Goal 11: The opportunities of the urban SDG

By Carey L. Biron, Greg Scruggs 25 September 2015

Construction workers take a break in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam where rapid urbanization has brought both opportunities and challenges to the country. For the first time, SDG 11 will now allow policymakers, planners, civil society and the development community to see cities themselves as a tool by which to achieve anti-poverty and sustainability aims. Photo by: Tran Viet Duc / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

When member states come together to finalize the sustainable development goals later this week, they will not only be agreeing to such historic aims as ending poverty within 15 years. They will also be formalizing a whole new way of conceptualizing and strategizing around international development and sustainability.

Of course, many of the SDGs are simple extensions of the Millennium Development Goals framework that has guided global development efforts over the past decade and a half. There is no doing away with, for instance, priorities on hunger, education and gender equality. Given that the MDGs made progress on these aims but did not finish the job, the SDGs will seek to pick up where efforts on the previous goals left off, with some tweaks.

Yet the SDGs are not only far more expansive than the MDGs; they also address key issues that have risen to the top of the global agenda over the past 15 years. Taking “urgent” steps to combat climate change, for instance, now makes up a formal development goal — SDG 13.

Likewise, urbanization is now being formally seen as a potent, and similarly urgent, component of both anti-poverty and sustainability efforts. As a result, cities and human settlements make up the sole focus of SDG 11, to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

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Indeed, many argue that how the world deals with its cities in coming years will do much to define the overall success of the SDGs. As U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said in June, “Cities are where the battle for sustainable development will be won — or lost if we fail.”

More than half of the world’s population now live in urban areas, and that proportion is expected to rise to more than two-thirds just by the middle of this century. Further, while cities are the clear economic engines for nearly all countries, they also produce almost three-quarters of all greenhouse gases.

Cities as development tool

Cities are an intrinsic component of nearly all traditional development aims, yet for a variety of reasons urban policy has rarely been seen as a tool in itself to either tackle the negatives of urban areas or leverage their positives. The MDGs, for instance, had only one urban-specific objective — to see a “significant improvement” in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers. And that, too, was a target subsumed under the broader goal of environmental sustainability.

For the first time, SDG 11 will now allow policymakers, planners, civil society and the development community to see cities themselves — physical spaces with a host of their own well-integrated systems — as a tool by which to achieve anti-poverty and sustainability aims. Importantly, the goal could also see a reappraisal of the key role played by mayors and other local officials in these critical national processes, too.

Certainly the scope is already inherent to Goal 11 for a momentous shift in strategy, as well as a bolstering of opportunity. As with all of the SDGs, Goal 11 is made up of a broad aim girded by a series of more specific thematic targets, as well as indicator metrics on how to physically measure progress on those targets.

Goal 11’s targets cover the traditional concerns around housing, slums, transportation and more. Yet it also deals with a host of environmental and climate-related issues, including air quality, waste management, resilience, and preparedness around natural disasters. The goal even touches on innovative and unprecedented aims around cultural and natural heritage as well as green and public space.

“A group of urban experts, including myself, had been working hard to get an urban goal included in the post-2015 SDGs, because many of these urban challenges would have been missed otherwise, such as affordable housing, sanitation and transport,” said Peter Head, executive director of the Ecological Sequestration Trust, a think tank. “2015 has been a good year for enabling cities to take a strong role in addressing global challenges … Now the big challenge of implementation begins.”

Interrelated challenges

Development implementers are already recognizing, and reacting to, the sea change brought about by Goal 11.

“We see SDG 11 as very significant as it brings a renewed emphasis on urban issues and, for the first time, puts cities front and center on the international development agenda. This is definitely a shift in focus,” said Sharon Van Pelt, democracy and governance practice director at Chemonics, a Washington-based international development company.

“While local governance has been a part of development programs for many years, SDG 11 looks more holistically at the catalytic role of subnational governments … to encourage economic growth and job creation, and safe, open space,” she continued. “Thus, the urban SDG and its corresponding targets encourage the development and implementation of more integrated development strategies and solutions within cities, where the growing majority of the world’s inhabitants live.”

The push to include a “stand-alone” cities goal in the SDGs did receive pushback over the past two years, as it built up momentum. For years, after all, international efforts have focused primarily on rural areas as particularly in need of assistance and capacity building. Today, some remain concerned that a renewed focus on urban areas could divert focus from rural areas, though Goal 11 tries to view these as ends of a continuum rather than separate entities.

“It is easy to slip into the ‘urban versus rural’ dichotomy, [but] it is not one versus the other. Indeed, such thinking contributed to a swing away from urban over the past decades in terms of development programming,” Van Pelt said. “It will be critical to set the discussion so as to design and implement programs that focus on developing inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities, and the positive effects this has on urban, peri-urban and rural areas.”

For example, building better roads — thus facilitating both markets and value chains — can have equal impact on all types of areas and settlements, she noted.

Either way, Chemonics is already starting to change its planning around both Goal 11 and the SDGs framework more generally. And across the sector, development experts are seeing the presence of Goal 11 as encouraging a more comprehensive approach to many development concerns.

“SDG 11 will push the development community to design and implement projects that are not only more urban-focused,” Van Pelt said, “but that also require multisector, interdisciplinary strategies and approaches to help cities address the plethora of inter-related challenges they face.”

In addition to the new Goal 11, most of the rest of the 16 SDGs have important urban components to them, from energy to infrastructure to governance and beyond. The presence of Goal 11, however, allows for these thematic focuses to be approached on a cross-sectoral basis.

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The international organization WaterAid, for instance, focuses exclusively on issues related to water and sanitation — two concerns that are explicitly addressed in the SDGs, under Goal 6. Yet planners within the organization say the comprehensive urban focus of Goal 11 offers an important backstop to the sector-specific aims of Goal 6. Lisa Schechtman, WaterAid’s policy and advocacy director, says this dual approach was the result of lessons learned under the MDGs.

“Under the old MDG framework, these two issues were joined together under a single goal, which created a barrier to addressing either issue holistically, or to looking at true root causes of poverty,” she said. “Goal 11 will bolster WaterAid’s long-time focus on addressing the water and sanitation crises in urban and peri-urban areas, as well as our partnerships with housing rights organizations … which view water and sanitation as core to quality housing and shelter.”

On to Quito

The finalization of Goal 11 and the other SDGs will do much to reorient the development community to see the city as a potent tool in achieving development aims. But the summit at the end of this month will be only the beginning of this next chapter.

Next up will be the continued debate around indicators for each of the goals — a process that will have significant influence over how exactly national government choose to implement the broad vision of the 17 goals.

Already, substantive disagreements have broken out among stakeholders around how exactly governments should be required to analyze and report on progress they’re making on the SDGs, for Goal 11 as for the rest of the new framework. Public input on this discussion is being sought in multiple phases over the coming months, and the debate will be concluded only in the spring, when the U.N. Statistical Commission meets to finalize the indicators.

In terms of extending this new urban focus, however, all eyes will now be on the U.N.’s Habitat III conference on cities, slated to take place in October 2016, in Quito, Ecuador. In a global debate that is just now picking up speed, the Habitat process will bring together the entire U.N. system and member states, along with civil society and other stakeholders to see through the urban discussion that has now been started through Goal 11. The eventual goal: an agreement on a 20-year global urbanization strategy called the New Urban Agenda.

Coming in the aftermath of finalization of the post-2015 development agenda as well as the COP21 climate negotiations, Habitat III will be the first major opportunity for the international community to assess the accomplishments of 2015 and cement approaches to implementation. Cities, now recognized as a key part of this puzzle in their own right, are the natural place for that conversation to begin.

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About the authors

Carey biron headshot 115x115
Carey L. Biron

Carey L. Biron is news editor for Citiscope, where he oversees coverage of the global debate leading to the U.N.’s Habitat III conference on cities in October 2016. Carey also edits for the Washington Post and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; previously, he was Washington correspondent for Inter Press Service and MintPress News. Before coming to Washington, he spent a decade and a half as a reporter and editor in South and Southeast Asia. E-mail Carey at cbiron@citiscope.org.

Greg Scruggs

Greg Scruggs is Habitat III correspondent for Citiscope, where he covers the global debate leading to the U.N.’s Habitat III conference on cities in October 2016. Greg is a journalist who has focused on cities and culture, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean. He covered World Urban Forum 5, Rio+20, Caribbean Urban Forum 4 and World Urban Forum 7 for Next City, where he is a frequent contributor. E-mail Greg at gscruggs@citiscope.org.

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