Working Together for Inclusive, Safe, Resilient and Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements

High-Level Political Forum Side Event

July 17, 2018

The numerous side events at the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development allowed a wide range of themes to be considered, with contributions  from a diversity of actors and stakeholders from all levels of government, civic society, and UN agencies.  One of these events, SDGs in Action: Working Together for Inclusive, Safe, Resilient, and Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements, was an opportunity to address the role cities and human settlements play in implementing the Sustainable Development Agenda, particularly Goal 11.

The meeting began with a statement by the moderator, Vice-chair of UN Sustainable Development Group, Achim Steiner, outlining the focus for the discussions.  He remarked that firstly, the event would consider how to manage an increasing majority of the world’s population moving to cities.  Because of the concentration of people, he continued, cities are becoming key players in political, economic, social, and environmental sectors, and have much to contribute to sustainable development.  Secondly, the qualifying terms of the discussion would be ‘safe, resilient and sustainable’.

Deputy Secretary-General and UN Sustainable Development Group Chair, Amina Mohammed, spoke of the enormous economic power of cities, suggesting that they have potential to be powerful agents of support in achieving the SDGs.  She referred to their unique responsibility—many cities are economic powerhouses, yet are also responsible for more than 70% of all greenhouse gases and collectively produce 1.3 billion tons of waste each year.  Cities are also focal points of poverty, and Ms. Mohammed highlighted the need for continued partnerships at the local level to make sure no one is left behind and that change at the local level is fully realized.  She emphasized the importance of listening to local leaders and community members about what is needed, and how best to develop partnerships for implementing the goals.   While there has been much progress on the local level, there is still much more to do.

H.E. Basim Bin Yacob Alhamer, Minister of Housing, Bahrain, spoke of the way in which the countries national housing program is addressing the housing shortage in Bahrain.  Initiated in 1962,  the program’s goal is to provide a high standard of living for its citizens and to prepare the country for modern statehood.  Convincing people to move from rural areas into urban ones has involved changing their mindset.  The program has succeeded in raising the standard of living of the entire country.  This requires local-national cooperation and demonstrates the practical value of this type of partnership.

Célestine Courtès, Mayor of Bangangté, Cameroon, stated that localization is essential for the implementation of the goals, because cities are in a position to ensure the active participation of citizens and to make sure that no one is left behind.  Cities and local governments are able to give voice to the economically disadvantaged, ensuring their voices are heard in national and global conversations.  In her view the 2030 Agenda, among other things, must be an African agenda, because Africa, though rich, is not yet developed.  If no one is to be left behind, the 2030 Agenda must also be a female agenda.  She concluded, “It’s from the city that we can learn about the population, it’s from the city that we can learn about the need of the population, it’s from the city that we can know exactly how to implement the SDG Agenda.” 

Penny Abeywardena, Comissioner in the Mayor’s Office of International Affairs, New York City, spoke on New York’s development agenda, ONE NYC, which aims “to build a stronger and more just city for all,” with the measurable goal of raising 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty.  ONE NYC seeks to be a model for Sustainable Development at the local level, incorporating international partnerships and the voices of residents.  71 agencies, residents, businesses, and an advisory board composed of civic leaders, policy specialists, and community leaders were consulted in its founding.  Global Vision, Urban Action is a program to share New York’s success with other cities, building political support for the SDGs and infusing local problems into the international arena.  New York has recently become the first city to submit a voluntary local review on achieving the SDGs.

Parks Tau, President of United Cities and Local Government, spoke on the importance of local and regional governments making the commitment to sustainable development.  He recognized the essential relationship of other initiatives such as the Paris Accord and the New Urban Agenda to the SDGs.  Implying that all these global agreements are part of one work—he affirmed that all must eventually be implemented at the local level.  With at least 65% of activity in achieving the goals needing to be done at local and regional levels, the participation of local and regional governments is essential, and they must be given the tools to succeed.

Violet Shivutse, Chair of Huairou Commission Women, Homes, and Community, spoke on the success of movement building in achieving local implementation of the Goals.  She noted that ‘Local to local dialogue’, engaging grassroots women and local communities on issues of sustainable development, is essential.  Part of the Commission’s work is to educate communities about international policies such as the SDGs. The needs of the community are prioritized, and only then do participants consider how these needs fit into the SDGs and the international picture.  The role of sharing and dialogue in creating concrete action plans was emphasized.  Often governments and communities have the same development priorities but are not in dialogue and working together as a group.  Movement building and local-to-local dialogue fosters this group spirit, leading  to the creation of concrete tools and action plans.

Maimunah Sharif, Executive Director of UN-Habitat, began with a simple appeal to make cities right.  She drew attention to the importance of rethinking structural paradigms, including government structure at all levels, the education system, the availability of data, and the methodologies of engagement, inter-capacity building, and leadership at all levels.  She argued that the structure of our systems must be rethought and reconstructed to serve sustainable development.  This is how inclusive, safe, and resilient cities will be built.

Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands, spoke about the importance of collaboration, consistency, and capacity building. Inclusion is essential for collaboration, and this means including not just one’s friends and enemies, but those who are unknown to us.  Making sure these unknown actors are included in the conversation, is how to ensure no one will be left behind.  Capacity building was also emphasized: despite large amounts of data, knowledge, and wisdom—without capacity nothing will happen.

The meeting concluded with a statement by Ryan Shah, speaking on behalf of Rotary Youth for a Better World.  He highlighted the importance of youth in implementing the SDGs, stating that it is imperative that youth be given the resources and attention to enable them to fill the shoes of world leaders and to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Full video of the event is available here.