The global community reached a milestone this year: seventy-five years ago, on 26 June 1945, the Charter of the United Nations Charter was opened for signatures, signaling a new era of worldwide collaboration. This era was hopeful, bringing governments and people together to emerge into a post-war future under the belief that by working in partnership, we are stronger, safer and more prosperous than when we act alone.
Seventy-five years later, we have a framework for action that gives structure and direction to nations, regions and cities alike that are striving to realize the vision for a better world. When parties to the UN adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, they acknowledged that sustainability is at the core of efforts to eliminate poverty, empower women and girls, safeguard nature, and build prosperous economies. The framework for achieving these ambitious aims, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), offered a blueprint, expressed across 17 goals encompassing 169 targets, for comprehensive action on sustainability. Altogether, the SDGs represent a breakthrough for holistic development in nations — and for the cities.
Cities Advance Local Sustainability Data
Local action on sustainability — and tracking data for progress — is not new. Going back at least to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit when mayors asserted their support for environmental initiatives, the important advocacy work by city networks like ICLEI and our partners has secured greater awareness of the role local governments play in sustainability. But concerted tracking of key sustainability metrics is a more recent development and one that continues to evolve in ways that are both exciting and confounding for cities.
While there are many systems for tracking sustainability metrics for many communities, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide the most comprehensive and integrated approach to tracking sustainability targets.
SDGs Stand Out
“The value of the SDGs for our community is that they allow for inclusion,” says Faye Leone, Conservation Advisory Committee member for City of Beacon, New York. “Issues important to everyone can be addressed. Using the sustainability inventory that we did [as part of ICLEI’s Sustainability Cohort training offered in the US], we discovered how important SDG 7 is on access to affordable and sustainable energy, and using the SDG framework has moved us to include protections for our river in our energy planning.”
The SDGs stand out among sustainability frameworks for their holistic approach and applicability to regions and cities, as well as nations — and the multilevel conversation they can therefore initiate. Cities adopting the SDG framework benefit from:
Multi-level action. In its intent to guide nations, the 2030 Agenda gives governments a set of standardized metrics that the global community has vetted as being relevant and broadly applicable. UN member states agree to track their progress toward the SDGs in Voluntary National Reviews, or VNRs, of the global goals. But parties recognize that sustainable development happens locally and that local governments, as closest to people, are critical partners to implementing sustainability on the ground. The SDGs provide a platform for local-to-national — and even local-to-global — collaboration. Hawai’i Green Growth and the State of Hawai’i offer a good example with their Aloha+ Challenge.
Cross-departmental collaboration. The SDGs are breaking down silos between city departments. Because the 17 goals are at once individually influenceable and cross-cutting — covering poverty, hunger, health and well-being, education, and gender equality alongside environmental and climate-oriented goals — they call on local governments to develop systems for collecting data and communicating results across departments, bringing a shared framework into focus. In fact, SDG 17, Partnerships for the Goals, embodies this all-of-city approach, while urging cities to consider their residents, community organizations and businesses as key partners
Peer-city sharing. ICLEI has advocated on behalf of cities and regions for three decades. The SDGs present a major milestone in this local-to-global conversation by making room for local voices at the global table. Local2030 is the platform for local governments to join the movement to implement the global goals. Meanwhile, the SDGs’ ability to standardize metrics make it easier for peer-city sharing using shared metrics.
One key way that a city can bring about all these benefits is by developing its Voluntary Local Review of the SDGs.
SDG Leadership is Local
When New York City, along with Japanese cities Toyama, Shimokawa and Kitakyushu, released the world’s first Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs) in 2018, they demonstrated the visionary leadership to connect cities to the 2030 Agenda.
VLRs are the local answer to the Voluntary National Reviews and localize the 17 SDGs and 169 targets to the city-scale. For example, New York City’s VLR, Global VIsion | Urban Action, aligns the City’s OneNYC vision to 10 of the SDGs (subsequent VLRs cover remaining SDGs). Over years of deep engagement with partners, residents and city departments, New York City has been able to show its OneNYC indicators contribute to the 2030 Agenda while pointing out where progress can be made. Similarly, Toyama has used its VLR to advance its “FutureCity” vision, with a focus on sustainable transport and universal health coverage. In these ways, VLRs are a tool to drive positive change.
Positive change inspires. Since NYC’s and its Japanese counterparts’ step, other global cities have developed VLRs: from Bristol and Buenos Aires to Taipei, Manheim and Oaxaca. In 2019, City of Los Angeles paired their VLR with an open-source data dashboard, free for any city to take up and use for their own SDG tracking.
ICLEI has partnered with the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) on a number of workshops, bringing training to cities on the VLR to the World Urban Forum and UN High-Level Political Forum. IGES VLR Lab compiles the VLRs as a reference for other cities.
Orlando and ICLEI Collaborate on the VLR Process
Innovation around local SDG implementation continues in the city “where dreams come true”. City of Orlando, Florida, is both the home of Disney World and a leader in sustainable development. When Mayor Buddy Dyer announced the Green Works Orlando plan in 2007, he vowed to move the city to become one of the most environmentally friendly and economically and socially vibrant in the world. Orland was ahead of its time when Green Works Orlando partially aligned with SDGs. This visionary step opened the door for Orlando to join the SDG Leadership Cities, a group of international communities convened by the Brookings Institution committed to taking bold steps forward on the global goals.
“As a Global city and the most visited destination in America the last few years, Orlando is well positioned to be a showcase for the future of cities and ways to advance urban sustainability,” said Chris Castro, Director of Sustainability & Resilience at the city of Orlando, FL. “That’s why we’re very excited to work with ICLEI USA team on our first Voluntary Local Review (VLR) to help us align the global goals to our local Green Works Orlando priorities, standardize and unify our data, evaluate our progress towards the SDGs, and identify new ways that we can have a more profound impact towards catalyzing a more equitable, healthy, and resilient future for all.”
Announced ahead of the UN High-Level Political Forum 2020 in July, the City of Orlando has partnered with ICLEI to complete a full SDG mapping in 2020 to bring Green Works Orlando’s contributions to the global agenda into focus.
Orlando’s Voluntary Local Review will cover priority SDGs 2, 3, 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, 15, and 17 and is unique in a number of ways: First, Orlando VLR builds on previous SDG work completed as part of Green Works Orlando, effectively “translating” the plan to the Local2030 framework. The VLR will be used to discover data gaps not previously captured as part of Green Works development, and will help institute new tracking systems in city departments.
Second, Orlando VLR will be the first developed by a medium-sized city in the United States. In this way, ICLEI and Orlando will pave a path forward for cities, towns and villages of all sizes to contribute to the Local2030 Agenda. It also benefits from its predecessors, allowing Orlando to bring the full learning from the SDG Leadership Cities.
Finally, the Orlando VLR is being developed explicitly as both an internal analysis tool and an external teaching tool — by partnering with ICLEI, the lessons learned will inform the efforts of a network of cities. The partnership was initiated with this intent from the outset and demonstrates Orlando’s commitment to act as a peer.
Orlando VLR is anticipated to be released in Summer / Fall 2020, serving as a milestone for earning opportunities for the ICLEI network coming in 2021.
SDG Cohort 2021
The best solutions found in cities must be scaled, and VLRs have been shown to be a useful tool for cities. To expand their uptake, ICLEI is planning a facilitated cohort training series in 2021, bringing together approximately 15 to 20 global cities to develop their VLRs in a group learning series.
This multi-month International Collaboration for the SDGs Cohort will feature web-based group trainings paired with one-on-one technical assistance delivered via ICLEI’s Regional Offices. VLR Mentor Cities, such as New York City and Orlando, along with partners IGES and others, will support the cohort to follow the full-cycle VLR framework: methods, assessment of enabling environments, community engagement for the SDGs, SDG selection indicators, and reporting methods including engagement with the global community. Cities can express interest here.
As the leading city network on sustainability, ICLEI is committed to helping our network of 1,750 cities, towns, and regions advance the SDGs. With more than 200 projects globally, addressing all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, we will scale the impact over the next decade of action. This means developing innovative training models, such as the cohorts, and collaborating with leaders, such as New York City and Orlando, to show cities, large and small, how to put the SDGs to work for them, including for pandemic recovery.
In the toughest of years, amid a global pandemic and when inequalities have been starkly highlighted, the local governments that are a part of the ICLEI network are holding fast the hopeful message envisioned 75 years ago — that by working in partnership, we are stronger, safer and more prosperous than when we act alone.