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2014: The Year of Glocalization?

Jacob Scherr

Posted January 6, 2014

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Could 2014 be the year that global aspirations and local actions are united? 

That’s one of the hopes for the meetings this week at the United Nations in New York of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, a UN body deliberating on a universal set of goals to replace the expiring Millennium Development Goals in 2015.  This week’s meetings will focus on the local actions cities can take—and are already taking—to end extreme poverty, improve human well-being, and assure a livable planet.  Some of cities’ biggest challenges in the future will be on the agenda: improving transportation, dealing with mountains of waste, and preparing for climate-induced natural disasters like rising seas. 

Over the next few months, I will be blogging, with reporter Sarah Glazer, on the actions that cities are taking to become more sustainable.  We will be looking at how they are learning from one another and cooperating through various networks.  We will be examining how an urban Sustainable Development Goal could encourage and support efforts by cities to do even more.  We will focus in particular on some of the hardest-hit victims of environmental degradation—the poor – and the steps cities are taking in response.

One important alliance of cities is the Urban Sustainability Directors’ Network.  Founded just five years ago, the network’s members include sustainability directors and hundreds of associated staff from 120 cities in the United States and Canada.  These directors are starting to exchange ideas about addressing the historic divide between poor and middle-class neighborhoods, whether it’s planting more shade trees in low-income areas or locating mass transit near residents who can’t afford a car.

In a growing trend, cities are starting to treat environmental quality as something to be shared across all income groups and something that can improve the quality of life for their poorest residents, says Julia Parzen, managing director of the Network.

For example in aging industrial Newark, NJ, a way station for most of the region’s waste and incineration, children suffer disproportionately high asthma rates and compare unfavorably with their wealthier suburban neighbors on many other health indicators. “The environment affects people here by making them sick and separating them from economic opportunity,” says Stephanie Greenwood, Newark’s sustainability director. 

Based on a discussion started by Newark, Cincinnati, and other older industrial cities, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network created a group three years ago to share expertise on how cities can address inequity as part of environmental measures.

“We’re learning from cities that are further along in their work on equity,” says Greenwood, citing Portland and Seattle for developing sophisticated ways of measuring income inequality and using that to guide city policy. 

The challenge this week at the UN Open Working Group is how to recognize and incorporate such local initiatives into a potential global urban goal.  As my colleague John Romano recently blogged, the Open Working Group has spent most of its time until recently discussing goals for specific areas like poverty and energy, but last month took up the issue of how to achieve the sustainability goals. NRDC has been advocating for a “new architecture” which will encourage and hold accountable commitments to take action to meet these goals.  These involve commitments not only by national governments, but by the full range of actors at every level of society. We hope that 2014 will be the year when the UN recognizes the critical role cities will play in securing a sustainable future.



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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

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