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Baltimore is using the SDGs to build a more just city

Baltimore is using the SDGs to build a more just city

This story originally appeared at Citiscope, a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. More at Citiscope.org.

In April 2015, this aging industrial city an hour north of Washington, D. C., suddenly rose to the top of national newscasts. A young black man named Freddie Gray had died after suffering injuries to his spine while in police custody for a minor offense, and the city had begun to boil.

For weeks, protesters took over neighborhoods and major thoroughfares, venting long-standing outrage over what they saw as an unfair and racially biased system of law enforcement and criminal justice — not just in Baltimore but in cities across the country. Baltimore officials eventually imposed a 20-day state of emergency. By the time it was lifted, years of animus had been laid publicly bare, and all Baltimoreans were left trying to figure out how to heal and move forward.

For many residents of this majority-black city, the death of Gray, 25, was deeply personal. Law enforcement said he had been picked up for possessing a knife deemed illegal under local law, although it remains unclear why officers sought to stop him in the first place. Either way, while riding in a police van, Gray somehow became injured so badly that he fell into a coma and subsequently died. Six officers were charged in the death, although none ultimately was convicted.

The death, which remains the subject of litigation, came just as national attention had turned to the subject of police shootings of black men, often by white officers. Controversially, the U.S. government does not keep track of shootings by police officers, but according to a media database, police killed 991 people in the United States in 2015. More than a quarter of those killed were African Americans, constituting more than double the black share of the U.S. population. Such statistics helped fuel the rise of a nationwide movement — Black Lives Matter — that is keeping access to justice for all in the U.S. public dialogue.

Now, academics and advocates in Baltimore seek to use the new global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), of which the United States is a signatory, as leverage to create stronger systems of accountability in the city. Over the past year and a half, an initiative called the USA Sustainable Cities Initiative — Baltimore has worked under the umbrella of the University of Baltimore, with guidance from a national U.N.-affiliated group. 

Recently, they released a set of recommendations that organizers hope will help address some of the simmering frustration that led to the Baltimore riots in the first place. In particular, supporters are looking to work with city administrators to bolster gaps in critical information on topics such as pre-trial detention, poverty and decent work that can inform city policymaking going forward. Data, they say, is the missing ingredient in Baltimore’s equitable development.

The city’s new mayor, Catherine Pugh, endorsed the initiative upon assuming office in December. "As we continue to engage community stakeholders and residents in collaborative problem solving," she said in a letter, "it is crucial to not only agree on common goals for our community but to also publically provide relevant data to measure our progress." 

The new recommendations don’t focus on the mere presence of data: They’re also looking for ways to regularly push data into the center of ongoing debates about urban development, to inform citizens, empower community groups and, ultimately, guide public policy and investments.

"There were so many processes going on in Baltimore after the unrest that our job wasn’t to convene but to look at what they were already doing and to use the SDGs framework to tie them together," said Seema D. Iyer, a researcher at the University of Baltimore’s business school and a key point person for the SCI-Baltimore project.

"If you truly want your work to mutually yield common results, you have to continuously communicate about what it is that you want. This process gave us that framework to continue to communicate with each other."

More data for (and from) citizens

The SDGs, which went into effect last year, commit 193 nations to a range of aims in hopes of giving government, business, philanthropy, academia and civil society common paths to channel their development energies and funding. The goals take a broad definition of "sustainability" to cover social and financial components, in addition to the more common environmental concerns. Among them is an unprecedented international goal around access to justice, a core component of Goal 16.

The framework’s focus on access to justice has garnered attention across the United States (PDF) and internationally. But it found particular resonance in Baltimore. The city has emerged as an early and a notable case study in the international effort to "localize" the SDGs — to make a high-minded global framework deeply relevant at the local level.  

The SDGs were adopted at the United Nations in September 2015, a few months after Gray’s death. It was around that time that a few local and national groups started to look at how the new goals could be implemented in Baltimore.

The city became one of three pilot projects in the USA Sustainable Cities Initiative, led by the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a technical group of experts. (The other SCI cities are San Jose, California [PDF], and New York City.) Community outreach in Baltimore was facilitated in part by a national group called Communities Without Boundaries International.

[See: Cities turn to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals]

A robust conversation around citizen-generated data already had been growing in Baltimore for years. And SCI-Baltimore was able to bring in a central player, the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (BNIA), housed at the University of Baltimore. For a decade and a half, the alliance has been producing reports and creating metrics by which citizens can keep track of various aspects of the city’s development on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis — around health, education, crime, culture and more.

But before the death of Freddie Gray, the BNIA never had tackled certain issues.

"Baltimore had just experienced civil unrest the likes we hadn’t seen in 40 years," said Iyer, who has overseen the BNIA since 2011. "And that shined a glaring light on the fact that our work didn’t have indicators around peace and justice."

SCI-Baltimore served as both a reason and a means to have a new, structured discussion around all that makes up sustainability in Baltimore, Iyer said.

"We’re always looking to figure out what better indicators might exist — that’s what we do all the time," she said. "This project helped us to think about other indicators that we might not have thought about before. But for the SDGs, [BNIA] wouldn’t have been able to have this discussion."

Since 2015, a series of working groups and community-engagement processes have debated the meaning of sustainable development in Baltimore and how the SDGs could assist in that vision. The result was the recent recommendations given to the mayor’s office in hopes of influencing city policymaking in the future.

While national governments agreed upon and adopted the SDGs, cities have been quick to take notice. There are several reasons why.

First, it is widely acknowledged that much of the success or failure of the SDGs will take place in cities — all 17 of the goals, in one way or another, touch the work of local authorities.

Second, mayors are coming to see the SDGs as a way to deliver on their own pledges, with the possibility of accessing national or international funding from governments, foundations and multilateral institutions linked to the goals.

And third, the SDGs offer a point of leverage and legitimization for citizens seeking to affect local policy and priorities. This is clearly the thrust of the Baltimore project.

56 tracking indicators

So where did the project end up? One key element was simply to track what Baltimore is already doing and to offer tweaks.

For instance, the city’s first sustainability plan was introduced in 2009 but had not been updated since then (an update is underway). Likewise, a community-led initiative called Baltimore 2030 already had been put in place to respond to anger following Freddie Gray’s death. Efforts are taking place to harmonize those plans with the aims of the SDGs.

The core of the project was debate and eventually agreement among the community groups, academics and other members of the initiative on locally relevant measures — or indicators — to track progress toward the broad aims of the 17 SDGs. There also was a public engagement component. In July, at an annual event known as Baltimore Data Day, citizens, activists and local officials voted on a draft slate of indicators. They posted sticky notes and wrote messages on posters detailing each SDG; their feedback is an important component of the new report.

The initiative ultimately came up with 56 specific indicators by which to track the city’s actions toward achieving various aspects of the SDGs. It’s a customized version of a broader set of global indicators that the U.N. Statistical Commission is still pulling together.

SCI-Baltimore, for instance, is recommending a new local indicator for Goal 1, which pledges governments to "end poverty in all its forms everywhere." Poverty is a major concern in Baltimore, where almost a quarter of residents and more than a third of children fall below the official poverty line.

While the SDGs do offer a range of targets and related indicators for tracking progress on Goal 1, the Baltimore project is suggesting an elegant addition: that the city begin to monitor the percentage of Baltimore residents earning a "living wage," one that is "high enough to maintain a normal standard of living." (The group puts that figure at $12.33 an hour for 2016.)

Another local indicator is being put forward for Goal 3, on health. This would mandate that city officials go beyond tracking life expectancy by neighborhood to disaggregate this information by race.

The group also looked at Goal 11, which specifically seeks to create sustainable cities. Here the initiative is suggesting that Baltimoreans would benefit from indicators on air quality, vacant buildings, housing and transportation costs (as a percentage of income), length of commutes and availability of affordable housing.

Goal 16

The Baltimore project has particularly prioritized coming up with locally relevant indicators for SDG 16, the goal related to justice. Not only does this goal pledge governments to "promote peaceful and inclusive societies" that "provide access to justice for all," it also provides a series of specific targets such as reducing violence and related deaths, promoting rule of law and ensuring "equal access to justice for all."

For this goal, the project is recommending three indicators:

  • State and local public funding for legal aid, aimed at discerning the availability of affordable legal representation;
  • Length of time that defendants are forced to spend in jail before trial for misdemeanor offenses; and
  • Ratio of civil legal-aid attorneys in Baltimore to poor people.

Supporters say these indicators go to the heart of some of the ongoing frustrations in Baltimore. Data for each of them either does not exist is or not made publicly available, so there is work to do on collecting and releasing the information. 

"Pre-trial detention time, for instance, was a very raw issue in the wake of Freddie Gray," said Reena K. Shah, executive director of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission, a group that headed work on these three indicators. "So we really wanted to track the amount of time people are incarcerated."

The courts system in the United States is a surprisingly data-poor environment, Shah said, even though justice issues are interlinked with so many other policy areas.

"Think about things that are monitored and tracked," Shah said. "You can know health disparities by ethnicity, gender, age. You can really break down very meticulously different aspects of health, education … and you can have very targeted interventions."

"That has not happened with access to justice," she noted, even though "access to justice and what it does undergirds this whole system."

Shah cited the example of people with mental-health problems who can be evicted from their housing without due process or representation in court. "They’ll be out in the street, and the state will be charged with figuring out how to help when the legal issues aren’t taken care of," she said. "Why do these things keep recurring? Because these are legal problems and you don’t have legal solutions."

[See: The challenges of measuring cities’ progress on the Sustainable Development Goals]

The Goal 16 indicators put forward in Baltimore are seen as significant beyond the city’s confines. "The civil justice indicators selected by Baltimore are smart in a bunch of ways," said David Udell, executive director of the National Center for Access to Justice, housed at Fordham University in New York. "They are clear and understandable, they can be implemented easily, they track an essential societal function, and over time they will help Baltimore to make better judgments about how to keep people in their homes, hold families together and promote prosperity in the city."

Udell was part of a group that pushed for inclusion of Goal 16 in the SDGs in the first place. It initially was met with skepticism. "It’s not clear why, but part of the thinking may have been that justice is too intangible, and not amenable to counting," he said. "Today, we know otherwise — we are living through the data revolution."

Udell notes that some of the most important information around access to justice is simply learning whether certain policies are present or absent. "That’s not hard," he said, noting that this also is a focus of the Justice Index that his office has been creating for the United States.

The Baltimore process, he said, also has shown that cities can take advantage of an opportunity built into the SDGs framework to innovate around what is locally relevant. For example, Baltimore’s proposed indicators look beyond the criminal justice system, where the global discussion has been on Goal 16. Baltimore is also looking at the civil justice system.

"The SDG framework gives individual countries the opportunity to select their own indicators, but the default for many will be what the global indicators say," said Udell. "It’s exciting to see this ingenuity and wisdom in Baltimore."

'Permeating the city's work'

Now that the initial phase of the Baltimore project is finished, what’s up next? And how can a series of data recommendations create real impact on people’s lives?

With the new indicators in hand, SCI-Baltimore’s organizers want the city to work backward: to come up with locally relevant targets for each indicator. Supporters hope the new Pugh administration will work to start a process of updating city targets twice a decade — and to bear the new recommendations in mind when doing so. City representatives did take part in the project’s steering committee and various working groups, but it’s not yet clear exactly how the city will respond. (City officials were unable to offer comment for this story.)

Nonetheless, the new mayor publicly has supported the recommendations, and there is now a tacit expectation that her administration formally will consider the recommendations and determine how they can be worked into regular city planning.

BNIA’s Iyer said that the initiative’s members are particularly keen to connect work on the update to the city’s sustainability plan with relevant aspects of the SDGs framework. She said that the update will reference the SDGs and Baltimore’s indicators, and that she has confirmation that another budgeting process aimed at growing the local economy likewise will take the recommendations into consideration. In this way, the work of the past year and a half will help to inform processes that already were in place.

"The SDGs are permeating the city’s work — not just inside the government but outside," she said. "That kind of ‘diffusion’ takes time but is probably more sustainable in and of itself, since it happens more organically."

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