under consideration surfaced, it was silent on any specific issues related to cities. Concerned urbanists launched a campaign to change that.

They had some key supporters on their side. Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs, the man who suggested having all these goals in the first place and a key U.N. adviser on them, strongly favors having an urban goal. A who’s who of foundations and NGOs grounded in urban work built the case for an urban goal, mobilized support, lobbied the working group, and amassed a social media campaign using the hashtag #urbanSDG. (For more on this campaign, read this story.

Surging attendance at the biennial World Urban Forum, held most recently in Medellin, Colombia (above) is part of a growing international recognition of the role of cities in sustainable development. (Christopher Swope/Citiscope)

Billy Cobbett, director of the Cities Alliance, an NGO focused on slum upgrading in the developing world, was one of the voices making the case. Cobbett believes the urban goal will raise the political stature of cities to tackle their own ills. “A major problem is the unwillingness of national governments to share resources with lower levels,” Cobbett says. “The key is to put responsibilities in the same place as the risk. If a city is carrying the risk, it must have the authority and resources to respond to that threat.”

In the end, the advocates persuaded the U.N. working group to include the urban goal in its final draft, which was approved unanimously after an 18-hour overnight session. But work on the SDGs is not over. The complete set of proposed new goals is due for additional debate and refinement starting later this year; final U.N. General Assembly ratification won’t occur until September 2015.

There will be significant pressure to cut some goals off the list. The current 17 goals compare with just eight in effect since 2000. Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, published an article in The Wall Street Journal recommending the U.N. apply “ruthless” selectivity. Drawing on the analyses of Dutch political scientist Bjorn Lomborg, Ridley says the measure of any goal should be to perform well in a cost-benefit analysis.

By that standard, Ridley endorses such programs as reducing malnutrition, tackling malaria and tuberculosis, and boosting pre-primary education. A goal promoting sustainable urban development is broader, and likely harder to measure. Lomborg's think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus Center, is now drafting a final analysis of the 17 goals. 

Eugenie Birch, a University of Pennsylvania urban researcher and chair of the World Urban Campaign, fired off a rebuttal letter to the Journal. “How can disease, malnutrition, illiteracy, and free trade be addressed,” Birch wrote, “if the places in which these ills exist are broken?" Rather, she said, an overriding objective of the SDGs is to “promote transformative public investment that in turn stimulates private investment to achieve a world of share prosperity, one where, indeed, place matters.”

This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site. 

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