Track Sessions III

G. Attaining Sustainable Development Goals in Cities: 'Is urbanisation helping their progress?'


  • James ROONEY Senior Fellow, The Boston Foundation
  • NG Mee Kam Director of the Urban Studies Programme, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
  • Zofia K. RYBKOWSKI Associate Professor, Texas A&M University


  • Chandrika BAHADUR President, SDSN Association

Professor Zofia Rybkowski started with a presentation that asked “What is sustainability?”, emphasising that it was not about hugging trees. One definition, she said, was meeting the needs of the present without compromising future generations. She presented a three-legged stool to sustainability that had economic, social, and environmental factors. Focusing on the environmental factor, she argued that we need to protect our natural capital.

Professor Ng Mee Kam then turned to the specific question of cities, noting that most of the urban growth in the world would happen in Asia, so it was important that we urbanised in a sustainable way. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, she said, were an important articulation of what we aspired to for the world and especially in cities. She showed how we could use this set of goals to audit projects and evaluate our work. In terms of future cities, Professor Ng argued that it was important to correct all the wrongs of the past. In this regard, private philanthropy was not enough. We needed a spirit of being more generous and genuine to reverse the trend. Growth was important but we needed to have the ecological and social justice aspects in mind.

Mr James Rooney offered a general observation on what it might take to achieve these sustainable development goals. There had to be both a will and way, he stressed. Often there was one but not the other. He explained how climate change had been on and off the US government’s agenda since President Jimmy Carter. It had been rare for both political will and international momentum to be there together. However, he was optimistic that more could be done through the private sector.

Ms Chandrika Bahadur cited a US study which compared 100 metro areas across the nation, showing that 62 of them were less than halfway towards meeting their SDGs. Even San Jose, which topped the list, had only reached around 80%. She asked the panel “based on what you know, how are we doing on the SDGs?”

Professor Ng talked about a study in Asia that used traffic lights to show how far areas had moved on their SDGs. The idea of allowing urban areas to benchmark how they were doing would be a great tool, she said, arguing that it was important for cities to take the SDGs seriously because if they did them wrong, there would be many problems. Cities could be the problem, but they could also be part of the solution.

Mr Rooney said Boston had strong economic, healthcare and education outcomes and his organisation had taken the SDG indicators very seriously. They had looked at progress using a dashboard as well. Boston was at risk from sea level rise and from high inequality. However, this was a place where local factors might be considered when thinking about global indicators. In Boston, high inequality was driven by the large number of very rich people. Mr Rooney argued that this was a time of ascendance for cities. Only 20 years ago, cities in the US were fighting a narrative of urban decline and the focus was on suburbs. Overall, he believed we were well positioned to achieve the SDGs in the future.

Professor Rybkowski talked about the difference between what she saw in Texas and Hong Kong around public opinion for climate action. In Hong Kong the dust and pollution were more visible, so the public had high awareness. In Texas it was hard to get students motivated by climate change because they could not see the pollution or water table issues. Pairing them up with students from elsewhere in the world could be a help. She also argued that sustainability was always in flux. A city might be doing very well at one point but technological or future changes could disrupt that. We were moving towards the 3D printing of buildings. This was exciting, but a cement base was not carbon neutral, so if we were to replace wooden houses with cement houses, we would be making the problem worse.

Ms Bahadur then asked about the trade-offs in trying to achieve some of the SDGs compared with others.

Professor Ng said she did not buy the idea of trade-offs. There could be no compromises because you could not trade off the environment. She described how back in 1965, when Singapore left the Malaysian federation, it was a tiny place and very poor. The Singapore Government put in a lot of effort into greening and water preservation. As a result, there was a spatial component to social justice there, with the environment standing at the base of it. In Singapore, everyone could enjoy plentiful public space. In her view, we had to challenge the thinking that development was in conflict with sustainability.

Mr Rooney said that from an operational standpoint and being mindful that there were 17 SDGs, there was a need for putting a laser focus on some rather than others. One thing they had learned in Boston was the need to drive authority to the local level as much as you could. He talked about some of the political realities in the US that had made it difficult for local governments to take environmental action.

Professor Rybkowski talked about a mayor in Brazil in the late 1970s who was a creative architect. This mayor took inspiration from the earth, which had no waste as it was a closed system. One example was to have residents of shanty towns exchange their excess garbage to farmers who had excess vegetables but needed fertilizer.

Ms Bahadur then transitioned to the role of philanthropy in achieving the SDGs in cities. She said one role might be to generate public good or invest in knowledge creation. Another approach was direct service delivery. There was a third role in capacity building, while a fourth was convening different stakeholders. She asked the panellists what they felt the role of philanthropy should be.

Mr Rooney offered the example of preventative health. His organisation had pursued each one of those roles to commission research, convene the community and be lead advocates at the state, city and federal level. On the issues of health, obesity and nutrition, 80% of the determinants of health were preventative and 20% related to care, yet 80% of the funding was for care. They had brought this to the attention of the government and moved the needle and thinking.

Professor Rybkowski talked about John Ruskin’s belief that mediaeval cathedrals were better than Greek and Roman temples, because they involved a collaboration between many different artists. Similarly, philanthropy should build a framework and then bring together a bunch of people who had made that city their own.

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