Sustainable Urbanization

Last autumn, all 193 member states of the United Nations agreed to a set of goals that would ensure the health of the planet for future generations. Known as the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs), the efforts are centered around the elimination of global problems such as poverty, hunger, and deadly disease. A number of well-known entertainers and social leaders were present to praise the resolution.nighttime skyline of a city

Also attending the event were mayors from several major cities around the world. Their presence was notable because several of the new U.N. goals are focused on the challenges of urbanization and the need for  sustainable cities, and communities. But even though only one goal explicitly mentions cities, all of the others involve some kind of municipal leadership, and all of the mayors who were present pledged to have their sustainable development goals met by the year 2030.

Dialogue among the member states is expected to be ongoing, and there will no doubt be future meetings to discuss various successes and failures as this kind of involvement and interaction is important for keeping the SDGs in government’s’ sights.

There will of course be a number of challenges ahead if for no other reason than the fact that different governments can take widely different paths to the same result. The way national governments interact with their local counterparts can vary widely from state to state, and there is no agreed upon way to actually measure progress. Finally, the question of how to unify the joint results of different cities also remains unknown–although an upcoming conference on cities may provide some answers.  

However, the fact that there are so many details yet to be finalized does not mean the various metropolitan areas need to wait before they get started.  Quite the contrary–Any steps taken towards a more sustainable future will be welcomed. Copenhagen, for instance, has long been exploring the ways it can become more sustainable, so for them the SDGs are just a directive to keep on pressing forward. Other countries, however, may lack some of the policy or infrastructure to develop sustainable systems. In those cases, laying down the groundwork could be considered an achievement.

Secretary general of United Cities and Local Governments Josep Roig has several suggestions about how SDGs can be realized. Basically, he wants mayors to look at plans that already existed before SDG’s were announced, then look for intersections. New York City is a good example of this— Mayor Bill De Blasio launched several sustainable Development initiatives with those goals in mind.

In order to keep track of the SDGs, an annual summit called the High Level Political Forum will meet each July, starting in 2017. But some countries are looking to make progress a year before that first meeting. Columbia, for instance, is looking to involve local governments in the pursuit of those SDGs.

However, there remains a disconnect between local and national responsibilities. Right now, local authorities are not included in the review process, so a lot of the progress markers that national governments are setting have no real meaning on a local level. In addition, since many  cities have only limited resources, there is a fear that they will be asked to do more than they are able to realistically accomplish.

Given these many points, one should keep in mind that ideas are nice, but when it really comes down to it practicality is what matters. That is why Sandra Ruckstuhl of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network has headed up a project that will help implement these goals in several cities across the U.S. because while there may be logistical challenges for SDGs, having someone actually leading and implementing projects is what will ultimately allow cities towards a sustainable future.