Cities and the SDGs: An Interdependent Partnership
UN Photo/Kibae Park
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Given their role as incubators of innovation, in addition to their role in the delivery of basic services, further attention should be given to the role of cities in delivering the SDGs.

The SDGs provide an opportunity to help cities target their development priorities, including how they work with the private sector, civil society, and other stakeholders in their communities.

Two years ago, the United Nations adopted its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. At the heart of the 2030 Agenda was a commitment to pursue an ambitious set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Widespread efforts to achieve the SDGs are now underway, but there is much more to be done.

This past July, the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) convened for its 2017 annual session at UN Headquarters in New York. At the event, 43 countries submitted their voluntary national reviews (VNRs) outlining their progress on implementing the SDGs. While the reviews showed that many countries are taking the SDGs seriously, a synthesis report that fed into the 2017 HLPF underscored that national governments cannot achieve the SDGs alone.

The UN Economic and Social Council found that there is a clear need for enhanced “cooperation and inclusion to implement the SDGs with civil society, local authorities, indigenous peoples, local communities, academia and all other relevant actors.” This makes sense, given that the actual implementation of the SDGs will happen primarily at the local level. National programs and strategies can help to prioritize the SDGs, provide funding and other support, but the SDGs require local action.

Given their role as incubators of innovation, in addition to their role in the delivery of basic services, further attention should be given to the role of cities in delivering the SDGs. The tragic recent flooding in Houston, Mumbai, and elsewhere has highlighted the many ways in which cities are impacted by the issues addressed by the SDGs. The availability of clean water (SDG 6), the need for resilient infrastructure (SDG 9), and the urgency of combating climate change (SDG 13) are some prominent examples.

SDG 11 specifically focuses on the sustainability of cities and communities. Among other priorities, this SDG aims to eliminate slums and ensure adequate housing, provide access to safe and sustainable transportation, and reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities. SDG 11 will be a major part of the VNRs delivered to the HLPF in 2018, which will focus on the transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies. Over 40 countries, including Canada, have already committed to present their VNRs in this next round of reporting.

Cities need to play a more prominent role in achieving the SDGs. Fortunately, there are a number of initiatives to build on. For example, the Renewable Cities Initiative supports cities in their transition to 100% renewable energy and increased energy efficiency. As a second example, the 100 Resilient Cities initiative helps cities incorporate resiliency into their city planning, including their ability to address shocks such as floods.

The SDGs can provide a basis for strengthening and extending existing efforts, but clear indicators of progress are needed. To that end, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network recently published the U.S. Cities SDG Index, which focuses on achieving a sustainable urban America. The highest scores were for metropolitan areas in California. To help measure progress in Canadian cities, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) has created an online platform for 14 Canadian cities. The platform was supported by a briefing note outlining the development of its key indicators.

The SDGs provide a clear roadmap for long-term city planning. They provide a set of end goals for well-being and nature that provide cities with a long-term perspective on their future. Past efforts to envision long-term futures for cities have considered sustainability, but it is often a secondary consideration to other issues, such as buildings and technology.

The comprehensive vision provided for the 2030 Agenda helps underscore the need to consider issues that are often overlooked. Issues such as resilient infrastructure and climate change are rising to prominence in city planning, but cities also impact other SDGs, such as the elimination of poverty (SDG 1), hunger (SDG 2), and gender inequality (SDG 5). Cities are also critical to advancing decent work and economic growth (SDG 8).

The SDGs provide an opportunity to help cities target their development priorities, including how they work with the private sector, civil society, and other stakeholders in their communities. Cities can also provide the on-the-ground action that is essential to achieving the SDGs. We need to make the SDGs more central to city planning and cities more central to the achievement of the SDGs.

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