18 June 2018
SDG Knowledge Weekly: Measuring Progress towards Sustainable Cities and Communities
UN Photo/Kibae Park
story highlights

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) released its Second SDG Cities Index which ranks the 100 largest US cities on progress towards the Goals.

The Peg community indicator system for Winnipeg, Canada, was relauched, with its indicators for sustainable development progress and well-being linked to the SDGs.

The International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3IE) examines whether community-driven development programs have built social cohesion or infrastructure.

This week’s brief focuses on knowledge products around SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities), which is one of six Goals being reviewed in depth at the 2018 session of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF).

At the city level, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) released its second annual report ranking the 100 largest (by population) metropolitan areas in the US by their progress on the SDGs. These cities are home to 66% of the country’s inhabitants, and in total, US urban areas hold over 85% of the domestic population. But they are also responsible for 80% of the country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Jeffrey Sachs, SDSN Director, notes in the forward to the report that, despite federal politics being at a gridlock, progress can still be made at the local and state level. Titled, ‘Leave No US City Behind,’ the 2018 Cities SDG Index draws on a set of 44 indicators identified by SDSN.

The report finds that data constraints limit the breadth of the analysis, flagging maternal mortality as an example, where data on the issue were only available for seven of the top 100 metropolitan areas. The report also finds that even the best performing metropolitan area (San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California) is only about two-thirds of the way to SDG achievement. Progress is particularly needed on SDG 10 (reduced inequality), as well as Goals 1 (no poverty), 2 (zero hunger), 3 (good health and well-being), 5 (gender equality), 7 (affordable and clean energy) and 13 (climate action). The authors note that, in addition to record rates of inequality, gun violence, substance addiction and student debt, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are “at unacceptable levels.” Not a single metropolitan area performs better than “poor” on SDG 13. An interview with SDSN’s Jessica Espey, who supported the analysis, is available on Fast Company.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) also takes on the issue of cities and climate change, in a blog outlining how national governments can help cities ramp up action. Like SDSN, the WRI authors flag limited urban data availability. The post highlights that one of the first steps to measuring cities’ GHGs is the establishment of an “emissions inventory” as part of a broader city climate action plan. However, the requisite financial and technical resources to set up and monitor such a plan are often too onerous for cities. The authors call on national governments to provide data to local officials and offer guidance on how to do so in a manner that is actionable at the city level. They cite examples from Denmark, Brazil and the US.

An example of such collaboration can be found in Winnipeg, Canada, where the ‘Peg’ community indicator system (CIS) was relaunched by the International Institute for Sustainable Development and United Way of Winnipeg, with its indicators of community well-being now linked with relevant SDGs. The CIS enables residents to assess the health of their community using data collected by a wide variety of stakeholders. Interlinked categories include basic needs (income, safety), economy (youth unemployment, educational attainment), and natural environment (air quality, water use), among others.

The Peg indicator platform helps users to identify – in many cases down to the neighborhood level – areas of progress as well as shortcomings.

Trends that can be identified in the data for 2017 are analyzed in a report titled, ‘Our City: A Peg Report on Sustainability.’ This fourth annual edition was released on 15 June 2018, and uses the Peg platform to demonstrate how Winnipeg measures up against the SDGs and targets. The report categorizes 66 indicators into environmental, social and economic pillars, then maps them to both the SDGs and the primary issue category to which they correspond (i.e. basic needs, natural environment). It notes whether there is a trend of improvement or worsening, delving into the measurements to identify specifically – in many cases down to the neighborhood level – where progress has been made and shortcomings can be improved.

International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Deputy Secretary-General Malcom Johnson writes in a guest article on the SDG Knowledge Hub that many cities are already using big data analytics to tackle development challenges and make progress towards SDG 11. He describes ITU’s role in building more sustainable cities, also outlining a partnership between ITU and the UN Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) called ‘United for Smart Sustainable Cities’ (U4SSC). Using key performance indicators (KPIs) developed by U4SSC (on physical infrastructure, equity and social inclusion, quality of life, and environmental sustainability), ITU helps cities use new technologies to shift towards resiliency and sustainability, including through the development of infrastructure that leverages new appliances’ ICT-based applications and services. A guest article by U4SSC Vice-Chair Paolo Gemma also outlines how ITU supports smart, sustainable cities.

Also addressing cities’ progress against international agreements, UN Habitat’s ‘Annual Progress Report 2017,’ released in May, outlines implementation of the New Urban Agenda and demonstrates how these efforts contribute to SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities).

On resiliency in the built environment, an article on the World Bank’s Sustainable Cities blog summarizes lessons from Japan. The piece reviews the efficacy of Japanese building regulations, noting that efforts to improve construction practices were spurred by the combination of unregulated urbanization and previous seismic activity, which led to heavy tolls following natural disasters. The post links to a report by the World Bank and Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) that focuses on building safety in Japan. The report looks at Japan’s approach, including the legal and institutional framework for building regulations, the enhancement of building standards, and ensuring quality in planning, design and construction. Separately on buildings’ sustainability, a blog by David Thorpe on The Fifth Estate describes a challenge issued by the World Green Building Council last week – for the building sector to eliminate carbon emissions from building use by 2030, as part of the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment.

Continuing on infrastructure and linking to the community level, the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3IE) has published an issue brief addressing the question, “does community-driven development build social cohesion or infrastructure?” The findings show a heavy skew towards the latter. 3IE notes that, although community-driven development (CDD) programs lead to improved facilities for education, health, water and sanitation, they “have no impact on social cohesion or governance.” Further, women are half as likely as men to be aware of CDD meetings, let alone attend or speak at them. Oxfam’s Duncan Green writes that this gender imbalance may push needs assessments towards building infrastructure, rather than devoting resources to health or education themselves. A lively discussion on the 3IE paper and CDD programs more broadly may be found in the comments section of Duncan’s blog.

Additional issues of the SDG Knowledge Weekly can be found here.

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