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Jolting Into Action for Safe Cities

“There’s no place like home.” Just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, most of us want a safe and familiar place to return to. Yet we are living in a moment when global urbanization, rising sea levels and warming temperatures present existential threats to the places billions call home around the globe. Clicking our heels back to a simpler time is not an option.

Thankfully, governments around the world are beginning to understand the urgent need to address our changing climate and the social, environmental and economic challenges that come with it. Later this month, international leaders will consider a resolution submitted by the President of the United Nations General Assembly calling for the adoption of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will build on prior efforts, as well as pave the way for a “New Urban Agenda” to be considered at Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador.

With an audacious title, “Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” this 17-point agenda is a plan of action for people, our planet and shared prosperity. About midway down the list is goal 11: to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” Recognized as the first time the United Nations is focusing on sustainability and resiliency in cities, SDG 11 is our chance to anticipate, mitigate and adapt to natural and man-made disasters.

Embedded in the goal’s general language is a call to ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services, transport systems and public spaces. It is a call to upgrade slums, enhance local capacity for sustainable development and reduce adverse environmental impacts. The hope is that the UN focus on building more inclusive, resilient cities will lead to stronger local policies and planning with more financial and technical assistance for the least-developed countries. Targets and indicators are being developed to move the agenda.

Through a revised Global Partnership for Sustainable Development, the agenda and 17 SDGS are supported by concrete policies and actions outlined in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda. At the heart of these efforts are cohesive, nationally owned sustainable-development strategies, supported by integrated national-financing frameworks. The UN reiterates that each country has primary responsibility for its own economic and social development, and emphasizes the role of national policies and development strategies.

Defining and designing a more inclusive city won’t be easy. As we’ve seen here in the U.S. and other places around the world, solving segregation will take bold leadership from city officials and federal government. We’ve already seen some important steps taken in Washington, where HUD Secretary Julian Castro recently followed last summer’s Supreme Court ruling on the Fair Housing Act with a new rule requiring municipalities use data to demonstrate that their housing policies don’t promote racial segregation. In cities, public agencies and private-sector partners are experimenting with innovative programs intended to create new economic opportunities. One such program created by the New York Housing Authority and Citi Community Development Corporation is Doorways to Opportunity, a $1.4 million initiative that will offer NYCHA residents access to employment training, jobs, financial counseling, tax preparation and business-development support.

The challenges don’t end there — building neighborhoods that are resilient in the face of disaster and change will take new ideas and plenty of collaboration, as well. But as the Cambodian capital of Phnom-Penh has learned over the past two decades, it is possible to build new infrastructure and bounce back from shocks big and small. Movement is happening in other cities, too, from Houston, where city leaders are beating back a tradition of sprawl with better transit and new greenways, to Melbourne, where urban forests and other green infrastructure is in development.

We are at a singularly opportune moment that can make SDG 11 more than a dream. As Dr. Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, reminds us, 75 percent of all of the infrastructure needed in 2050 isn’t built yet. Combined with demographic, economic and environmental factors that are moving people to cities here in the U.S. and around the world, the Sustainable Development Goals are a recipe for progress and a reason for optimism.

These goals will lead to a “New Urban Agenda,” an action-oriented initiative intended to take advantage of urbanization. SDG 11 is crucial to an effective urban agenda, and the focus must continue to be on cities and the policies, plans and investments needed to help them succeed.

There should be no doubt regarding the need for national urban policies, especially here in the U.S., which has a long and storied history of national planning. Presidents Thomas Jefferson in 1808 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 set the stage for growth and prosperity, through initiatives that provided the infrastructure that fueled decades of growth. To put it another way, as taxpayers, we are stockholders in the corporation called America. No corporation can exist without a strategic plan, and no successful business would ever abandon its chief assets — its people and infrastructure.

The New Urban Agenda, grounded in the SDGs and a climate-action agreement, can fuel the next generation of prosperity and security in U.S. cities and around the globe. It needs countries like the United States to provide leadership in setting national-urban policies that will exceed international targets. At Next City, we are committed to advancing an open and inclusive national process to develop and implement national-urban policies. And, as the American on the National Urban Policies group organized by UN Habitat to help create the New Urban Agenda, I will strive to make SDG 11 a reality for my son Jack and future generations around the world.

Of course, as we all know, Dorothy was always home — it took a jolt to help her focus on what really matters. My hope is that the SDGs will jolt each nation, including my beloved America, to focus on what makes our cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, and to act on both short- and long-term solutions that will ensure that all of us have a place to return to long into the future.

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