SDG Leadership Cities Network and Toolkit

July 2022

About the SDG Leadership Cities Network

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires investments and policies that affect specific places, and there is increasing realization that overall global progress will depend in significant measure upon local leadership and action. In recognition of this, Brookings launched the SDG Leadership Cities Network in 2019 to highlight and support the impressive work of vanguard cities around the world in local implementation of the U.N. 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The Network comprises 17 high-ambition cities and communities that are defining what it means to pursue the SDGs at the local level, including Accra, Bogota, Bristol, Buenos Aires, Durban, Hawai’i Green Growth, Helsinki, Los Angeles, Madrid, Malmo, Mannheim, Mexico City, Milan, New York City, Orlando, Pittsburgh, and Yokohama. On April 3-6, 2019, Brookings hosted the inaugural SDG Leadership Cities Network convening in Bellagio, Italy.

This initiative of the Brookings Institution is supported by grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Members of the SDG Leadership Cities Network

“This is a smaller network, allowing for more active, intense, and meaningful exchange among cities. Being able to speak freely about experiences and challenges has been extremely useful, including for our own thinking about our daily work.”

Mexico City

Objectives & methodology

The aim of the SDG Leadership Cities Network is to foster frank and honest exchange among cities and to surface tools for and approaches to sustainable development. To achieve this, Brookings holds regular network meetings with highly interactive sessions conducted in roundtable format. These are designed to promote direct city-to-city exchange and information-sharing. Sessions are held under the Chatham House Rule to encourage candid discussion among peers and enable collective problem-solving with earnest assessments of limits, challenges, and obstacles.

During these meetings, we consider city officials the experts and rely upon their experiences, innovations, and challenges to drive the content. We facilitate and build relationships that enable continued collaboration and engagement long after the meeting itself.

Agendas, summaries, participant lists

“[The meeting] takes on the holistic view on sustainability – not only governance, or not only financing – the agenda and themes go through multiple levels of how to transition and see long-term change, considering the complex weave of society and democracy.”


Tools to elevate and scale city innovation and progress on the SDGs

The goal of the SDG Leadership Cities Network is to elevate and scale city innovations on advancing local SDG implementation. As the level of government closest to its citizens, local governments are well-positioned to transform the ambition and loftiness of the SDGs into concrete realities that are meaningful to real people. Adapting the 2030 Agenda to cities’ local context, priorities, and capacity requires adaptation and innovation, and the SDG Leadership Cities Network members are at the forefront of creating new practices worldwide. From Malmo’s use of SDG-aligned budgeting to Bristol’s One City model, these cities are leading the way toward a sustainable future.

City playbook for advancing the SDGS

To disseminate these innovations, best practices, and tools to a wider range of communities and stakeholders, Brookings created the City playbook for advancing the SDGs. The playbook compiles a series of how-to briefs and case studies on advancing sustainable development and social progress locally written by city officials for city officials, including those in the SDG Leadership Cities Network.

The playbook is organized in four chapters:

“More than a network, this is a high-level community of practice that is very effective in knowledge- and experience-sharing, and in providing a global perspective to SDG localization.”


Driving a sustainable recovery from COVID-19

City leadership has become central not only to global sustainable development but to global sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Mayors and local leaders formed the front lines of the COVID-19 response and are driving global recovery, putting plans in place that align to the SDGs and elevate equity and sustainability, protecting and restoring both public health and economic security, and often stepping into a leadership void left by national governments.

Approaches to institutionalizing the SDGs locally

The long-term horizon of the SDGs poses a challenge to any elected government since their achievement depends on sustained efforts across multiple election cycles. As cities have sought to consolidate and institutionalize longer-term commitments to the SDGs, several common approaches have emerged. Cities are reinforcing policy objectives and normalizing aspirations through multilevel governance as well as codifying the SDG framework in local legislation and regular city decisionmaking processes. Cross-sector collaboration and citizen engagement create a multistakeholder dimension to the agenda, creating accountability that extends beyond an elected government. Cities have also leveraged the nonpartisan dimension of equity and sustainability goals to maintain them.

“Using the SDGs as a common framework was essential in improving engagement with the City Office both locally and nationally. It has meant that more partners in Bristol were interested in getting involved with the city office but also that national stakeholders have engaged with and connected to our work in Bristol.”


Measuring and reporting progress on the SDGs

Voluntary Local Reviews

City leadership on sustainable development is exhibited in the widening adoption of an innovation called the Voluntary Local Review (VLR). A VLR is a process in which local governments confirm their commitment to the SDGs and voluntarily assess their progress toward specific targets in the 2030 Agenda. Pioneered in 2018 by New York City, this review takes its inspiration from Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs), the process through which countries report on their sustainable development progress at the U.N. as part of the official follow-up and review process.

A VLR enables a city to present a holistic and coherent portrait of its social, economic, and environmental progress, offering a powerful storytelling tool that connects its local strategy to a global agenda. Given the SDGs’ focus on measurement toward specific outcomes, a VLR can also be a tool for strengthening evidence-based policymaking, using data as a means to identify gaps and mobilize new policy, partnerships, and resources. The common frame of reference for the SDGs enables learning and exchange with counterpart cities across the world.

The VLR movement has grown quickly. VLRs do not have official status as part of the formal member state SDG follow-up and review processes hosted by the U.N. There is no specific template or official format. Most cities undertake a VLR based on its intrinsic value. The flexibility of the format allows cities to base a VLR on its own capacities, contexts, and level of development and resources.

VLRs from Brookings SDG Leadership Cities 

Data dashboards

Comprehensive, quality, and accessible city-level data is essential to effective monitoring and reporting on the SDGs. Without it, cities cannot identify challenges or formulate evidence-based policies and programs to meet those challenges. The evidence required by a serious commitment to the SDGs has catalyzed data collection and transparency efforts in cities. The development of city-level data systems to report on the 17 SDGs has been proven to aid in breaking down governmental silos that inhibit progress and illuminated the importance of cross-sectoral collaboration.

Examples of innovative data platforms created by SDG Leadership Cities include:

  • Los Angeles was the first city in the world to report SDG data at the indicator level using an open-source platform. The city reports on 247 indicators across the 17 SDGs.
  • Hawaii’s Aloha+ Challenge Dashboard is an online open-data platform that tracks progress and ensures transparency and accountability on Hawaii’s sustainability efforts.
  • Durban adopted a multisectoral and multistakeholder approach to building a functional data ecosystem that is inclusive and collaborative. Development of Durban’s data ecosystem has allowed the city to develop a clear roadmap towards producing its first VLR.

“A data-centric approach to SDG prioritization and localization is crucial. As administrators of eThekwini, we now understand that mapping and managing progress on the SDGs is not possible without a robust data ecosystem.”