The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the vulnerability of even the most thriving cities. Inequalities within cities have had catastrophic effects, and the economic fallout is affecting people and industries at a scale not seen since the Great Depression. In the U.S., protests against police brutality and a recognition that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people of color have also elevated worldwide attention to racism and systemic inequities. Meanwhile, the climate crisis has not gone away. City leaders are eager to implement sustainable growth trajectories that address all these issues as they reopen and reshape their economies.
Recovery and “building back better” are front and center as today’s policymaking priorities. Behind these concepts are many policy choices and investment decisions that city leaders will need to make in the months and years to come. U.N. General Secretary Gutierrez emphasized that “the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis must lead to a different economy.” In their statement on the principles guiding their recovery task force, C40 mayors anchored social equity and climate action as defining the road map for cities. Likewise, the global coalition launched by the Global Resilient Cities Network calls for a resilient recovery that works for the most vulnerable. Acting on these principles will decide whether cities not only mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 crisis but also advance toward equity and sustainability.
On June 16-18, 2020, Brookings hosted a third convening of the SDG Leadership Cities initiative. Originally planned to be hosted by the city of Bristol, U.K., the meeting was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its themes built on two previous in-person meetings held in Mexico City in November 2020 and Bellagio, Italy in April 2019 with special attention on the economic and social implications of the pandemic and how the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) might guide recovery from the social dislocation and economic recession it caused.
The gathering was conducted in roundtable format, with topics explored in highly interactive sessions mixing plenary and breakout sessions. Key objectives included: exchanging innovations and lessons based on the cities’ experiences; building relationships and opportunities for continued engagement; and developing a city-specific perspective on the application of the SDGs at the local level. Sessions were held under Chatham House Rule to encourage candid discussion and problem-solving on limits, challenges, and obstacles.
The following summary is taken from key themes raised during the conversations as well as in pre- and post-convening surveys organized by Brookings. These issues illustrate what cities leading in the SDGs are addressing as they plan for the recovery and reshaping of their cities.
- Governance. Thinking holistically and advancing the transformational changes to build back better require a deep rethinking of decision- and policy-making models. Achieving the SDGs requires a community alliance across the city ecosystem, to enable buy-in and true investments from the private sector and the meaningful engagement of residents and communities. Cities may need to pursue new or modified governance models and be especially attentive to maintaining political momentum and leadership for new ways of doing business and tackling tough trade-offs despite the economic pressure they are facing to recover quickly.
- Solutions for equity and sustainability. Equity has become front and center—a core, grounding objective—for the recovery, while the climate crisis has not disappeared. To be successful, cities will need to mainstream equity and sustainability principles. Solutions that combine progress on inequalities and climate change will be necessary to solve multiple problems at once and avoid competing priorities. Cities will benefit from tools that help them put a racial and gender equity lens on recovery planning and environmental sustainability policies.
- Financing. Cities are facing budget and fiscal pressures and are limited by constraints imposed by national governments or other funding sources. They must find the capital—financial, human, and social—to turn ambitions into reality and to ensure that local solutions have varied on-ramps. Cities are innovating with fundraising efforts, from small donations to large philanthropies, and exploring green and social bonds. The group is interested in exploring strategies to create accelerator funds to finance innovation and better link philanthropic and business capital with the climate and community projects that support the SDGs.
- Data. Without quality and timely data, cities cannot grasp the scale of the challenge at hand. To change current approaches and better target policies, cities must be transparent about the uncomfortable truths. They would benefit from lenses and data tools to measure the SDG-sensitivity of each new decision. Reporting to their residents, and to national and international audiences, is a key element of localizing the global goals.
SDG Leadership Cities Network
- Diana Alarcón González, Chief Advisor and Foreign Affairs Coordinator, Mexico City
- Luz Amparo Medina Gerena, District Director of International Relations, City of Bogota
- Angeles Arano, Strategic Planning and Monitoring Manager, General and International Affairs Secretariat, Buenos Aires
- Maria Vittoria Beria, Director of International Affairs, Office of the Mayor, Milan
- Erin Bromaghim, Director of Olympic and Paralympic Development, Mayor’s Office of International Affairs, Los Angeles
- Kaysie Brown, Head of Policy Planning, UN Foundation
- Aissata Camara, Deputy Commissioner for Operations and Strategic Partnerships, Office for International Affairs, New York City
- Mariana Cammisa, SDGs Analyst, General and International Affairs Secretariat, Buenos Aires
- Chris Castro, Director of Sustainability & Resilience and Senior Advisor to the Mayor, Orlando
- Celeste Connors, CEO and Executive Director, Hawai’i Green Growth, Hawaii
- Grant Ervin, Chief Resilience Officer, City of Pittsburgh
- Mariana Flores Mayén, Executive Director for Institutional Representation, Mexico City
- Nicolas Gharbi, Principal Advisor for International Affairs, City of Madrid
- Christian Hübel, Head of Strategic Initiatives, Office of the Mayor, Mannheim
- Frida Leander, Strategist, Sustainability and Analysis Division, City of Malmö
- Allan MacLeod, SDG Research and Engagement Associate, Bristol City Office
- Jani Moliis, Head of International Affairs, Helsinki
- Beryl Mphakathi, Deputy City Manager for Human Settlements, Engineering and Transport, Durban (eThekwini Municipality)
- Helene Norberg, Head of Analysis and Sustainability Division, City of Malmö
- Oneika Pryce, Strategic Relationships Associate, Office for International Affairs, New York City
- Moses Quarshie, Business and Investment Advisor, Metropolitan Assembly, Accra
- Laura Uuttu-Deschryvere, Project Director, Strategy Division, City of Helsinki
- Toshikazu Yazawa, Director, Office of the City of Yokohama Representative to the Americas, Yokohama
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On December 3, Ted Piccone discusses how good governance and the rule of law play important roles in promoting peaceful, just, and inclusive societies during the time of COVID-19 at the PolicyWest conference.