Cities could help the UK achieve the SDGs but they’re not on track, yet

Our cities and communities are an integral part of the UK. Thomas Bugler from Sysdoc explores how to ensure these important focal points for UK social, economic and cultural development continue to advance the SDGs.

The United Kingdom is a group of communities. They’re connected by personal relationships, a connected workforce, and historically pioneering transport infrastructure. Much of the success we’ve enjoyed as a country can be attributed to these very communities – from the 69 cities, to the multitudes of towns and villages beyond.

However, there is a very real question to ask in terms of their sustainability.

The commitment to a series of goals, in the form of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provides an international reference point from which to do this – in particular Goal 11, which aims to make ‘cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable’.

For our global cities and communities, Goal 11 raises questions about the adequacy of housing, access to reliable transport and green space, and the relationship between safe living conditions and mortality. It probes plans for the future, safeguarding our cultural and national heritage, addressing the links between our way of life and the environment, and assessing our ability to react to natural disasters.

In producing Measuring up, we found that the UK has some way to go before we can answer these questions with an emphatic “yes”.

We need decent, affordable housing and transport infrastructure, and to overcome challenges related to devolution

Housing within the UK remains a key obstacle towards achieving the targets set out in Goal 11. A fifth of homes in England fail to meet basic standards of decency, and the adverse effects of these largely impact on the most socially vulnerable communities. The unaffordability of housing is well documented in our media but remains a real concern within the private and social housing sectors. We also need our homes to be energy efficient and, as the recent heatwave shows, be designed for a warmer climate.

It’s much the same where transport is concerned. Despite continued investment in major infrastructure projects, with flagship programmes including Crossrail and HS2, the sector remains highly unsustainable from both a financial and environmental perspective. As recent chaos over the introduction of new rail timetables shows, the system is struggling to manage increased demand across the UK.

Once a trailblazer in land use and urban planning, the devolved nature of the United Kingdom’s political system has led to complexities in addressing challenges that straddle local and central government. This gives local people greater say over decision-making but not necessarily in a way that is cohesive or consistent across the country. Devolution has also impacted on our cultural heritage. It can be argued that cuts to central funding pots have led to constraints on our nation’s museums and libraries, and a decade-long drought in arts funding. All of this is a threat to the cultural heritage we have cultivated that contributes to making our cities diverse and vibrant places to live, work and visit.

Progress is being made

However, while there are pioneering cities across the world, we need not be dismissive of current progress – a recent World Economic Forum study placed London as the fifth most sustainable city in the world.

There is much progress already afoot, and plenty to come. The 25-Year Environment Plan outlines a commitment to accessible green space, reinforced by a pledge from local authorities to maintain and grow these. Despite challenges, there are active drives for affordable, sustainable housing, particularly within the much in demand social sector and from the blossoming community-led sector. And, the Government started consulting on a draft air quality strategy in May 2018, designed to combat emissions of greenhouse gases and particulate matter.

When producing Measuring up, a fundamental finding was how closely the UN’s SDGs are interlinked with one another. With the majority of the UK’s inhabitants living in cities, and the economic importance of these, Goal 11 can be seen as a cornerstone goal. Cities will contribute to the national achievement of all 17 Goals not just Goal 11.  The report also highlighted the adverse conditions suffered by those in more vulnerable communities, and the links to Goals 1 and 10, reducing poverty and inequalities.

Through establishing the synergies and coherences between the Goals in a city context, we more fully understand the need for a coherent, collaborative response from a wider audience across our city regions and the UK as a whole. That way our cities can continue to drive success for us all.

Thomas Bugler is Marketing Manager at Sysdoc, and part of the team responsible for producing the chapter on Goal 11 of Measuring up.