In the wake of the recent Notre Dame fire in Paris, France, there was an outpouring of public grief. A sadness, reflected in news articles and social media posts, demonstrated the depth of connection and emotional resonance that people around the world have with the built environment. On April 17, 2019, just a few days after the catastrophe, a group of 30 planners, architects, designers, community organizers, and academics gathered at the Faculty House of Columbia University in New York City for an SDSN USA hosted dialogue on the built environment and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. While individual expertise and practice varied across attendees, one message rang clear: cities and communities are ecosystems in their own right, and there is a need to address systematic challenges to confidently meet the increasing demand of an expanding population.
The day began with an introduction by SDSN Director Jeffrey Sachs, who spoke of a stark reality. We are in a time of unprecedented environmental crises. Climate change, biodiversity loss, sea level rise, pollution, and other trials face us. We must be adaptable, creative, and innovative in response. Our highly integrated global economy is good at producing wealth, but not as good at generating healthful, happy environments, social inclusion, or an environmentally save space for humanity. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or “Global Goals,” provide a framework for broad transformation. This agenda is taking hold across different sectors of societies, and is being utilized across the world.
SDG 11 is to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” Cities need to be places to live, thrive, and be safe. The current rate of urbanization is unprecedented, with an expanding population that will add three billion people to cities across the globe in the coming decades. Cities are overwhelmed, and iterative action must begin quickly to address current and future demands. Transportation and buildings need to be retrofitted, expanded, and electrified. Jobs must be created, informal settlements addressed, and climate action plans developed. With strong attention to the science and innovation required to meet these challenges, there must also be art, culture, parks, and public meeting spaces. This requires strategic and consultative design that considers cities and communities holistically, as systems.
Summary – The City as a System
During the event, each attendee presented a short introduction to their work and participated in high-level discussions about the challenges and opportunities of incorporating SDG 11 and the principles of the New Urban Agenda into planning, design, policy, and action in cities and communities in the United States and around the world. People discussed the challenge of integrating design as an essential component of policymaking, architecture, and the collective consciousness of residents; the need to consider the physical body and pleasure as a gateway to knowledge; a disconnect between nature and communities; the city as an ecosystem in its own right; the tension between density and human scale; the importance of education and community engagement; the challenge and necessity of including local residents in planning decisions; and the importance of reconsidering the relationship between so-called rural and urban communities.
A consistent thread throughout the dialogue was the disconnect between design and action, and how a distrust and/or lack of understanding of design leads to missed opportunities for improved projects, measurement systems, and policies. Additionally, challenges to collaborating across sectors to break down academic silos and administrative boundaries to push beyond a conversation around best practices were raised. To tackle the SDGs, it will be crucial to both learn from a global cohort, and to adapt to the local context to take action, educate, and engage.
Another topic of high interest was the need for increased speed and responsiveness. The gap between receiving resident input and responding to it perpetuates discontent and a lack of trust; high costs have led to an increasing risk aversion to move forward new initiatives quickly; policy frameworks and laws prohibit expedient action; and the trade-offs between speed and process are a challenge to action. Rising populations and the increasing number of people living in urban areas require that speed be of high consideration in planning, developing, and retrofitting cities and communities. Regulatory systems need to be designed for swift action, with design as an integrated and integral part of planning activities. Trust in institutions must be strengthened, and policymakers and global citizens should be trained to consider cities as more than urban hubs. People’s health and happiness depends on this. Cities are civic environments; they are neighborhoods that are linked not just by streets, but by relationships. Administrative processes must be streamlined and oriented accordingly.
Finally, attendees found common ground on the importance of effective communication, education, and community engagement. Attendees proposed to ask “how do you live?” instead of “what do you want designed?” If you aren’t asking people what they want in their neighborhood, you aren’t understanding what they need. Executed properly, this would ensure that community and client input is considered throughout a project’s lifecycle. Creativity was encouraged in approaching localization, including an out-of-the-box suggestion to invite a 6-year old to every meeting. There are numerous opportunities to innovate, for example through using social media tools, and to integrate spatial development into population growth planning.
How do design considerations link with SDG 11? Strategies on the built environment must go deeper into an area where the SDGs don’t venture – a dimension of the body and mind. A richer relationship between the goals, design, and the civic landscape can be developed as attendees from this dialogue further integrate these concepts into their work.
In the coming months, SDSN and the SDSN Sustainable Cities network will discuss the dialogue’s main findings and articulate their global city strategy. And we must all continue to ask: How do we take an urban hub and turn it into a civic environment, and shift our goals to rebuild the link between senses?