Urbanising the global agenda

The world is urbanising at an accelerating pace. In 15 years there will be a billion more people in cities than there are today. But although most economic activity occurs in cities, pervasive urban poverty persists. According to the Urban SDG Campaign, about one billion of the world’s urban population live in slums, and their daily struggles — including trying to access primary healthcare, education, enough food and clean water — should gain more recognition in high-up places.

The United Nations (UN) is in the process of setting a post-2015 agenda. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which have been in place since 2000, will soon be replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While the MDGs primarily addressed poverty in the “developing” world, the SDGs are being designed for everybody, including the “developed” world. Through setting empirical standards they aim to balance social, economic, and environmental needs in specific areas by 2030. One of the proposed goals is specifically related to cities and explicitly pushes for urbanisation that is safer, more inclusive, more sustainable and more resilient. It is the first of its kind. This urban goal will “mobilize stakeholders, [promote] integrated, city-level approaches, and accelerate progress towards sustainable development, including the end of extreme poverty,” according to the urban SDG campaign.

I spoke to Susan Parnell from the University of Cape Town’s Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences and the African Centre for Cities to find out more. Parnell was recently in New York, where UN members gathered to hear representation on the SDGs, and where she was tasked with representing the Scientific Community on behalf of the International Council for Science (ICSU).

As she explained, the new urban goal is strung within a web of debates. Proponents argue that because cities are where most people live and where most of the action is they should be recognised as powerful sites for development. Opponents counter that rural poverty should be focal, and that cities already get too much attention (an old refrain pivoting on the so-called Urban Bias Thesis). Hovering between these conflicting views, sceptics are simply concerned about data (how and what statistics are measured?) and definitions (what do terms such as “poverty” and “urban” actually mean?). They understand that small technicalities have reverberating effects.

In spite of these tensions, Parnell remains relatively optimistic. For her, there is reason for the global community to recognise the urban arena within its own framing. Firstly, it allows for the establishment of empirical standards to be addressed by nation-states at the subnational scale — a disaggregation that could help global policies to translate more meaningfully on the ground. The same policies do not necessarily apply to urban and rural areas identically; with their distinct challenges they usually require different kinds of solutions. Taking food security as an example, research shows that hunger manifests very differently and for different reasons in cities than it does in rural areas.

Secondly, improved technology has the potential to refine the data being assessed. For example, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), powerfully meshes statistics with geospatial data, rendering highly integrative models right down to the neighbourhood level. This could revolutionise the way in which individual cities are read within the broader urban policy framework, because it encourages contextually-nuanced responses. A recent African Centre for Cities project, City Desired, created these kinds of spatial maps to depict its wide-ranging data from Cape Town (for example on urban crime and education). Policymakers could surely benefit from these powerful visuals.

Finally, Parnell has faith in improvement. Urban policies set today can mature meaningfully in future — if they are shaped under firm, yet adaptive guidance, that is. She pointed out that today’s statistics on gender equity did not yet exist when the gender caucus pushed for a global recognition of gendered oppression about 20 years ago. In the same way, better data on cities might follow the current push for a specifically urban goal. Change takes time, and as Parnell said, “if you don’t put a line in the sand, you will never move the line in the sand along.”

The urban SDG thus hovers in an uncertain space if we ask what it will do for cities in Africa and the global South. Perhaps it could support a beneficial wave of sustainable development  (mitigating the negative consequences of climate change, maximising resource efficiency, driving innovation, and uplifting people from poverty as it plans to), but we must not get too excited too quickly. There are complex processes to initiate, discussions to be had, and politics to unpack before the goal and its targets will begin to strike the illusive balance between being universally applicable and locally adaptive.


Yanna Romano is an editorial intern with UrbanAfrica.Net and a postgraduate researcher based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her photographs and words explore what is unresolved and alive in the spaces she enters  — the conflicting perspectives, the echoing questions, and the stories that thread them together.

Main photo: From a rooftop in Cape Town’s CBD. Yanna Romano.

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