To recover from COVID, cities must focus on achieving the SDGs

Colourful painted buildings of Favela  in Rio de Janeiro Brazil
A favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (c) Lindrik

Francesco Papa, graduate of Imperial’s MSc Climate Change Finance and Management and consultant at UrbanDNA, blogs on why cities are key to securing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the world, and how urban areas must accelerate actions to succeed. This article summarises the primary findings of research conducted from July to September 2020, in partnership with UrbanDNA and Imperial College Business School, and with the participation of 15 cities across all continents.

Many reasons to care about SDGs in cities

Cities are increasingly becoming the primary vehicles of change worldwide. The global population are predominantly urbanites. Urban areas are powerhouses of economic growth. And also consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70% of global carbon emissions. Such standing places cities in a leading role to drive the shift to a more sustainable future.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are vital to achieving a prosperous future for all. The 17 goals and 169 targets, agreed by world leaders in 2015, are an ambitious agenda to end poverty, reduce inequality, and provide access to safe nourishment everywhere by 2030.

Only one, SDG #11, explicitly addresses cities. However, all are highly relevant in urban contexts. In fact, 65% of the SDG targets can only be accomplished if cities and regions get involved.

Graphic showing the UN SDGs

COVID– a stimulus for delivering SDGs?

As cities around the world grapple with the COVID-19 health crisis, the SDGs must remain a priority as they provide a critical framework for recovery. Given the severity of the crisis, one might expect cities to abandon the SDGs in order to tackle COVID-19. Interestingly, instead of this, cities have simply reported a shift in priorities. Local authorities are now emphasising health & wellbeing (SDG 3), and decent work & economic growth (SDG 8); although recognising that the SDG framework is holistic, so work on many of the 17 goals is ongoing.

However, cities worldwide are falling behind on delivering the 2030 agenda. After five years, the SDGs are still not on the agenda of cities in a ‘business as usual’ sense. So how can cities overcome this?

Aerial view of people crowding through the pedestrian crossing.
Aerial view of a pedestrian crossing (c) Dmytro Varavin

Four discoveries to boost city leaders’ confidence in taking action:

1. Cities should approach SDGs step by step.

City leaders recognise that their attention needs to extend beyond SDG11 (cities); however, trying to tackle all the SDGs at once can be overwhelming and actually hold cities back. Cities should look to start the journey component by component. This is what Bristol City is leading on: Allan Macleod a young SDGs leader is working on specific SDGs like SDG 13 Climate Action although recognising that all are equally important.

2. Being accountable for SDGs does not necessarily mean extra work; more an adjustment of focus.

SDGs can be easily aligned with current city priorities. For example, New York City pioneered the Voluntary Local Review for SDGs, a tool for cities to report directly to the UN on their efforts to achieve the SDGs. According to Penny Abeywardena, the Commissioner for International Affairs and a key figure behind the review, aligning the  city’s green plan with the SDGs was relatively simple..

3. Cities must share SDGs successes and failures.

City action on the SDGs is not well-documented. Experiences are insufficiently and inconsistently captured, variably communicated, and often recognised under a different agenda. Yet learning from past experiences and failures is critical to success. Cities need to document and share their local experiences on furthering the SDG agenda. This will inspire other places and help accelerate action across the globe.

4. The voice of women and young people needs to be heard to drive the SDGs agenda.

Most capital city leaders in the world are men over 50. While older generations hold a wealth of experiences, more balanced and inclusive governance mechanisms must be sought in cities to develop solutions that work for everyone. Helsingborg in Sweden, for example, has created a youth council to engage people in local sustainable development. An easy set up that can be replicated anywhere.  

2020 marks the decade of action

Cover of the report "Urban race for SDGs"

2020 marks the start of a ‘decade of action’ on sustainability. As cities recover from the pandemic, they have an opportunity to accelerate action on the SDGs framework. With a fresh approach and increased enthusiasm, cities can help achieve a step-change on this vital agenda. However, 2030 is around the corner and the clock is ticking…

Read the full report in full here.

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