By David Simon, Director, Mistra Urban Futures, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden
In October, world leaders will gather in Quito for the Habitat III summit to launch the New Urban Agenda. This is on top of the start this year of the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is odd that to date these two vitally important global urban initiatives led by the United Nations have been kept separate. It would be far more logical and extremely valuable, however, to link them by using SDG 11, the urban goal, as a monitoring and evaluation framework for the New Urban Agenda. A specific comparative urban experiment conducted last year could serve as a model for achieving just such a link.
The work to develop and secure wide support for an urban-focused SDG in 2014 and 2015 in the run-up to the launch of the SDGs revealed that on-the-ground testing would be essential if the targets and indicators to be adopted were simple enough to use in a diverse range of urban areas worldwide. Complexity and excessive resource and opportunity costs would defeat the goal of developing useful indicators of progress. They would also stand in the way of encouraging local and national authorities to invest in enhanced urban sustainability.
Academic and other researchers worked jointly with respective local authorities in five cities across three continents to undertake the assessments necessary to develop useful targets and indicators for an urban SDG. This study involved Gothenburg and Greater Manchester in Europe, Cape Town and Kisumu in Africa and Bangalore in Asia, encompassing cities ranging in size from 500,000 to 7-8 million people and exhibiting diversity on a range of variables. The municipalities gained highly relevant research experience from their participation and an understanding of what the reporting and compliance requirements of the urban SDG would entail.
The study revealed many challenges relating to data availability, ease of access, collection and perceived relevance. No single target or indicator proved universally straightforward and relevant. Variations were not consistently between global North and South or according to city size; in other words, everywhere faced challenges. Even apparently uncontroversial indicators revealed important disparities and problems. For example, the availability and accessibility of transport services would appear rather straightforward, but how to assess informal and semi-regulated modes, which are vitally important in the three African and Asian cities, raised questions about what to officially include or exclude. Similarly, the draft indicator included a minimum 20-minute service frequency, which was arbitrary and took no account of peak versus off-peak periods or central versus peripheral routes.
The project’s findings were taken up in the work of the urban SDG campaign and then the UN statistical team. They contributed to some significant modifications to the final set of targets and indicators, particularly relating to housing tenure, public transport accessibility and public open space, announced at the meeting of the United Nations Statistical Commission this past March. Once implementation of SDG 11 commences, engagement with the initial project’s cities as well as others will continue, demonstrating how ongoing co-designed research can bring respective local authorities into the process and provide feedback to the UN statistical team. Other agencies, from UN-Habitat to the World Wildlife Fund, whose Earth Hour City Challenge requires cities to report on numerous climate mitigation and adaptation actions, will further coordinate and upscale efforts to create a practical and streamlined global monitoring and evaluation framework for the urban goal.
In the end, all this work indeed exemplifies the value of community-embedded, collaborative and comparative research that combines rigour with practical application both locally and globally to contribute to the New Urban Agenda.
 The comparative and individual city reports are available online at www.mistraurbanfutures.org/en/node/1208, while the published article in Environment and Urbanization summarising the project and its findings can be downloaded via its DOI: 10.1177/0956247815619865. See also Box 8.9, p. 263, of AEO 2016.