CEM 2021: Norliza Hashim shared her thoughts on how SDGs could help pandemic recovery

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly created the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aimed as a blueprint in achieving a better and more sustainable future for all. With the outbreak of the pandemic in late 2019, priorities in achieving SDGs have shifted.

City Expo Malaysia (CEM) 2021 Star Talk invited the Chief Executive of Urbanice Malaysia, TPr Norliza Hashim for a virtual session, where challenges and solutions for future cities were discussed. She shared her thoughts on how these goals help the recovery of Malaysian communities and cities, and how cities could use these goals as a guideline to recovery from the pandemic. Here, Construction+ zoomed in on a few key points.

Read: Town planning expo to be held in November 2021 to discuss challenges facing Malaysian cities today

The COVID-19 pandemic and SDGs

COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of imbalance and delayed plans, but SDGs is one thing that is particularly impacted. SDGs cover a lot of domains and they are very critical for sustainable growth and development. SDGs are also interconnected, which means completing one target will create an impact on another goal.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted many people globally and in particular those who are more vulnerable such as those below the poverty line or those with disabilities. Opinions and reports have mentioned that there are offsets in SDG target achievement. In Malaysia, the contraction of GDP that is -5.6 per cent, the increase of unemployment of about 4.8 per cent, and the job losses that amount to almost 1 million indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic that started as a health crisis seem to have become social and economic crisis as well. Those in M40 segment have moved to B40 segment; and about 10 per cent of the T20 are moving to the M40.

Norliza Hashim believes that SDG principles—building back better—need to be brought to the forefront in the recovery effort from the pandemic impacts. Some of the targets that have been set in the past could be revisited to move forward. It is true that the pandemic has set back agendas for a lot of stakeholders, but moving forward we could also see a lot of cities are trying to take the advantage of the principles and the targets of the SDGs to bounce back from the crises.

Malaysia has also been quite responsive, according to Hashim. Looking at the RMK-12 (Rancangan Malaysia ke-12), there are goals that concern not only on social inclusivity but also climate change. With Malaysia being urbanised country (70 per cent of the population live in the urban areas), we could expect a lot more to be done.

Rethinking urban development

Implementing SDGs before the pandemic has already been a challenge so whatever we have set prior the pandemic may even be more challenging to achieve. That said, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how important the linkage is between what we are experiencing during the pandemic and the SDGs. The interconnectedness has become more apparent and we can see how each goal can impact on health and wellbeing of people significantly.

Additionally, the pandemic has also shown the weaknesses in the ecosystem—what we have claimed that we have had, e.g., infrastructure, education system, health system, are now being tested. Work from home alone could be a challenge as we need infrastructure to support it not only include technology but also, say, childcare services and childcare centres. Therefore, we have to rethink whether or not we have the sufficient ecosystem to support us in facing disruptions and crises.

“In a way, we could turn the challenges into opportunities to rethink the way we build our cities. Singapore for example, is now rethinking about their CBD areas, where most workers or multinational companies are usually located. The work from home scheme has made these areas quieter so Singapore is rethinking their commercial space and how to make it more attractive where people can feel more comfortable and safer,” she concluded.

Read: Urban development through and beyond COVID-19

Malaysia Urban Forum 2021

Responding to a question about Malaysia Urban Forum (MUF) 2021, Hashim mentioned that in the discussions involving both business and grassroot assembly, people expressed how COVID-19 has impacted their life. She said, “Recovery is at the back of everyone’s mind and people show resiliency in navigating the pandemic, but to drive recovery we also need data to ensure that the action plans are evidence-based.”

“For planners, we need spatialised data to help us pinpoint exactly where we need to drive the recovery areas. Entrepreneurship was another topic raised in the discussions because people think that this is important in supporting recovery, especially among SMEs and those at the bottom of the pyramid. Upskilling and retraining are also important and we need an integrated centre to provide these capacity building along with different kinds of support that are available.”

In general, in MUF 2021, there are four areas being looked at. The first is inclusivity, which also means capacity building as mentioned before, and how we bring back the agendas to support growth and resilience, especially for communities that are most vulnerable. Secondly, community wellbeing and services need to be relooked at to address disparities, not only access to infrastructure like transportation and public spaces, but also business opportunities and the way to make digital transformation feasible for all.

Third ecological dimension must be strengthened because the relationship the health of the planet and the environment with the health of communities cannot be more emphasised. As such, collaboration and collaborative mechanism between local, subnational and local stakeholders and community groups from all across the board need to be fostered. Additionally, finance is also a crucial area to examine. Many local stakeholders may not actually have the fund to manage the situation on the ground because it is not their ‘real’ job to undertake, but they had to do it anyway. That’s why financing mechanism needs to be improved to support the recovery plan at all levels.

Territorial approach to SDGs

Commenting on the territorial approach to SDGs, Hashim believes that it is very important because SDGs should not be confined to any forms of administrative boundaries. She said “We should focus more on functional boundaries. Because if we talk about SDG 4 (life below water) or SDG 15 (life on land), these are things that by right should not be measured on administrative levels, but rather on a functional area.”

She further explained how we tend to be confined in state boundaries or district boundaries in the SDGs implementation. Meanwhile, if we look at some of the issues, some definitely go beyond any forms of administrative boundaries. Territorial planning will allow us to look at linkages better, such as the linkage of urban to suburban to rural areas. Knowing these linkages is important in ensuring just distribution and more equitable growth.

“We will also be able to analyse the situation and the problems better; for example, in SDG 8, if we talk about jobs and economic growth, especially in areas that are very dynamics like the Klang Valley area, we cannot really look at it from the administrative boundary point of view because KL has a day-population of almost 2 million, but a night-population of only 1.8 million, so on a daily basis KL supports and become an employment centre for an area beyond its administrative boundaries.”

She concluded, “Localisation is important in the implementation of SDGs. What we are expecting is that cities will start to localise the SDGs so we will be able see the different layers. This is because some issues can only be addressed in localised area, some are better to be addressed at the national level. We need different levels of analysis, especially if we are talking about SDG on climate action, SDG 13, we need to understand the different layers—local, regional, as well as national. In that way, with more territorial to the SDG, we will have a more collaborative effort in overcoming the issues so cities will not have to deal with the issues on their own and we will be able to harness other resources.”

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