Rt Hon Helen Clark: Speech at Jeju Forum on “Rising to the Challenge of SDG 11: how can cities become more inclusive, resilient and sustainable?” Jeju, Republic of Korea. 31 May 2019

At Jeju Forum with New Zealand Ambassador, Philip Turner; Forum Chair; and Hon Gareth Evans of Australia.

At the end of May, I visited #Jeju Island, Republic of #Korea, for the annual Jeju Forum where I was pleased to speak at a session with Jeju Governor Won Heeryong. My topic was on the importance of Sustainable Development Goal 11 on sustainable #cities and communities: check out the full text in this post. #SDG11

“Rising to the Challenge of SDG 11: how can cities become more inclusive, resilient and sustainable?”

Right Honourable Helen Clark, Patron, Helen Clark Foundation

Keynote Speech at Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity in session on “Making Cities Resilient: The Role of Co-operation and Leadership”.

Jeju, Republic of Korea. 31 May 2019

My thanks go to the organisers of the prestigious Jeju Forum for inviting me to participate this year.

This Forum is dedicated to the quest for peace and prosperity in Asia. Those goals matter to me as a global citizen, and also as a citizen of a country in the most southern corner of the Asia-Pacific region. New Zealand has benefited greatly from the economic growth and development of Asia; conversely it was also caught up in major armed conflicts in the region in the twentieth century.

These are turbulent times globally, not least in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet maintaining peace and stability is so vital for the ongoing development of the region – which these days must shift its focus to sustainable development. The region’s economic growth and development in recent years has been phenomenal, but that has occurred at an exceptionally heavy cost to the natural environment. Our air, land, forests, waterways, oceans, and wildlife are all under stress. With peace and stability, nations can focus their full attention on dealing with the challenge of achieving inclusive, resilient, and sustainable development as the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) urge all to do.

Our session this morning focuses on cities. In my remarks, I will comment on the role which they can play in building the future which the 2030 Agenda envisages. I will address:

  • the challenges cities face globally in achieving sustainable development;
  • the state of play on SDG 11 which is dedicated to making “cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable”; and
  • what cities could do to speed up progress on meeting that goal, including by sharing experiences of what works.

First: the challenges:

We must seek to achieve the SDGs in cities knowing that:

  • urban populations are rising very fast. More than half the world’s people live in urban areas now. That will rise to over sixty per cent by 2030. Urban populations are set almost to double in the next forty years. Such fast growth puts 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, not least in the Asia-Pacific, the region of the world most exposed to disasters. Throughout history, we have placed our towns and cities by the coastlines and rivers which enabled human mobility before there were roads and railway lines. Now we are paying a heavy price for those locations during extreme weather events.
  • 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.

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

The need to adopt sustainable pathways is urgent – before the challenges become overwhelming. United Nations reports on SDG 11 targets covering air quality, urban sprawl, slum dwellings, and waste management tell us that:

  • 91 per cent of the world’s urban population in 2016 was breathing air whose quality is below the safety standard set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Even worse, more than half of all urban 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. Achieving greater density of habitation, including through redeveloping brown field and inner-city areas, building higher, and making major investments in public transport are essential for creating the sustainable cities of the future.
  • 23 per cent of the global urban population lives in slums. While that proportion has been falling, the absolute numbers of slum dwellers continue to rise – up from an estimated 807 million in 2000 to 883 million in 2015. 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, and 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 last year, 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”.

Third. 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 actually be empowered to act. Too often, they are constrained by overly prescriptive national legislation which limits their capacity to innovate and address issues comprehensively. That must change if cities are to tackle 21st Century 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 on and can contribute to policy-making, planning, and implementation.

That means paying special attention to those who 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.

3. There must be zero tolerance of corruption in citygovernments. So often, citizens get services which should be theirs as of right only in return for a bribe. If city governments aren’t seen to uphold the rule of law, citizens will rightly be cynical of whatever they claim to be their priorities. That is not a good climate in which to pursue sustainable development, when 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 smartphone 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 generally are expected to plan.

5. 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 on which to live, yet we live in a way which assumes that we have the resources of three, four, or more planets. That is unsustainable

6. Cities’ planning capacities will need to be enhanced for sustainable development. They need capable staff and 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 yesteryear.

7. Urban planning for sustainability must cover not only environmental management. Cities must also plan to be equitable, inclusive, peaceful, and tolerant. 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 places where citizens are proud to live and where they can enjoy both opportunity and security.

8. Resources: money isn’t everything, but it does help. Local government in many countries is constrained by traditional financing options like 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 more important than ever 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 capacity to co-ordinate policy and action across sectors. Now they must put those skills at the service of sustainable development – ensuring that they prioritise the health and well-being of people, the local economy, and the environment simultaneously. That is still business unusual for many.

Around the world we see cities excited by the challenge of sustainable development, and doing whatever is in their power to advance it. Amsterdam, for example, just announced that fossil fuel-fired cars will not be permitted in the city from 2030. Many cities are investing in better urban design; in more public transport and dedicated lanes for cycling and walking; and in energy efficient new buildings and retrofitting old ones. Many set a tone from the top of inclusion of the poorest and most marginalised, including refugees and migrants.

It is important to share all such experiences across cities – how cities respond to 21st century challenges will have a huge impact on whether at the national and global level we can achieve the inclusive, just, and sustainable future to which the world aspires and which it badly needs.

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