Sustainable Development Goals bring renewed focus to cities and human settlements

Matthew Boms, Communitas Coalition

“People want decent jobs, social protection, robust agricultural systems and rural prosperity, sustainable cities...resilient infrastructure and sustainable energy for all. These transformations will also help tackle climate change.” - UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, ‘The Road to Dignity by 2030’

The recent Synthesis Report of the Secretary-General on the Post-2015 Agenda, ‘The Road to Dignity by 2030’, has generated the latest in a series of invigorating moments for cities and human settlements on a global scale. With Habitat III (officially the 3rd UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development) on the horizon in October 2016, the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have at once situated cities at the nexus of both a new climate framework and the UN post-2015 development agenda.

But why are cities so pivotal to these two pending international agreements? A quick refresher might prove helpful on the proposed SDG 11 - ‘Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.’

Target 11.1 aims to ensure universal access to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services while upgrading slums.

Target 11.2 aims to provide universal access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all while improving road safety.

Target 11.3 aims to enhance capacities for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries.

Target 11.4 aims to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.

Target 11.5 aims to significantly reduce the number of deaths/affected people and decrease the economic losses relative to GDP caused by disasters.

Target 11.6 aims to reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality, municipal and other waste management.

Target 11.7 aims to provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces.

Collectively, these seven targets form an aspirational and transformative vision for cities and human settlements in the 21st century. However, they also point cities on a clear path towards mitigating climate change and ending extreme poverty. For example, SDG 11 has the capacity to apply universally sustainable practices to modern developments in urban transport, buildings and construction, disaster risk reduction, green and public space, and per capita environmental impact of cities. All of the above would transform the planet, not just by improving quality of life for nearly four billion urban dwellers, but also by mitigating climate change at a city-region level, where approximately two-thirds of the world’s energy is consumed and roughly 70 per cent of global CO2 is emitted.

The seven targets also confront extreme urban poverty head on. Namely, Target 11.1 has opened up the possibility for meaningful indicators that will empower and improve the lives of one billion slum-dwellers. A major fault of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was their limited approach to slums, seeking to achieve a ‘significant improvement’ in the lives of just 100 million slum dwellers. The SDGs are poised to improve on this approach, bringing basic services, universal housing, grassroots data collection and comprehensive urban planning to the most vulnerable urban residents.

Today the megatrend of urbanisation presents us with a double-edged sword. On the one hand, unprecedented patterns of migration are driving people to cities that already find themselves in deep infrastructural and financial straits. On the other, humanity is headed towards a level of agglomeration and interconnectedness that has never before been witnessed on Earth. With the global proportion of urban residents expected to rise to 70 per cent by 2050, the SDGs are uniquely poised to harness urbanisation for mitigating climate change and bringing a universal end to extreme poverty.

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The Road to Dignity by 2030 can be found at: http://bit.ly/1tK9vQn