Cities turn to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals

Late September is always a busy time at the United Nations, but last year’s General Assembly session was especially historic. That’s when all 193 nations represented at the U. N. formally agreed to an ambitious set of 17 “Sustainable Development Goals” — a framework to coordinate global efforts for ending poverty and hunger, combating inequality and disease, slowing climate change and building peace. Pope Francis, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai and the pop singer Shakira all took the stage in support.

Many of the world’s mayors were there, too. They came to emphasize the vital role cities have to play in the global effort. Indeed, one of the new Sustainable Development Goals — or SDGs as they are widely known — is specifically focused on urbanization. It demands governments to build cities that are “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” All of the 16 other SDGs also touch the work of local authorities in one way or another. Goals such as ensuring clean water and sanitation, an equitable education, and good health for all can’t be achieved without local-level leadership.

So, on the sidelines of the event at the United Nations, dozens of mayors and other local leaders committed to the cause. They signed a pledge saying they would “play a defining role in embracing, endorsing, implementing, and monitoring these goals.” The commitments also included a list of actions around ensuring “the achievement of the SDGs in our cities and territories by 2030.”

[See: Here’s the list of SDG targets that have a role for cities]

Ten months later, we are approaching the first major milestone of a story that will go on for the next 15 years. This week at the U. N. is the first in a series of annual meetings that will take stock of global progress toward meeting the new goals. These meetings are meant to celebrate successes and expose failings, in hopes of keeping national and subnational governments, development banks, foundations, civil society and other development actors rowing their boats in the same direction.

So now is a good time to ask: What does this mean for local authorities? How are they supposed to translate all this high-level global policy into action on the ground?

Debates linger

These remain complicated questions to answer, for several reasons. First and foremost, the SDGs were agreed to by national governments, and it remains the prerogative of national ministries to decide how exactly to implement them. Ultimately, the specific mix of national versus subnational action will vary by country, a reflection of complex political and social histories and trajectories.

Second, debate is still raging over how exactly to measure progress. Beneath each of the 17 goals is a set of detailed targets — 169 of them in all. And each target has its own set of metrics that nations are to report data on. While much of this data could be collected at the city level, there is no agreement yet on whether to do so. There’s not even agreement on whether local authorities should be involved in gathering this information at all.

[See: Are we ready to implement the SDGs?]

Third, global talks on how to “localize” action on the SDGs also have yet to reach a conclusion. This is primarily taking place in negotiations leading up to Habitat III, the U. N.’s once-every-20-years conference on cities, to take place this October. Habitat III will produce a new global urbanization strategy — the “New Urban Agenda.” That agenda is widely seen as an attempt to define a new role and more robust responsibilities for city officials in implementing a variety of international policies, most notably the SDGs.

‘Just get started’

None of this means that cities are sitting still, waiting for these various debates to conclude before taking action. There’s a lot that cities can do — and are already doing.

In fact, one way to look at the SDGs is to say that there’s really not anything new cities must do at all, at least at the outset. Rather, the SDGs provide a reason to bolster activities they’re already working on.

Copenhagen, for instance, already has a strong history of setting far-reaching goals for itself around health, clean energy, transportation and other issues. So for the Danish capital, the SDGs are about reinforcing its own priorities.

“They’re all strengthening what we’re doing,” says Morten Kabell, Copenhagen’s mayor for technical and environmental affairs. “The goals that we as a city are pursuing are very much in line with the 17 SDGs. So for me, they are an incentive to go even further than what we would have been doing otherwise.”

Kabel says there’s no need to wait for details to emerge on how to measure progress. “Just get started,” he says. “Do whatever you have to do to become more sustainable — your citizens will never regret it.”

[See: Why Copenhagen is building parks that can turn into ponds]

In Johannesburg, there’s hope that the cities focus of the SDGs could help harmonize conflicting national and local development policies.

“The lack of systematic urban planning continues to urbanize poverty — with the poor located on the periphery of our cities and towns where basic services such as adequate shelter, water, sanitation, transport and energy remain limited,” says Johannesburg Mayor Mpho Parks Tau.

“One of the biggest challenges, however, in local government is the slow pace that urban development is finding resonance with national policies,” he says. “A high number of African countries do not have national urban policies that would provide a holistic approach to rapid urbanization.”

Syncing up strategy

Josep Roig, secretary general of United Cities and Local Governments, says “localizing” the SDGs is actually quite simple. His network recently published a primer on what local governments need to know about the SDGs as well as a “roadmap” on local-level implementation and monitoring of the goals. Speaking to a recent gathering of European city and regional leaders in Cyprus, Roig suggested mayors begin by looking at their own strategic plans — and then explore where those plans and the 17 SDGs intersect with each other.

“Start with your own strategic ideas, your own vision as mayors, your own strategy at the local level,” Roig said. “Then read the other agendas, put them on the same page and try to figure out how the things mix together. After reading those agendas, you’ll be able to improve your own local vision and your own local strategy.”

[See: Local linchpins: Mayors commit to the SDGs]

That’s basically what New York City has done. Last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio released an ambitious new sustainability and equity plan called OneNYC. City officials say this plan was designed with the SDGs specifically in mind.

Like the global goals, OneNYC focuses particularly on anti-poverty efforts (lifting 800,000 people out of poverty within a decade) and sustainability (reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent by mid-century). A document lining up OneNYC’s visions with the SDGs is available here.

“The SDGs shape the work we do from a broad-based perspective and how we seek to adapt these goals locally through OneNYC,” says Amy Spitalnick, a communications adviser to Mayor de Blasio. “In fact, OneNYC was specifically aligned with the goals of the SDGs and, concurrently, is helping influence SDG implementation.”

Spitalnick says the SDGs will provide an important vehicle for city-to-city learning. For example, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, New York has prioritized building flood defenses that also address local needs around open space, health and ecosystems. The city’s plans borrow heavily from cities such as Amsterdam that have successfully coexisted with water for centuries.

“In terms of the tangible day-to-day work, we look to cities that are part of this broader process of implementing the SDGs,” she says. “We have learned from the cities that do this well, and we take those best practices and adapt them to our specific needs — and do the same for other cities in sharing our own successes.”

National baseline

As this week’s meetings kick off at the U. N., one of the questions will be how member states will account for local actions like these.

The SDGs will be monitored annually through a U. N. mechanism called the High Level Political Forum, which will meet each July. Because the SDGs only just came into existence, mandatory reporting will not begin until 2017. Nonetheless, 22 countries have stepped up to voluntarily report on their early actions around implementation.

[See: Cities respond: Testing the urban SDG indicators]

The initial reports submitted by these 22 countries indicate that some national governments are thinking seriously about how to involve their cities in responding to the sprawling mandates of the SDGs.

Colombia, for instance, reports that it began preparations for implementing the goals a year before their adoption, putting in place the mechanisms, national and local policies, and capacities the government felt would be necessary. It also notes a local focus in these efforts.

[See: SDGs review offers potential preview of how to track New Urban Agenda]

“Colombia believes that truly transformational action must happen at home, locally,” the national report states in Spanish. “For that reason it has focused its efforts on incorporating the SDGs in the planning structure at a subnational level.

“In the last six months,” the report continues, “work has been done with municipal and departmental governments to increase awareness of the SDGs and make them a tool to provide constant direction and guidance for the development process and to ensure effective access to goods and services at all levels. By doing this, budget policy and/or regulatory actions in line with the SDGs have been included in the development plans of recently elected local authorities.”

[See: Cities poised to play a bigger role in SDGs review]

Mexico, too, notes that local authorities will be a key part of its implementation plans. The SDGs “represent an effort that must be made at all levels, taking into account the different facets of sustainable development and encompassing the state and municipal levels,” Mexico’s report states, also in Spanish. “The idea is to get all of the country’s authorities involved in this process, including the new administrations that will soon take office, so they will adopt an SDGs perspective in their working plans from the start.”

Negotiations continue

Still, controversy remains around this annual review process. While rules for its operation are still under discussion, critics warn that there is no formal plan to include local authorities in the review process, nor even to solicit their contributions.

When draft guidelines on how the High Level Political Forum would take place were released in June, they included little formal role for cities. A prominent global network of local and regional governments called the guidelines “a great disappointment.”

[See: The SDGs don’t adequately spell out cities’ role in implementation]

For his part, Roig says it’s important that local and regional governments engage on these questions at both the national and international levels. “The indicators that the national governments come up with are not very interesting to local governments,” he said in Cyprus. “They’re not helpful. So we have to focus on influencing this.”

At the same time, local authorities are wary of getting stuck with too much paperwork, or being forced to report data they don’t have the internal capacity to measure.

“That’s what everyone wants to know: Cities have limited resources, so how do you do this?” says Sandra Ruckstuhl, a program manager at the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a technical group appointed by the U. N. secretary-general. “They may agree in principle, but how do they do that in an efficient way? This is the common question.”

[See: Pope Francis, mayors pledge action on climate change and the urban SDG]

Ruckstuhl is overseeing a project called the USA Sustainable Cities Initiative, a project that is helping to pilot SDGs implementation in several U. S. cities. The group also is working with cities in India and Brazil, and is planning to release a handbook on city-level implementation of the new goals this month.

She says that although the pilot project was able to operate in only a handful of cities, her program has received calls from local authorities across the globe, including in New Zealand, Australia, Greece, Norway, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

“People are really interested because they want to know how to get practical on these issues,” Ruckstuhl says. “It’s all genuinely locally driven, but always for different reasons because cities have different reasons for pursuing sustainability goals. Perhaps most important, the goals offer a rubric for evaluation — people want data solutions, so that’s a selling point.”

Carey L. Biron is news editor for Citiscope, where he oversees coverage of the global debate leading to the U. N.’s Habitat III conference on cities in October 2016. 

Citiscope is a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. More at Citiscope. org

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