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Where is Walking in the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

Walking in Bogotá. Image (C): Florian Lorenz

by Bronwen Thornton

The world is taking a big step this year. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (planned for adoption in September) will set the new strategic framework for all UN member states to inform their political agendas and policy initiatives over the next 15 years. Countries will be expected to work towards achieving the SDGs.

The SDGs follow on from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs 2000-2015), (agreed by governments in 2000) while the MDG's focussed on poverty and disease alleviation, the SDGs expand the brief to include equitable development and environmental sustainability.

Walking in Manizales, Colombia. Image: Florian Lorenz.

'Adopting global goals helps individuals, organizations, and governments worldwide to agree on the direction – essentially, to focus on what really matters for our future.' Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and The Earth Institute at Columbia University, quoted from this article.

There are 17 goals, within which there will be targets and indicators to define and measure progress. Check out this great interactive from to see the full set of goals to look after our planet and people.

Walking in Hong Kong. Image: Bronwen Thornton, Walk21.

And it won't surprise you, that the next thing I say is that walking will be a critical ingredient for achieving a range of these goals - due to its multi-disciplinary, multi-dimensional contribution to our communities, delivering outcomes for public health, transport, social cohesion and environmental management while being a cost-effective intervention.

Walking will be crucial for and supported by the proposed SDGs as identified below:

Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

These targets in particular:

3.4 by 2030 reduce by one-third pre-mature mortality from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) through prevention and treatment, and promote mental health and wellbeing

3.6 by 2020 halve global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents. 

Goal 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation

These targets in particular:

9.1 develop quality, reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure, including regional and trans-border infrastructure, to support economic development and human wellbeing, with a focus on affordable and equitable access for all.

Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

These targets in particular:

11.2 by 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons

11.3 by 2030 enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacities for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries

11.6 by 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality, municipal and other waste management

11.7 by 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, particularly for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities

Walking in Sri Lanka. Image: Bronwen Thornton, Walk21.

Walking is how we live. It is the foundation mode of all human settlements, activities and enterprise. While it gets lost amongst the bigger, louder, smellier and more resource intensive transport systems, clever technology and medical interventions, it will and must be a key component of how we begin delivering on the SDGs. Particularly for developing countries it is the low cost, high impact, highly accessible, highly equitable mode that will underpin community development, public transport systems and public health efforts. And walkable communities will support greater access and equity for everyone, but particularly the more vulnerable in our communities, such as the elderly, children and those with a disability.

The big picture intent of the goals are to be celebrated, but as we know, it is in the detail that the real decisions are made and it is in the detail where walking is imperative but almost forgotten. Goal 11.2 rightly recognises the need for 'expanding public transport' but fails to identify the equal and essential contributions to be made by walking and cycling.

Placing the focus on large scale, costly (to the provider and user) public transport systems, forgets to also focus on local, low-cost mobility opportunities. To increase the profile of active travel modes, I would like to suggest, that at the very least, a few extra words in Goal 11.2 would bring walking, and cycling, the recognition they deserve, such as: 'notably by expanding infrastructure for public transport, walking and cycling'

Walking in Rabat, Marocco. Image by: Walk21/Bronwen Thornton

And just as for transport planning, if we do not imagine land use patterns and city planning (11.3) to be premised on local, low carbon movement, then we are not optimising the opportunity for walking and cycling and thus increasing opportunities for public health outcomes while reducing travel times, miles and impacts.

We need to put walking at the heart of approaches to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, especially those relating to planning and urban mobility, social cohesion, road safety and non-communicable diseases.

Over the next months the international community can still make this small refinement and to build indicators for walking into the detail of the final documents, 'to focus on what really matters for our future'. By doing so, we will all benefit from the valuable contribution walking can make to formulating and delivering successful Sustainable Development Goals.

See also:

children walking to school

Article author: Bronwen Thornton,  Walk21 director | Read the original article published on