Lofty global goals designed to extricate people from poverty and slash social inequality need to be brought down to street level in cities if they are to have a real chance of improving the lives of those they are meant to help.
Consulting people on how to make cities safer while improving housing, transport and job opportunities won’t work unless they are actively involved in putting theory into practice, said speakers in a discussion hosted by Zilient.
"We can't forget the human dimension of all of this," said Santiago Uribe Rocha, chief resilience officer for Medellin in Colombia, once known as the world’s most dangerous city, partly due to narco-trafficking.
"We have been able to reduce violence, but we have high levels of inequality - we're looking now at a more integrated perspective and thinking (about) trying to build inclusive economies," he said.
Agreed at the United Nations in 2015, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include targets to end poverty and hunger, improve health and education, and combat climate change, all by 2030.
All 17 goals apply to urban areas, but Goal 11 sets its sights specifically on making cities and human settlements “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.
Given cities are home to two-thirds of the population of G20 countries, while being responsible for over 70 percent of planet-warming emissions, they are ground-zero for putting the SDGs into practice, said experts.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that two-thirds of the 169 targets under the goals will not be reached without the involvement of local and regional governments.
In addition, better jobs, education, social cohesion and safer housing limit the human impact of disasters, enabling cities to protect their residents and development gains.
But so far, progress is patchy.
In the United States - where 85 percent live in urban areas - no major cities are yet making the grade on tackling climate change, for instance, said Laurie Manderino, associate director at the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).
In an index released earlier this month, the SDSN found that 62 of the 100 most populous U.S. city regions are less than half way towards achieving the SDGs.
"In order to localise the SDGS, you need local engagement," said New York-based Manderino, noting a lack of data to monitor how the goals are being implemented at city level.
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Lower-income countries are being scrutinised on their progress towards the sustainable development targets. But they need to be achieved by rich nations too.
Cities and municipalities in Denmark, Germany, Belgium and Japan are using the SDGs as a starting point for policy and innovation, said Aziza Akhmouch, who leads work on cities and sustainable development at the OECD.
They are planning urban development around the global goals, and defining priorities and indicators to suit local needs, while organising dialogues with mayors and other key actors.
Using accessible technology, and finding ways to actively involve citizens in the changes expected to improve their lives and incomes translates into a greater chance of success for projects on the ground, speakers said.
In the United States, Baltimore teamed up with non-profits and universities to analyse social inequalities, then held public consultations and created websites for citizens to track progress towards the goals the city set for itself, said Manderino.
Medellin, meanwhile, has created a "drone lab" to teach people how to fly the lightweight craft over the city, taking pictures that highlight the causes of problems and helping generate solutions, said Uribe Rocha.
In Paris, part of the city's budget is set aside to help "co-produce" small-scale, community projects, said Akhmouch of the OECD, which will next month launch a programme to help cities roll out strategies meet the global goals.
"The rise of populism in a number of countries is often very much linked to the crisis of trust of citizens in the capacity of their governments to deliver very basic services," she said.
For the SDGs to really benefit cities and their populations, those responsible for putting them in place should get out on the streets, listen and learn, according to the speakers.
"The SDGs are not an end in themselves - they are a tool for decision makers to care about people," said Akhmouch. "The SDGs are a means to an end."