As the halfway point to 2030 nears, the importance of cities and local leaders to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has become clear. A global, city-led movement is going beyond the confines of SDG 11 to demonstrate leadership on all aspects of the SDGs, characterized by innovation, action, and progress on display, as local leaders adapt the framework to their own scale and context.
As mayors and city officials translate lofty aspirations of the goals into the practical aspects of governing, they are using the SDGs to assess gaps in services and outcomes, create new policy interventions, and integrate a sustainable development mindset into city operations and regular processes of decisionmaking.
This report builds on the experiences of the SDG Leadership Cities Network hosted by the Center for Sustainable Development at Brookings to take stock of the key role of city and local governments in driving local and global progress, and the effects of their SDG commitments on improving their operations, effectiveness, and impact.
Innovations by cities are tangibly demonstrating the interdependencies among the SDGs. The COVID-19 crisis and the urgency to build an equitable and sustainable recovery reinforced the need for advancing progress on multiple issues simultaneously. Analysis based on the SDGs has offered cities a vision for the form that a deliberate departure from “business as usual” may take, resulting in a transformation of public life.
At the center of this movement, city leadership is undergoing a mindset shift, going beyond reporting on targets and goals to building a shared local commitment that enables collaboration across sectors and jurisdictions. As a common language and set of shared ambitions, the SDGs can act as connective tissue that provide a basis for new forms of partnership and bring together various sources of leadership for joint action from the public and private sectors, involving a wide range of stakeholders important to the vibrancy of cities.
This report examines how vanguard cities are beginning to experience the “SDG effect,” and includes the following observations, lessons, and recommendations for local governments seeking to accelerate progress on sustainable development:
- The use of the SDGs helps cities set policy priorities, raising awareness of issues related to equity and sustainability and shifting policy focus to long-term and transformative change. By mapping existing strategies to the SDGs, cities can identify gaps in current priorities and make notable shifts in local policymaking. The SDGs put concreteness behind the larger visions to “build back better” and accelerate a “just transition.”
- Mayors and local decisionmakers are reflecting the interconnectedness of the SDGs in new governance models, creating alignment internally across city offices, modernizing city operations, and catalyzing collaboration externally across sectors with community stakeholders and regional partners. Government officials are integrating the SDGs into budgeting and procurement processes to ensure that their spending and investments advance their policy commitments, reinforcing the importance of solutions that address multiple issues at once.
- Cities are adapting SDG metrics to assess progress in transparent and accountable ways, especially through Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs) and data dashboards. The framework’s imperative to “leave no one behind” encourages cities to expand their analysis by disaggregating data across demographic and geographic characteristics. While much of the measurement to date has focused on process and operational changes, cities are increasingly initiating efforts to measure the effect of their SDG commitments on community-level outcomes.
- New forms of partnerships and collaboration across sectors are emerging based on the shared language of the SDGs. City leaders are finding that the SDGs enhance partnerships and coordination by facilitating the alignment of goals, metrics, and values across sectors and jurisdictions.
- Local progress on sustainable development benefits from public awareness, trust, and engagement. City governments are using the SDGs to deploy creative ways that increase residents’ participation in local policy setting.
- The 2030 time horizon of the SDGs contrasts with the shorter electoral cycles for mayors and elected officials. To maintain momentum and persistence of policy over time, cities are integrating sustainable development considerations—both formally and informally—into ongoing operations, political arrangements, policymaking processes, and collaborative partnerships.
- The ambitions of city leaders are constrained by financing, and new options are not emerging at the scale and speed necessary. With the growing commitment of businesses to advance social outcomes, city leaders are exploring new types of partnerships with the private sector, which requires informal as much as formal engagement. Local leaders are also increasing their collective advocacy at the regional and global levels to spur creation of financial tools and mechanisms that will enable them to access resources directly from the international financial system.
- The SDGs provide cities with a platform to align their local priorities with a global agenda. The goals have been helpful in facilitating increased recognition of the importance of multilevel governance, providing visibility for the important contributions cities are making to national and international priorities and progress.
- The SDGs have been important in strengthening city-to-city cooperation and regional collaboration, reinforcing their collective voice by facilitating networks, cooperation, and convening spaces where local actors are empowered. Cities are using the SDGs as a collective platform to influence the global policy discourse, showcasing practical innovations and successes and mobilizing global political momentum on sustainable development.
Important obstacles remain. The ambitions of the policy commitments being advanced by the SDG Leadership Cities Network often face constraints, including limited financing options and economic authority. Political cycles—and changes in government and levels of trust—can threaten sustained efforts. Continued progress will depend upon refining and strengthening models of multi-level governance that enable connections and alignment among local, regional, and national policies.
City leaders are looking to the future with optimism. With their experience and political legitimacy from the frontlines, they are building their collective voice to inform, influence, and co-design future global agreements and commitments. While they recognize the challenges in advancing a multi-disciplinary agenda within a politically fraught environment, they recognize the importance of their leadership in responding to their constituents’ concerns and clearly see the link between their local solutions and global progress. Already they are identifying gaps and future opportunities for a post-2030 agenda that will integrate and benefit from a city-specific perspective.