Considerations on linking Urban Agendas and the SDGs

By René Hartinger, Ökosoziales Forum Wien

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with it’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals is the most important and most widely known agenda for a sustainable transformation of our societies and our global system. Explained in the shortest possible way (that I can think of), it leads a way into a better future of well-being and decent living conditions for everyone, while societal and economic well-being no longer depends on the exploitation of others – be it the people working in the production or supply chain or the marine systems that are overfished. The forests that are cut down and the species extinct for short-term interest, or the tax payers and workers that uphold the common goods while others shift billions to tax morasses. And, of course: the future generations, that will simply not have the same chances, as their forefathers and foremothers who pumped the atmosphere so full of greenhouse gases that the climate finally collapsed. To give this a name, it is, as the Austrian-German Scientist Uli Brand calls the “imperial way of living” – a lifestyle of some, that is based on unsustainable and unethical exploitation, and simply can not be generalised. The main challenge is to overcome the lock-ins of unsustainability.

To overcome these, the SDGs prompt asking the right questions and consider the right criteria to move towards a liveable world for all. The 17 Goals highlight the cornerstones identified on the way towards the 2030 Vision – which is a world in balance. These goals are highly usable on different political levels: first, they remind us of the 17 main aspects that the world community found important to be considered in political decisions, policies, strategies and measures. Second, they are “down to earth” enough to start conversations about the world we want to live in 2030 with the majority of the people, even with those not visiting our panel discussions or sharing our enthusiasm for terms such as “sustainable development”, “eco-social market economy” or “social-ecological transformation”. Nevertheless, and despite the low barriers, the systemic approach behind the SDGs is leading deep and deeper, once you bear them in mind and consider them in your thoughts and actions.

With a focus on urban areas and cities, a few things can be assumed, thinking about the role and responsibility, the potential and starting points of cities in contributing to reach these 17 Goals (and the liveable and sustainable societies and cities they’re aiming for). Over 50% of the world’s population already lives in cities, and in a few decades,  it will be 70% or more- which underlines the weight of what is happening in the centres. (Centres because cities – small ones as well as metropolitan regions – are always of high importance for the rural areas around them). Cities are also often incubators for the cultural, intellectual and spiritual life of a nation, which is important for two reasons: first, culture is what lies underneath our lifestyles, therefore transformation needs to begin there, rooted in our culture and values. Second, many ideas, which could lead the way towards a liveable 2030, are born, incubated, negotiated or tried out in the centres. And last, not least, many sustainable solutions (such as a well-developed public transport system, universal health services and social security programmes, long distance energy, etc) are based on innovation and infrastructure investments that only make sense in cities, because of the financial meaningfulness – which is why you generally find subways, operas and hospitals in centres.

Therefore, one can think about the Agenda 2030 and it’s 17 Goals in an urban context in two different ways. The first way is that the SDGs are a political compass and communications tool, which enables cities (and their mayors, politicians, administrations, etc) to connect with their citizens and different stakeholders in order to discuss the living conditions and surroundings we want in 2030, and to develop proper strategies and measures within these processes. The more we use the Goals in these dialogues, the more well understood and familiar it will be to work with them, which is a huge benefit. It makes political processes more inclusive and integrative, and it is efficient, as you do not always need to then explain terms such as “social-ecological transformation”, “smart city” or the like. The SDGs are bringing these bulky terms down to earth in a low barrier manner – which is very important, because urban agendas and many people simply ARE down to earth. To summarise: this first way therefore suggest to us to focus on the benefits and chances of the SDGs in the political and societal process and dialogue.

The second way to think about the SDGs in an urban context is the “other way round” – not to start with the SDGs as such, but with issues of concrete urban relevance. Housing, traffic, water and energy supply, air quality, social cohesion, education and health system, poverty prevention and reduction – all of these and many more topics are core urban agendas. Therefore, it could be a promising approach to promote the SDGs with urban actors without starting with “Have you heard there is a new set of goals by the United Nations that…”. But, for example, as housing is a big topic and highly relevant for mayors, start with a differently approach – “We know that housing is a big topic in your city that you are working on. You know, there is this new set of goals for a good future for all by the United Nations, which can be very useful in dealing with such complex issues. You can use these set of goals – the “SDGs” – for your city to find the best possible ways to develop your housing policies in the next years by getting in touch with your own citizens as well as other actors worldwide (other cities, scientists, civil society organisations or businesses) to learn more about what it is important and possible, or to promote what you do here within the worldwide SDG-community.” Such conversations could not only lower the barrier, but also enable new potentials, as working with the SDGs always opens the view and allows an organised, well-reflected approach on the complexity of sustainable development issues.

Combining and using these two views and approaches is promising and productive from our point of view, setting free the urban areas’ potential in sustainability transformation (or the inverse, for breaking out of unsustainable lock-ins). With a focus on housing, for example here in Vienna, the SDGs have helped us to understand that with the 100 year old successful “Vienna Model” of social housing, we do not only have a leverage in providing affordable housing, but also in emission reduction and protection of ecological niches in our city, providing spots of local recreation for the people right outside their door, and much more. But the 17 Goals also help us to understand and to communicate that affordable housing is not a solution unless there is no high quality of public services, social stability and healthy and sound natural environment provided too. And, of course, this also implicates our duty to take care of the future– e.g. through broad education and widespread nature and climate protection measures. We, therefore, consider the SDGs and the Agenda 2030 highly relevant with great potential, and we use them willingly and gladly. But they also remind us, that these set of goals and icons are only a new name for what we and our forefathers and foremothers have been working on long before 2015 – a good city to live in for generations to come. This understanding can be leveraging – as it connects our own efforts and history with a promising new approach and common language leading into a liveable and good future for all.

Rene Hartinger, born 1984, was involved in establishing SDG Watch Austria in 2017 and 2018 and is today Secretary General of the Vienna Ecosocial Forum. The core topics of his organisation are food consumption and production, urban agriculture, nature in cities, and a broader approach on sustainable cities and liveability through the lens of the Agenda 2030’s 17 SDGs.

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