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  • Writer's pictureMark Reiner, PhD, PE

Unalienable Rights, SDGs, and Frameworks in Six Minutes


President Jefferson’s concept of “unalienable rights” (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) contained within the United States Declaration of Independence are those rights that cannot be surrendered, sold, or transferred. While these rights were ideally meant for all humans (despite Jefferson owning slaves), the reality of achieving them did not go much further than those granted to landed gentry in the Magna Carta (England, 1215 A.D.). In fact, Jefferson followed the unalienable rights with another line in the Declaration of Independence: "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed." When “…just Powers…” are in the hands of the few, the idealism of unalienable rights has yet to be achieved.

The history of the U.S. started with enfranchisement for only white men with property. Presidents Madison and Jackson helped advance the political rights of white men who did not own property. But total enfranchisement of white men did not occur until about 1860 – months before a civil war. The women’s Suffrage Movement took another 60 years before culminating on August 18, 1920, with the 19th amendment guarantees for all American women the right to vote. And enslaved black Americans and native Americans had a much more tortured path to enfranchisement. Civil rights being an entirely broader issue that is still part of current day legislation.

To discuss, define, and map the context, and effectiveness, of the current United Nation’s (UN’s) Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) and their applicability to sustainable places, we need consider the evolutionary path from unalienable rights, to defining human rights, to the creation of a finite list of distinct targets and indicators in SDGs.

Origin of Modern Development Indicators

Globally, over the past 80 years, defining human rights has been an evolving art since Abraham Maslow developed his cardinal work - "A Theory of Human Motivation" in 1943. Maslow described a hierarchy of needs, where the most basic of levels must be met prior to achieving higher levels of personal growth and esteem. The most basic being physiological needs, that are the physical requirements for human survival: air, water, food, sex, sleep, homeostasis, and sanitation. Shortly after this publication, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued the “4 Freedoms” near the end of World War II as a need to show basic benefits to humans following the devastation that resulted from the war. These included the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. Interestingly, although neither had any legal backing, the combination of intents of Maslow’s needs with Roosevelt’s freedoms (aka, wants) created the foundation for the recent UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the current SDGs.

However aspirational the intent of the 4 Freedoms, when the atrocities against human rights committed by Nazi Germany became apparent after the war, the consensus was that the newly formed United Nations must create a universal declaration that clearly specified the human rights of individuals. Spearheaded by Eleanor Roosevelt, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was a declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The Declaration represents the first global expression of what many people believe to be the rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled (a much broader scope than unalienable rights). The adoption of the UDHR is commemorated each year on 10 December and is known as International Human Rights Day. Even though the UDHR is not legally binding, it has been adopted in, or has influenced, most national constitutions that have been created since 1948.

When it became clear that even the UDHR had little to no effect on the world, as evidenced by McCarthyism, Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, and intolerable poverty…etc., the response was to move from human rights to legal rights – with the intent to provide enforcement under international law. The International Bill of Human Rights consists of the UDHR, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966). Of course, laws are only enforced in a nation when embodied in civil code. For example, referring to Maslow’s physiological need for water, is clean water a right in the United States? In the whole of U.S. law, only the California Water Code declares that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water.” [1] Two sentences later, however, the code undercuts its guarantee by clarifying that the government doesn’t have to actually provide the water. [2]

From Rights to Goals

The immediate predecessor of the SDGs was enacted at the United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000. This was the largest gathering of world leaders in history to adopt the UN Millennium Declaration and committing their nations to a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty with time-bound targets (a deadline of 2015) to address extreme poverty in its many dimensions of income poverty, hunger, disease, lack of adequate shelter, and exclusion-while promoting gender equality, education, and environmental sustainability. These basic human rights are now presented as goals – reflecting a move from idealism to reality. But by applying quantifiable indicators and metrics to each goal, the intent was to establish measurements towards progress, or regression, from initial baseline conditions over a set timeline from 2000 to 2015. And, while the MDGs represented an international effort to expand the definition of the human condition, there remained a close resemblance to Maslow’s physiological and esteem needs and that the goals – embodied human rights.

“They [The MDGs] also embody basic human rights — the rights of each person on the planet to health, education, shelter and security.”

– UN Secretary-General BAN Ki-moon [3]

The UN’s current 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development [4] (the Agenda) is “…grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international human rights treaties, the Millennium Declaration and the 2005 World Summit Outcome.” [5,6,7] The Agenda developed 17 SDGs that are quantified by169 targets and approximately 230 unique indicators that build on the MDGs to “…complete what they did not achieve.” The era of the SDGs began on January 1, 2016 and continue to 2030 over which time the progress of the 17 SDGs and provide methodologies for how data is converted to information that supports the knowledge as to progress made in each goal. The Agenda makes a point to state that this effort is far more outreaching and have a far more rigorous range of metrics and target indicators than the eight MDGs contained.

Standards and Frameworks

Finally, completing the link between Maslow and one of the new SDGs, consider that urban dwellers make-up most of the global population and will continue to increase by 2030. While Maslow’s needs and aspirations were taken from an individual’s perspective, consider SDG 11 to be a Maslowian community perspective. As the goal for SDG 11 is for all cities and human settlements be “…safe, resilient and sustainable”. But how do you move from a goal that embodies human rights into a goal for a city/community to obtain? Standards and frameworks.

One caution when moving from goals that report on progress from different baselines to reflect national/regional global differences (or from specific community baselines with the UN Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index and Human Development Index) to universal common standards is the loss of significant regional discrepancies. That is, the reporting of indicators to compare one nation with another, or from a national to provincial to community levels loses cultural nuances and context. This is the warning when international standards for measuring sustainable communities, e.g., ISO 37120 [8], cites that “… the requirements contained in this International Standard are applicable to any city… that undertakes to measure its performance in a comparable and verifiable manner, irrespective of size and location.” [8] Do you think there might be some cultural/social differences between New York City and Segou, Mali?

The relatively new World Bank Urban Sustainability Framework (USF), released in early 2018 [9], differs from a standard as a framework to facilitate the use of local information to “. . . enable cities to leverage financing to advance their sustainability and resilience agendas, and in particular to work toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11—making cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable”. One of the key recommendations in the USF is for rapidly urbanizing cities to promote an intelligent growth scenario that calls for the more efficient use of existing infrastructure.

The USF promotes direct linkages to the indicators in SDG 11. However, curiously, the USF does not prioritize the infrastructure linkages to SDG 9 that has the goal to: “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation”. [4] In fact, SDG 9 is not even mentioned in the USF, even though the connection between infrastructure and the economy of a city are cited throughout [10]: “Urban economic development is intricately linked to—and often a prerequisite for—service delivery, investments in infrastructure, and poverty reduction in cities.” That is, reliable and resilient infrastructure is foundational to a thriving city economy.

Next Steps and Part 2

Setting context and understanding baselines is a critical first step for defining progress – either at a personal level or from a city level. Albeit common sense, there is an overwhelming pressure to standardize and compare “apples-to-apples”. Individual infrastructure projects (horizontal with Envision, and vertical with LEED) and whole cities (LEED for Cities) can be boiled down to levels of achievement (e.g., Silver, Gold, Platinum) as if this were an Olympic contest. This quest to standardize misses the chance to distinguish the physical built environment from the social “character” of the city. While a city’s infrastructure dictates how we move, work, live, and convene. There are parallel individual behavioral choices whether we enjoy how the built environment facilitates our work, lives, and places to convene. Placing value on maintaining uniqueness, rather than standardizing, integrates the individual goals into the city’s overarching purpose. After all…

“There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

– Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Part 2 - Forthcoming


[1] obtained from: Law section (

[2] Article online – Is Water a Human Right? | NRDC

[5] [Resolution 217 A (III)]

[6] [Resolution 55/2]

[7] [Resolution 60/1]

[8] ISO 37120: Sustainable development of communities, Indicators for city services and quality of life. First edition 2014-05-15 ISO 37120

[10] Reiner, M., Pelton, R., & Fang, A. (2018). Integrating a City’s Existing Infrastructure Vulnerabilities and Carbon Footprint for Achieving City-Wide Sustainability and Resilience Goals. Urban Science, 2(3), 53. doi: 10.3390/urbansci2030053

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1 Comment

Shannon McElvaney
Shannon McElvaney
Oct 18, 2021

Great piece. Love the history lesson surrounding the growth of human needs to human rights to established goals and targets for things as basic as fresh water, still not available to many in the Southern United States, not to mention tribal nations. And you point out an important disconnect between people's understanding of the interdependencies of the SDGs, especially SDG 11 and SDG 9. Every city needs a good foundation on which to build if they hope to become a sustainable, thriving city, and that takes thoughtful planning and design. Lots of food for thought in this piece.

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