The Cities We Want

Putting People at the Center of Sustainable Development with Real World Thinking

An artist’s depiction of an Oklahoma City streetscape
after the completion of Project 180.

As the OKC Metro Area Grows into a “World City,”

We Look at the UN’s Proposed Goal for Cities in 2030


by Bill Bryant

Communications Director
Oklahoma City Chapter
United Nations Association of the USA

During this weekend’s Community Consultation on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (as proposed by the UN’s Open Working Group), I moderated a discussion of Goal 11:

“Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.”

Our discussion started by considering our experience in Central Oklahoma. We know a lot about building cities that are resilient. One of the best attributes of Oklahomans is our ability to bounce back from natural disasters — we have so many of them.

Now home to over half the world’s
population, productive, inclusive,
safe, and resilient cities will lead
the way to sustainable development.”

Professor Cynthia Rosenzweig, 
Senior Research Scientist at the

NASA Goddard Institute for Space
Studies. She served as the Co-
Chair of the SDSN Thematic Group
on Sustainable Cities.

In Oklahoma City, Norman, Edmond, Yukon, and beyond, we’re hard at work building an urban environment that provides shelter from storms, floods, drought, etc. We’re also building cities that are inclusive, safe, and sustainable.

First of all, I should say that the people in our small discussion group agreed, unanimously, that it makes sense for the UN to have a goal related to sustainable cities. More and more people are living in urban areas. Improving the quality of life in these urban areas is a common concern of a majority of the world’s people.

(According to the World Health Organization, “The urban population in 2014 accounted for 54% of the total global population, up from 34% in 1960, and continues to grow.”)

We began by thinking about our own urban landscape in Central Oklahoma.

With regard to inclusiveness, we recognize that the OKC metro area is enjoying more diversity in its population, as more and more people choose to move here from elsewhere in the United States as well as from other nations. We are growing into a world city, with a diversity of cultures, languages, religions, etc., represented in our numbers. We view the growing diversity of our state and metro area as a good thing. New populations add to the knowledge, strength, and vitality of our communities.

We view the growing diversity of our state
and metro area as a good thing.

Yet, we also see that there is, at times, an unfortunate degree of resistance to the growth of our city.

We have witnessed this resistance as it is expressed in the hateful comments of a few reactionary politicians. Sometimes, the friction expresses itself in vandalism or in acts of unlawful discrimination.

To sustain the peaceful growth of our metro area, we support our elected officials who work to protect the civil rights of all of our neighbors. Likewise, we support the efforts of those who work to create appreciation for the cultural diversity of our communities. For example, we applaud the advocates of inter-faith dialog who are acting to build solidarity among people of good will. We believe our chapter of the United Nations Association can contribute to the growth of a culture of peace within our metro area.

With regard to safety, we are fortunate to live in an era when crime rates in the United States are generally falling. We’re glad to note that violent crime rates in Oklahoma were lower in 2012 than they were in 1967. We appreciate the good, smart work of law enforcement professionals in our state.

We appreciate the good work of law
enforcement professionals in our state

At the same time, we are alarmed by the persistently high levels of domestic violence and child abuse in our state. We’re ashamed to know that, according to Sheriff John Whetsel, the Oklahoma County jail is the largest mental health facility in the state.

We believe Oklahoma policy makers and administrators need to do a better job of identifying and addressing the root causes of violence in our metro area.

“Sustainability” is a huge concern for an expanding metro area like Oklahoma City. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development defined “Sustainable Development” as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 

There are many dimensions of sustainable development, and our small group considered what some of these might be for the OKC metro. We identified:

  • Safe, affordable housing;
  • Reliable transportation to support commerce and other human needs; and
  • Convenient access to food markets, including sources of fresh, locally-grown produce.

The Oklahoma City metro area generally has a good supply of dwelling units (houses and apartments). Even so, access to this supply of housing is limited by Oklahoma’s median family income, which is significantly below the national norm. We know that low-wage workers, in particular, struggle to afford a decent house or apartment.

Affordable housing is a major concern in cities across
the United States — not just in Oklahoma.

With regard to income and housing, we noted that several cities and states have adopted local minimum wage laws that serve to support their local needs. In the 2014 mid-term elections, for example, voters in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota chose to increase their states’ minimum wages. San Francisco opted to start paying workers $15 per hour, following the lead of voters in Santa Fe, Oakland, Seattle, and other urban areas.

In a counter move, though, the Oklahoma Legislature imposed a new law on municipalities in our state, barring them from enacting their own city-level minimum wage rates. The participants in my small group expressed frustration with this state action. We believe that cities and towns should enjoy a greater degree of freedom to enact local minimum wage laws — in order to support the economic vitality and sustainability of their local economies.

Light rail transit in Denver.

In terms of reliable transportation, the OKC metro area lags behind other modern cities (Dallas, Denver, etc.) in our development of public transportation. The members of my small group were quick to express their support for a more robust public transit system. We also support the creation of “walkable” communities with a mix of commercial and other community resources located in close proximity to residential areas.

With respect to food markets, our small group expressed general support for local entrepreneurship. We value the economic contributions of local businesses. We would like to see continuing efforts to promote “Shop Local” campaigns. We believe that greater access to affordable, fresh produce will help to improve the overall health of our community.

After our review of local issues related to sustainable development, we took a look at the proposal from the UN’s Open Working Group (OWG) on the 2016 – 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

We found a lot of common ground and like-minded thinking.

The Devon Tower is the largest building
in Oklahoma to earn a gold certificate
for Leadership in Energy and
Environmental Design. LEED
certification means the building
was built with an eye toward
sustainable site development,
water savings, energy efficiency,
materials selection and indoor
environmental quality.

For example, our local goal of building a more resilient urban landscape is reflected in the OWG’s Goal Number 11.5: “By 2030, significantly reduce the number of deaths… caused by disasters….”

Our concern about Oklahoma’s meager family income level is mirrored in the OWG’s Goal 11.1: “By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing….”

Goal Number 11.2 of the Open Working Group is focused on building “safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems” — which is a need for Oklahoma City just as much as it is for every other city in the world.

Looking over the OWG’s recommendations, we agreed that — by and large — the goals described in the proposal are based on real world thinking. They reflect a common sense approach.

From a personal perspective, I appreciate that the proposal of the Open Working Group is built upon an understanding that, “People are at the center of sustainable development.” The OWG proposal was constructed with input from lots of different stakeholder groups, and it includes a promise “to strive for a world that is just, equitable and inclusive.”

It is clear that the proposal is designed to benefit everyone — men and women, young and old, rich and poor — without regard to race, religion, ethnicity, etc.

It isn’t a set of goals designed by and for the global elites. It isn’t only for people of the developing
nations. It is for ALL of US.

Here are some excerpts from the OWG proposal that I really like:

“The Open Working Group underscored that the global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible cooperation by all countries and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, with a view to accelerating the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions.”

September, 2014 — Mayors from 10 major cities
attended a meeting to discuss the proposed UN
goal on sustainable cities and human settlements.

“In the outcome document, it was recognized that each country faces specific challenges to achieve
sustainable development.”

“Each country has primary responsibility for its own economic and social development and the role of national policies, domestic resources and development strategies cannot be overemphasized.”
“In the outcome document, it was reaffirmed that there are different approaches, visions, models and tools available to each country, in accordance with its national circumstances and priorities, to achieve sustainable development….”
“In the outcome document, it was reaffirmed that, in accordance with the Charter, this shall not be construed as authorizing or encouraging any action against the… political independence of any State.”
“The sustainable development goals… constitute an integrated, indivisible set of global priorities…. Targets are defined as aspirational global targets, with each Government setting its own national targets guided by the global level of ambition, but taking into account national circumstances.”
“The goals and targets integrate economic, social and environmental aspects and recognize their
inter-linkages in achieving sustainable development in all its dimensions.”

As the cities of America deal with the challenges of the 21st century, it makes sense to compare our progress to the efforts that are being made by similar cities in other parts of the world.

For the OKC metro area, in particular, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals will serve as a roadmap and a benchmark for measuring our future success.


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