08 September 2015
Contributor post
Making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

Making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable is the focus of SDG 11. Today, Daily Development speaks to Rafael Tuts of UN-Habitat, the United Nation’s agency focused on sustainable urban development, to better understand some of the key issues at the centre of the urban development debate in the post-2015 context.

DD: On 1 August 2015, United Nations Member States finalized the outcome document of the post-2015 development agenda process. The draft includes a stand-alone goal (goal 11) for sustainable cities and human settlements. Why does the world need an urban sustainable goal?

RT: First and foremost, the world needs an urban sustainable development goal (SDG) because between 2010 and 2050 the urban population will grow by almost 3 billion people, increasing the urban share to two thirds of the world’s population. With such rapid urban growth, the dynamism of cities represents a major sustainable development opportunity. By getting urban development right, cities can create jobs and offer better livelihoods, increase economic growth, improve social inclusion, promote the decoupling of living standards and economic growth from environmental resource use, protect local and regional ecosystems, reduce both urban and rural poverty and drastically reduce pollution.

A dedicated and stand-alone urban SDG will focus attention on urgent and unique urban challenges and future opportunities, such as empowering all urban actors around practical problem solving, addressing the specific challenges of urban poverty and access to infrastructure, promoting integrated and innovative infrastructure design and service delivery, and ensuring resilience to climate change and disaster risk reduction.

Alternative approaches that treat urbanization as a "cross-cutting" issue and spread urban issues across separate goals would have failed to mobilize cities or address the essential role that urbanization must play in sustainable development.

DD: With the world’s urban population having crossed the 50% threshold of the global population, what are some of the main challenges and opportunities looking ahead to the post-2015 period?

RT: In terms of key challenges, the Millennium Development Goals showed the benefit of focusing on slum dwellers, but despite improvements in the lives of millions, increased urbanization and a rapidly growing poor urban population has resulted in an increase in the overall number of slum dwellers worldwide. An urban SDG will more systematically address the dynamic nature of urbanization. Well-run cities are proven fighters of poverty.

In terms of opportunities, the spatial concentration of urban areas is a unique characteristic that enables economies of scale and scope, efficient delivery of services and effective use of amenities. However, urban land use is often growing more rapidly than urban populations, leading to an urban density decline in many parts of the world. Good spatial planning can minimize urban land use footprints and increase the efficiency of service provision. Well-planned, mixed-use and compact cities generally offer higher levels of well-being at lower levels of resource use and emissions.

DD: In 2013, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network launched a hashtag campaign—#UrbanSDG—to advocate for a stand-alone goal on sustainable cities and human settlements. As a partner in this initiative, how did the campaign contribute to the outcome?

RT: The urban SDG campaign has worked with more than 200 organizations to promote an urban SDG and to think through the framing and implementation of such a goal, based on city and national experiences. The campaign brought together cities, local government associations, United Nations agencies, multilateral and bilateral agencies, nongovernmental organizations and other stakeholders. The campaign briefed interested Member States on the sustainable development opportunities and challenges in the world’s cities, and it worked with a number of cities to better understand challenges and to think through solutions in operational detail. It also worked with research institutions and urban practitioners to develop a set of proposed indicators that could track progress. These efforts, through advocacy and technical expertise, have greatly contributed to the current outcome and shape of SDG 11 and its targets.

DD: Goal 11 has several subgoals and targets. One (11.7) focuses on providing universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities. How important is the issue of accessible green and public spaces to the overall sustainable development agenda, particularly for cities?

RT: Accessible green and public spaces are critical for achieving sustainable development. Where public space is inadequate, poorly designed or privatized, the city becomes increasingly segregated. The result can be a polarized city where social tensions are likely to flare up and where crime and violence rises. Well-designed and maintained streets and public spaces help lower rates of crime and violence and make space for formal and informal social, cultural and economic activities that contribute to improving mutual trust and safety. Investments in streets and public space infrastructure improve urban productivity and livelihoods and allow better access to markets, jobs and public services. Inadequate housing can also be partly compensated by generous provisions of good quality multifunctional public space. Therefore, we need to invest in public space and strengthen legislation, regulation and enforcement for protecting public space.

DD: UN-Habitat recently issued new guidelines providing a framework for urban and territorial planning. What are some of the ways in which the International Guidelines on Urban and Territorial Planning will support the implementation of Goal 11 and the overall sustainable development goal agenda?

RT: Earlier this year, UN-Habitat’s governing body approved the International Guidelines on Urban and Territorial Planning. As the guidelines focus on the social, economic and environmental roles of urban and territorial planning, they are expected to serve as a source of inspiration and a global reference framework that will inform the unfolding SDG agenda. The guidelines also provide direction on governance and implementation mechanisms, so they can act as a compass for decision-makers and urban professionals while developing and reviewing urban and territorial planning frameworks, which is a centerpiece of SDG 11.

DD: 2016 will be a particularly important year for UN-Habitat, with the Third UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in Quito, Ecuador. As this conference takes place only once every 20 years, what can the world expect to emerge out of the conference?

RT: The Habitat III conference will result in a New Urban Agenda. By embracing urbanization at all levels of human settlements, the New Urban Agenda is expected to assist governments in addressing urbanization challenges through national and local development policy frameworks. It will promote urban policies that reduce urban inequality and increase urban productively and resilience. It will take place a year after the approval of the SDGs and will thus provide an opportunity to support the implementation of the SDGs through sustainable urbanization. It will also review UN-Habitat’s mandate to ensure that it is fit for purpose. UN-Habitat is ready to join efforts with governments and stakeholders to promote a new model of urban development for the 21st century.

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Rafael Tuts

Rafael Tuts is the coordinator of the Urban Planning and Design Branch and acting coordinator of the Housing and Slum Upgrading Branch of UN-Habitat, based in Nairobi, Kenya. One of his name tasks is to coordinate UN-Habitat’s contribution to the post-2015 development agenda. Before joining UN-Habitat in 1995, he worked for the Department of Architecture, Urbanism and Planning of the University of Leuven and the Housing Research and Development Unit of the University of Nairobi.

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