Five challenges the sustainable development goals present to city leaders

The UN building in New York. Image: Getty.

Back in September, the UN ratified the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS): 17 goals that are intended to provide a blueprint for the next 15 years of the world's development.

But while global leaders were signing the SDGs, less noticed was that more than 20 city and local leaders endorsed them, and committed to implementing them in their own cities. This is interesting and encouraging as many of the goals fall within city leaders’ responsibilities.

Here are some of the challenges that cities in the developing world – both those that endorsed the SDGs, and others that may decide to adopt them – will face.

1.  Lack of good data leaves us in the dark

It may not be the flashiest line of work, but gathering detailed data is the most useful tool for city policymakers to assess their residents’ needs – and target their policies accordingly.

However, many cities in developing countries lack essential up-to-date information on subjects like the location and characteristics of their slums, the state of their housing stock or transport network. It was only recently that a project like Digital Matatus made Nairobi’s semiformal transit system visible.

Without this data, how can officials say whether they are making progress on Goal 11 – that is, to make cities "inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable"? How can they know if basic services are reaching their poorest populations, in line with the SDGs’ "Leave no-one behind" agenda? How are citizens supposed to hold their local governments to account?

There is growing awareness of the need for good disaggregated data, with a number of initiatives – from a Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data to citizen-generated data and data collected by slum dwellers themselves – looking to fill the gaps.

2.  Leaders should pick their targets

With 17 goals and 169 targets, city officials need to prioritise. Trying to do too much may result in achieving too little.

While this is common sense from a practical perspective, it also leads to a real risk of short-term political calculations giving priority to targets that are easier to achieve, with leaders treating the SDGs as a sort of "à la carte menu".

There is only one way to avoid this: civil society groups must keep a close eye on SDG progress and hold city governments to account.

3. Ambition only works if you can finance it

The SDGs have raised the international community’s ambition. Estimates of their cost reach into the trillions of dollars.

While city governments’ responsibilities vary by nation, they are often the ones feeling the pressure of having to deliver basic services – from water and sanitation, to affordable housing – while urban populations rise. But the question of how local governments can access new sources of finance, both from domestic and external sources (particularly climate finance), has not yet received the attention it deserves.

4. Local governments face complex challenges – but often lack the capacity to cope

While reforms to devolve power to local governments are under way in many countries, funding and support to improve local government capacity have often trailed behind.

Many local governments, particularly in secondary cities, lack the technical capacity to plan and manage service delivery on the scale needed to manage increasing populations – or to negotiate complex contracts with private suppliers on an equal footing.

Unless urban planning capacities are strengthened, cities will struggle to meet the challenges posed by rapid urbanisation.

5. Leadership from cities often have a lasting impact beyond them

Change happens when there is political will. If mayors commit to the SDGs because they can see the benefits (including political ones) – or because civil society groups put pressure on them – then we might see results.

There are plenty of examples of ambitious or innovative mayoral initiatives setting a precedent for national policy. Bolsa Familia, the celebrated cash transfer programme in Brazil, actually had its origins in Bolsa Escola, an initiative from the government of Brasilia. That cash transfer programme was aimed at reducing poverty and inequality, but it was also a key element of the opposition’s political strategy.

How countries manage urbanisation over the next 15 years will be critical to reducing poverty and environmental sustainability. Ultimately, it will help define governments’ ability to achieve the SDGs. 

One way to maximise the role of city governments would be to build on the commitments already made by some city leaders and establish a group of cities that frequently monitor and exchange lessons on policies to achieve the SDGs – in essence, a "Cities for SDGs" network.

Throughout their design, the SDGs have received praise and criticism in equal measure. With the goals now agreed, efforts must focus on implementation – and for that, we need city leaders on board.

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What does the Greater Manchester Spatial Plan mean for the region’s housing supply and green belt?

Manchester. Image: Getty.

We’re not even halfway through January and we’ve already seen one of the biggest urban stories of the year – the release of Greater Manchester’s new spatial plan for the city-region. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) sets an ambitious target to build more than 200,000 homes over the next 18 years.

Despite previous statements indicating greenbelt development was off the table, the plan allows for some moderate easing of greenbelt, combined with denser city centre development. This is sensible, pragmatic and to be welcomed but a question remains: will it be enough to keep Manchester affordable over the long-term?

First, some history on Manchester’s housing strategy: This is not the first iteration of the controversial GMSF. The first draft was released by Greater Manchester’s council leaders back in October 2016 (before Andy Burnham was in post), and aimed to build 227,000 houses by 2037. Originally, it proposed releasing 8.2 per cent of the green belt to provide land for housing. Many campaigners opposed this, and the newly elected mayor, Andy Burnham, sent the plan back to the drawing board in 2017.

The latest draft published this week contains two important changes. First, it releases slightly less greenbelt land than the original plan, 4.1 per cent of the total, but more than Andy Burnham previously indicated he would. Second, while the latest document is still ambitious, it plans for 26,000 fewer homes over the same period than the original.

To build up or to build out?

In many cities, the housing supply challenge is often painted as a battle-ground between building high-density homes in the city centre or encroaching on the green belt. Greater Manchester is fortunate in that it lacks the density of cities such as London – suggesting less of a confrontation between people who what to build up and people who want to build out.

Prioritising building on Greater Manchester’s plentiful high-density city centre brownfield land first is right and will further incentivise investment in public transport to reduce the dependence of the city on cars. It makes the goal in the mayor’s new transport plan of 50 per cent of all journeys in Greater Manchester be made on foot, bikes or public transport by 2040 easier to realise.

However, unlike Greater London’s greenbelt which surrounds the capital, Greater Manchester’s green belt extends deep into the city-region, making development on large amounts of land between already urbanised parts of the city-region more difficult. This limits the options to build more housing in parts of Greater Manchester close to the city centre and transport nodes. The worry is that without medium-term reform to the shape of Manchester’s green belt, it may tighten housing supply in Manchester even more than the green belt already does in places such as London and York. In the future, when looking to undertake moderate development on greenbelt land, the mayor should look to develop in these areas of ‘interior greenbelt’ first.

Greater Manchester’s Green Belt and Local Authority Boundaries, 2019.

Despite the scale of its ambition, the GMSF cannot avoid the sheer size of the green belt forever: it covers 47 per cent of the total metropolitan area. In all likelihood, plans to reduce the size of the green belt by 2 per cent will need to be looked at again once the existing supply of brownfield land runs low – particularly if housing demand over the next 18 years is higher than the GMSF expects, which should be the case if the city region’s economy continues to grow.


An example of a successful political collaboration

The GMSF was a politically pragmatic compromise achieved through the cooperation of the metropolitan councils and the mayoral authority to boost the supply of homes. It happened because Greater Manchester’s mayor has an elected mandate to implement and integrate the GMSF and the new transport plan.

Other cities and the government should learn from this. The other metro mayors currently lacking spatial planning powers, in Tees Valley and the West Midlands, should be gifted Greater Manchester-style planning powers by the government so they too can plan and deliver the housing and transport their city-regions need.

Long-term housing strategies that are both sustainable and achievable need to build both up and out. In the short-term Greater Manchester has achieved this, but in the future, if its economic success is maintained, it will need to be bolder on the green belt than the proposals in the current plan. By 2037 Manchester will not face a trade-off between high-density flats in the city centre or green belt reform – it will need to do both.  If the city region is to avoid the housing problems that bedevil London and other successful cities, policy makers need to be ready for this.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.