“The Importance of Cities’ Leadership on Sustainable Development”. Keynote speech at Tokyo Forum for Clean City and Clear Sky. Tuesday 22 May 2018


Rt Hon Helen Clark: “The Importance of Cities’ Leadership on Sustainable Development”. Speech at Opening session of Tokyo Forum for Clean City and Clear Sky: International Environmental Conference. Tokyo, 9.45 am Tuesday 22 May 2018.

 Thank you, Governor Yuriko Koike, for inviting me to address this prestigious forum today.

 I am very pleased to be back in Tokyo – a great metropolis which I first visited in 1975 as a youth leader from New Zealand. I sailed here as a participant in the Japanese Youth Goodwill Cruise – now the Ship for World Youth programme – and have returned on many occasions in a range of capacities, including as New Zealand Prime Minister and as UNDP Administrator.

 Governor, you have convened this gathering knowing not only that the world’s cities face many interlinked challenges across the environmental, social, and economic spheres, but also that there are ambitious global agendas which are highly relevant to the world’s cities.

  • Those agendas include not only Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – with SDG 11 dedicated to cities and human settlements, but also
  • the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction which was agreed on by UN Member States meeting three years ago. As host of the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan was active in sharing lessons learned from the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.
  • the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development,
  • The Paris Climate Agreement;
  • the New Urban Agenda agreed at the UN’s Habitat III Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development, and
  • the outcome of the 2016 UN Global Sustainable Transport Conference.

 Across those agendas there is a common vision for the world’s cities – in the words of SDG 11, that is to make them “safe, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable”.

 Achieving those worthy objectives is very challenging – yet achieve them we must if the Sustainable Development Goals are to be achieved.

 In my speech today I will talk about:

  • the challenges cities face globally in achieving sustainable development;
  • the state of play on key SDG 11 indicators; and
  • what cities need to do to speed up progress on sustainability.

 First: the challenges:

We must seek to achieve the SDGs knowing that:

  • urban populations are rising very fast. Half the world’s people live in urban areas now. That will rise to sixty per cent by 2030. Urban populations will almost double in the next forty years. That fast increase will put huge pressure on existing governance, planning capacities, and services. As well, extreme poverty remains pervasive in many cities;
  • climate change is bringing many more challenges – so many of our cities are located in areas vulnerable to major storms and their consequences. Throughout history, we have placed our towns and cities by the coastlines and rivers which enabled us to move on the water before there were roads and railway lines. Now we are paying the price for that.
  • when we add in the risk of earthquakes and tsunamis, overall the disaster risk exposure of cities is great. Our cities host most of the world’s critical infrastructure, political institutions, and major socio-economic architecture – we must work hard to make them and all who dwell in them safe.

 Conference after conference talks about these issues. But it is to you, urban leaders and administrators, to whom the task falls to address the challenges through practical policies and to raise the funding and build the partnerships needed to implement them.

 Second: the state of play on key SDG 11 targets:

The need to adopt sustainable pathways is urgent – before the challenges become overwhelming. The latest progress report from the United Nations on progress on reaching the SDG 11 targets covers air quality, urban sprawl, slum dwellings, and waste management. It tells us that:

  • Nine of every ten people living in cities in 2014 were breathing air whose quality is below the safety standard set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Even worse, half of all city dwellers were exposed to air pollution 2.5 times the WHO standard. Fossil fuel-based energy generation and use and the lack of enough clean public transport contribute greatly to that.
  • The expansion of urban land is outpacing the growth of urban populations. Our cities are becoming less dense, with often uncontrolled sprawl putting strain on access to transport systems and other services. Traffic gridlock and high road accident rates are among the consequences, with low and middle-income countries bearing the greatest burden of fatalities according to the WHO. Greater density of habitation, including through redeveloping brown field and inner-city areas, building higher, and making major investments in public transport is essential for creating the sustainable cities of the future.
  • Thirty per cent of the urban population in developing countries lives in slums. While that proportion is down from closer to forty per cent in 2000, the absolute numbers continue to rise – up from 792 million in 2000 to 880 million in 2014. Concentrations of extreme poverty in crowded and insanitary conditions pose great risk to slum residents and have broader spillover effects – no slum is an island. The 2030 Agenda urges that we leave no one behind – yet not far short of a billion people living in the world’s slums are currently not enjoying the basic elements of a decent life.
  • The lack of emphasis on the importance of decent housing in global development has often puzzled me as a former Housing Minister. A safe and healthy home is the foundation for building healthy societies in the broadest sense. The best education and health systems cannot do their job if housing is damp, insanitary, and without modern energy supply. Cities have a major role to play in planning and also in providing for accommodation which is accessible, affordable, and secure for those of all incomes. So often the poorest live in very vulnerable conditions, on unstable hillsides vulnerable to landslides or at the bottom of ravines or on river plains susceptible to flooding. We can and must do better for the world’s poorest.
  • solid waste management is a significant challenge – if not properly disposed of, that waste is unsightly and insanitary. It may also block drainage systems and contribute to flooding and the spread of disease. One study of arrangements in 101 countries from 2009-2013, cited by the UN progress report on SDG 11, revealed that only 65 per cent of the urban population had access to municipal waste services.
  • As well, there is the imperative of adopting much more ambitious waste management goals like “zero waste to landfill”. Cities can move towards that by:
  • promoting “reduce, reuse, recycle” and “polluter pays” It is encouraging now to see the action being taken in many places against single-use plastics and the move to reusable and recyclable options overall.
  • A good news story on achieving zero waste to landfill comes from the village of Kamikatsu in Tokushima Prefecture here in Japan. It aims to reach that target by 2020. Already all its food waste is composted, and eighty per cent of other waste is recycled. Residents must sort their waste into 45 different categories. This in itself is acting as a deterrent to consumption of non-essential items like packaging. If a small village of 1500 people can be a leader on waste management, then so can the world’s great cities.
  1. So, what will cities need to do to speed up progress on sustainability and achieving the goals of SDG 11?

Above all, the quality of urban leadership and governance matters –city leaders need to bring vision and passion to their job, inspire others, including their public officials, to act, and be inclusive in the way they govern. In support of that:

  1. City governments must be empowered to act. Too often, local government is constrained by overly prescriptive national legislation which limits its capacity to innovate and address issues comprehensively. That must change if city governments are to tackle 21st challenges effectively.
  2. City governments must practise the inclusive and responsive governance called for in SDG 16. They can be models for collaboration between citizens and the authorities – ensuring that all are heard in policy-making, planning, and implementation.

 That means paying special attention to those whose voices have not been heard in the past – the voices of women, of youth, the disabled, ethnic minorities, LGBTI, and of marginalised communities in general. It means reaching out to those who dwell in slums and in the most disaster-prone and crime-scarred communities and committing to work closely with them to address the specific challenges they face. Participatory planning can and must reach and engage all. I saw this at work in Haiti after its devastating 2010 earthquake where residents of the most vulnerable neighbourhoods in the capital city, Port-au-Prince, took part in discussions about how to make the city more resilient to future disasters. Japan too knows the value of engaging communities in planning for recovery after disasters.

  1. There must be zero tolerance of corruption. So often, citizens get services which should be their right only for a “small consideration” – or, in plain words, a bribe. If city governments aren’t seen to uphold the rule of law, citizens will rightly be cynical of whatever those governments claim to be their priorities. That is not a good climate in which to pursue sustainable development, as the engagement of every citizen and household is required.

SDG 16 has a target which calls for “substantially reducing corruption and bribery in all their forms”. This target should be given priority in our cities – achieving it is fundamental to getting good results from investment in infrastructure, the local economy, and public services.

 It helps to have total transparency on procurement, contracts of all kinds, and audits, evaluations and accounts. There are proven ways of encouraging citizens to report corrupt behaviour – and through smart phone apps this is being made easier than ever before. Ethics and integrity must be accepted as basic values by politicians and officials. 

4) Achieving the SDGs requires a capacity for “whole of government” planning and co-ordination. City governments can lead on this – after all, planning for communities’ basic needs and delivering on those plans are at the core of what city governments do. Most developed countries have long since abandoned any serious attempt at planning at the national level – but their local governments are expected to plan.

  1. The old ways of development pursued at any price to the health and wellbeing of people and the environment must end – we need inclusive and sustainable development which advances human well-being and doesn’t widen inequalities and trash the environment. Growing now and cleaning up later is not an option – that approach has got the world into the mess it is in today with a fast warming climate and loss of biodiversity. We have only the finite resources of one planet to live on, yet we live in a way which assumes that we have the resources of three, four, or more planets. That is unsustainable
  2. Cities’ planning capacities will need to be enhanced for sustainable development. They need capable staff, good policy frameworks, and they must continually modernise and streamline their administration to ensure that it is serving current and emerging needs and not those of yesterday.
  3. Planning for sustainability must cover issues at the heart of this conference like air quality and waste management. But cities must also plan to be equitable, inclusive, and socially cohesive. They should aspire to be hubs of innovation and creativity. They must plan for public space – which is so often sacrificed under development pressures. Our cities of the future must be liveable cities in which citizens are proud to live and where they enjoy both opportunity and security.
  4. Resources: money isn’t everything, but it does help. Local government in many countries feel somewhat constrained by traditional financing options – which may include rates on properties, fees for services, local sales taxes in some jurisdictions, central government grants, and issuing bonds. How to widen financing options is a discussion to be had with central governments country by country. Cities must share experiences about what works.

 For example, what may look like attractive options at first sight may have significant hidden costs. Public-private partnerships for transport infrastructure can be risky to city governments where contracts have been poorly designed.

 On the other hand, productive investment locally is what every city government wants – and getting it should increase jobs and city revenue and thereby contribute to a virtuous cycle of development. Local governments can make their luck in this respect – by ensuring that there a transparent and honest enabling environment and well-designed policy and regulation. There is also the opportunity to steer investment towards sustainability – for example in local energy, transport, and waste management infrastructure and provision.

 In conclusion

The rapid pace of urbanization makes it even more important that the world’s cities rise to the challenge of sustainable development.

 The good news is that there is global leadership being exercised by many cities – take the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group which is in advance of many countries in its breadth of vision for sustainable, inclusive, and climate-resilient cities.

 The history of planning of many cities means that they have a capacity to co-ordinate policy and action across sectors – but now they must put those skills at the service of sustainable development – ensuring that they pursue the health and well-being of people, the local economy, and the environment simultaneously. That is still business unusual for many.

 I wish you all a very productive conference – and hope that you will return home with new ideas and new enthusiasm for pursuing sustainable development – and with the certain knowledge that each of your cities can be leaders on sustainability.

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