“We have to take our citizens with us.” Cities talk SDGs and citizen engagement

SDG 11 is the central lever to attain all of the 17 goals outlined in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Cities are a connection point for a multiplicity of development challenges, and through integrated solutions, create opportunities for hitting on the many facets of the global sustainability agenda, from climate action to reduced inequalities. Naturally, this means cities have an opportunity and a responsibility to take these goals and bring them down to the local level.

At the ICLEI World Congress 2018, mayors and city experts shared exactly how they implement the SDGs locally. Their discussion held one key component in common: They each stressed the criticality of citizen involvement in effectively localizing and implementing the SDGs.

“We have to take our citizens with us,” said Mayor Ashok Sridharan of Bonn. He emphasized that in order to meet the SDGs, citizens and local leaders “must think together and act together.”

These cities take citizen engagement seriously. They involve their citizens in municipal decision making and turn that engagement into concrete results. Mayor Dario Nadella of Florence described how the city holds listening marathons, open events where citizens can come and participate in discussion with the mayor and deputy mayor. Ghent promoted the SDGs as an ambassador city and engaged citizens across Belgium by creating city to city challenges, calling for citizens of the competing cities to abstain from eating meat for 40-day, or to cycle rather than use motorized alternatives.

“The inclusion of diverse voices produces innovation where you might not have expected it,” said Aziza Akhmouch, Head of the Cities, Urban Policies and Sustainable Development at the OECD in session with the mayors. She stressed the role it plays in breaking down what she sees as a siloed approach to achieving the SDGs. “If you pursue the SDGs in silos you will have detrimental effects,” she warned.

The Mayor of Bonn fully supports this. “None of the 17 goals is a standalone one,” he said. The discussion included examples like SDG 14, which promotes responsible use of marine resources. Although SDG 14 is strictly concerned with the marine environment, 80 percent of marine pollution comes from terrestrial – and often urban – waste. This relationship links it inseparably to SDG 12, which promotes “sustainable consumption and production patterns.” This is a critical issue that requires citizens to recognize and act on fundamental lifestyle and behavioral changes.

The SDGs are an enabling framework to create the change needed in urban areas. They are a guide for cities to apply and shape to their specific context. But in order for changes to take root and become a lasting part of urban life, citizens need to take ownership of these internationally crafted and nationally adopted goals to make them locally applicable.

This blog is based on the session “How cities deliver on the SDGs: A snapshot on the current situations in cities across the globe” at the ICLEI World Congress 2018 in Montréal.