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1 April 2015

Mistra Urban Futures evaluates UN sustainability targets

The new sustainability goals to be developed by the United Nations for urban environments are now being evaluated in Mistra Urban Futures. The Centre’s new director David Simon initiated the project, which is under way in five cities worldwide during the spring. As Simon points out, it gives Mistra Urban Futures a chance to play a leading role in a key international process.

The UN has had eight Millennium Development Goals, adopted in 2000, to improve life for the world’s poor. Their target year is 2015 and, now that the period is expiring, the UN wants to replace them with a number of global sustainability goals. One of the new goals concerns sustainable urban development.

When David Simon took up his appointment as the new director of the Mistra Urban Futures (MUF) Centre in the autumn, he saw it as one of his first tasks to test which indicators this kind of sustainability should entail. These have to be measurable, and also workable in all kinds of urban areas rather than just in rich, highly developed ones. There must also be data available that are possible to collect on an annual basis, he reasoned.

Now a project of this kind has been launched and is in progress in five world cities. Bangalore in India has joined MUF’s original four: Gothenburg, Manchester, Kisumu and Cape Town. Simon explains:

‘All these cities count as medium-sized. None of them is the largest in their respective country. Still, they’re big enough and differ tremendously among themselves. If the indicators work for these cities, they’re probably workable for many other cities in the world too.’

The new targets are expected to be binding in so far as the governments of the member countries will annually report them to the UN. The indicators must therefore have a reasonable level of ambition, and reporting on them must be feasible.

Work in full swing

The indicators to be tested include the proportion of inhabitants living in slum areas; access to public transport; population density; protection of cultural and natural assets, and a further six. Simon’s ambition is for the final goal for urban sustainability to have seven indicators.

The project is being conducted by teams in the five cities, and they are striding ahead. Work started in March and results will be presented at the end of June. The UN Secretary-General will announce the new sustainability goals at the end of September this year.

It was in 2012, during the Rio +20 conference, that the member states agreed to embark on a process of developing sustainability targets to replace the Millennium Goals — a process that was to be transparent and open. MUF was one of the parties involved that argued for including sustainable urban development as one of the goals. The reason is that more than half the world’s population today live in cities and that the problems and challenges of large cities differ from those of rural areas. In June 2014, the UN Open Working Groups raised the urban sustainability goal as number 11.

‘It’s symbolically important that one of the 17 planned sustainability goals is urban. This brings into focus the challenges that exist in the cities, but also the opportunities they provide for improving people’s lives,’ Simon says.

Good contacts with the UN

The project is funded by Mistra and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). David Simon has benefited from his previous roles as advisor in the UN, in bodies including the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat). He has succeeded in convincing decision-makers in the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the body working on the sustainability targets, that MUF’s distinctive architecture, with its various platforms around the world, is cut out for this task.

‘What Mistra Urban Futures is getting here is a chance to play a leading role in a key international process,’ Simon points out.

Otherwise, MUF has completed the documentation for its midterm evaluation. The plans for possibly continuing with the programme include developing new platforms in more continents. Progress in the city of Bangalore is being followed with interest: the current project there is a kind of testing ground for the worldwide quest for future partners.

‘We’re also considering cities in Latin and North America, but we’ll have to see how far our resources stretch,’ says David Simon.

Text: Thomas Heldmark, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

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