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Nov 2, 2015

Including local city voices in global goals

Do the global goals include urban communities? This blog explores the need for a knowledge feedback loop between cities, community groups, and international policy leaders to develop solutions that local groups can implement.
Violet Shivutse talks about her role as a community health provider in Kenya. Watch the 3-minute video: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x369hgs (Photo by Daily Motion).

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, with an influx of over one million additional people each week. A new Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) dedicated to cities reflects this new urban reality. The Urban SDG sets universal goals and targets for cities around the world on issues related to housing, planning, transportation, and environmental impacts. But there’s a knowledge gap. Mayors and urban residents need to have the opportunity to shape their cities, but the international policy discussions on the Urban SDG fail to meaningfully incorporate community-based stakeholders.

Community groups, including advocacy, education, labor, health, and faith-based organizations,  and local government are important in the implementation of the Urban SDG - they know the people, the issues, and have first hand experience working on the ground. Ultimately, these local organizations, particularly those working with vulnerable and historically marginalized communities, will implement the theoretical and abstract framework built into the SDGs. The creation of a feedback mechanism amongst a diversity of local urban stakeholders could facilitate a more constructive implementation framework to support community-based urban sustainability.

Developing and passing the SDGs with a dedicated urban goal was cause for celebration. An Urban SDG event titled "Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century" at the Ford Foundation in September brought together urban stakeholders to reflect on the key drivers and actions for a sustainable urban transformation. The lineup of speakers featured foreign ministers, donors, and analysts, but the speeches were theoretical and disconnected from political realities challenging urban areas.

Dr. Eugenie Birch, Co-Director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research, speaks on the global urban goal at a Ford Foundation event on September 28, 2015. 

Violet Shivutse of the Huairou Commission, a global membership partnership coalition that empowers grassroots women’s organizations, described the need to institutionalize the role of community groups in the international agenda. She pointed out that previous speakers focused on community, and yet not one real example of a community member or city was mentioned. With the exception of Vice Mayor Pam O’Connor from Santa Monica, California, who spoke about her city’s sustainability initiative, city officials and community groups were not represented. How can the international urban community claim victory for a global goal if cities are not front and center in policy discussions?

A few days prior, the New School hosted a different conversation on the Urban SDG, ‘Cities Driving Sustainable Development’ - one that focused on global mayors and cities’ leadership in sustainable development and climate action. Mayor Parks Tau from Johannesburg, South Africa talked about a new project to dismantle the current urban form, which historically perpetuated apartheid by segregating populations and restricting access to urban employment centers and services. His administration initiated ‘Corridors of Freedom’, a project to enhance job access by connecting urban cores and residential centers through bus rapid transit, bike and pedestrian facilities.

Click on the image above to see the full recording of "Cities Driving Sustainable Development" event hosted at the New School on September 26, 2015. 

Other mayors at the event described parallel experiences linking urbanization and climate change, adaptation challenges, successful partnerships, and policies integrating social justice into local policies. These lessons should be incorporated into a feedback loop between cities, community groups, and international policy leaders to create a more robust dialogue about solutions that local groups can implement.


Emily Wier is a first year masters student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She is a COP21 Fellow researching the role of land use planning in urban climate action plans for the United Nations climate negotiations in Paris. Contact Emily by email emily.wier@yale.edu and follow her on twitter @EmilyWier.