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UN Member States Review their Progress on Cities

At the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015, all 193 UN member states adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development [1]. The Agenda includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), some of which are ending poverty, promoting gender equality, and achieving affordable and clean energy [2]. As stipulated by paragraph 47 of the formal adoption document, the annual High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) “will have the central role in overseeing follow-up and review” of the Agenda and the SDGs [3]. Following the text, UN member states, civil society, and other stakeholders attended this year’s HLPF, which was hosted at the UN Headquarters in New York City from 9 July to 18 July [4].

In accordance with this year’s theme, “Transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies,” member states gathered on 11 July to review the implementation of SDG 11, which involves making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. The speakers largely divided their content into three categories: the current problems and barriers to implementation, what is being done to implement the goal, and what needs to be done.

The speakers prepare for their presentations on the implementation of SDG 11. Source: Michael Gelb.

I attended and took notes on the July 11th event, and one message became clear: the current issues and obstacles related to implementing SDG 11 are ample. According to Mr. Benjamin Rae, who spoke on behalf of the Statistics Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, urban population growth is faster than cities’ attempts to improve slum conditions. Rae added that managing solid waste is a major challenge for cities; as landfills continue to grow, they produce greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane and pollute the local air, water, and soil. As a result, approximately 91% of the urban population worldwide continues to breathe polluted air. Highlighting stories rather than statistics, Ms. Leilani Farha, UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, described people living on sidewalks and beside railroad stations, children playing in garbage piles, and persons with disabilities being cut off from society. She condemned private sector firms, who use housing to gain profit, for the plight of 1.6 billion people worldwide who are inadequately housed. Summing up her speech brilliantly, Farha claimed that housing is the “most significant issue facing cities today and will continue to be so.” Likewise, the representative from the Netherlands claimed that poor people are being driven out of cities and that police forces are often disproportionately present in crowded, urban, and poor areas.

In addition, Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, spoke of the three major challenges to implementing SDG 11: housing affordability, urban sprawl, and access to public spaces. Meanwhile, Sierra Leone claimed that its biggest barrier to implementation is a lack of funding.

Despite the substantial impediments to realizing SDG 11, governments and organizations are continuing in the fight for safe and resilient cities. For example, Ms. Penny Abeywardena, Commissioner in the NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, proudly announced that NYC is the first city in the world to submit a Voluntary Local Review directly to the UN. She also spoke of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s OneNYC strategy, which mirrors the SDGs on a local level. There is further positive development in other countries. As explained by Sharif, the Future Saudi Cities Programme is dedicated to improving the legal, planning, and funding aspects of 17 cities in Saudi Arabia. The Indian government conducted a study in 2011 to calculate their housing deficit; officials concluded that 11 million homes are needed in urban spaces. As of June 2018, the government already sanctioned the construction of 5.1 million homes, and they continue to sanction 300,000 to 500,000 every month. Several countries, including Thailand, Austria, and Bahrain, adopted national strategies to ensure that everyone has adequate housing.

While many programs and initiatives have been successful, the speakers made it clear that there is still a lot of work that must be done. Farha believes that the solution to implementation is a “fundamental shift” from housing being a policy or commodity to housing being “recognized and implemented as a human right.” With this shift, according to Farha, housing strategies will be based in law, will consider those most vulnerable, and will regulate private sector development. Meanwhile, Sharif recommended that cities collect data disaggregated by income, age, gender, and other qualities. Mr. Wim Dries, mayor of the city of Genk, Belgium; stated that the main barrier to implementing the 2030 Agenda is the Agenda itself; he asserted that the Agenda must be localized from an international strategy to local, regional, and national policies. Dries hopes that going forward all local governments will be represented in decision making processes and that all levels of government cooperate and oversee SDG 11’s implementation.

The International Telecommunication Union, Sweden, and other delegations advocated for the establishment of “smart cities,” where technology and design are used to establish high-quality living and working conditions. In addition, Romania, the UN Environmental Programme, and Mr. Rae all encouraged member states to improve their waste management programmes.

A side view of the event in Conference Room 4 of the UN Headquarters in NYC. Source: Michael Gelb.

While member states and civil society continued to discuss SDG 11, it became clear that most countries were simply revelling in their successes. Consequently, the delegation of the Netherlands took the floor to remind everyone of the purpose of the event: “We must always be aware that while we are talking, people are still sleeping outside.” Despite this attempt, the delegations continued to report their achievements while offering little insight on their challenges and failures.

If you would like to learn more about HLPF as a whole and/or this particular event, please visit the HLPF website. If you would like to support the UN System in their efforts to improve cities and make the world a more sustainable, peaceful, and equitable place, please click here.


[1] “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development .:. Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform.” United Nations. Accessed July 26, 2018.

[2] “#Envision2030: 17 Goals to Transform the World for Persons with Disabilities Enable.” United Nations. Accessed July 26, 2018.

[3] “United Nations Official Document.” United Nations. Accessed July 26, 2018.

[4] “High-Level Political Forum 2018 (HLPF 2018) .:. Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform.” United Nations. Accessed July 26, 2018.

[5] Ibid.

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