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How Cities Can Drive Change with the New UN Sustainable Development Goals

With the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit coming up this weekend, cities are looking to play a much larger role in achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals. (Photo: Center for Global Development/ Flickr)

This weekend, from September 25 – 27, more than 150 world leaders will convene in New York City for the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit to develop the new sustainable development goals (SDGs). This agreement will serve as the foundation for international action on sustainable growth for the next 15 years.


To create a framework for sustainable development beyond 2015, the UN is formally announcing a set of seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the Global Goals, this week. Broader in scope than its preceding Millennium Development Goals, these new goals identify a long list of targets that address the role of cities in human well-being.

Indeed, for the first time, the SDGs address urban planning as a method for sustainable development. More specifically, the new list uses Goal 11 to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” This includes a new focus on participatory and integrated planning processes for cities, inclusive green and public spaces, climate change resilience and resource efficiency. However, cities are already showing leadership in their dedication to sustainability and improving the quality of life for their citizens, and are going above and beyond the UN’s former standards.

Cities’ Unique Position for Change Across Sectors

While Goal 11 exclusively calls for action on urban sustainability, cities are also leaders for creating change across sectors. For example, cities are strategically placed to take on Goal 7, which calls for improvements in energy access, building efficiency and renewable energy sources. The goal aims to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all,” aspiring to double the global rate of energy efficiency advancement. Cities have taken up the challenge of Goal 7 in particular as it relates to buildings, which contribute over 1/3 of global emissions of GHGs and energy use, with rates often higher in cities. Cities are able to tackle energy efficiency in innovative ways that overcome local obstacles—for example, New York City has had success using performance targets to improve urban buildings’ energy use.

Many cities are also working to mitigate climate change as outlined in Goal 13. These cities are innovatively integrating mitigation strategies into their vision for growth by improving master plans; for example, cities are launching initiatives following the greenhouse gas (GHG) Protocol for Cities, participating in the Transformative Actions Program by ICLEI, and signing on to the Compact of Mayors.

Cities are finding that economic growth and sustainable urban development, as outlined in the Goals, go hand in hand. While the Goals offer useful guidelines, the motivation behind these actions is a dedication to improving the environment, health and social issues faced by urban populations. By drawing on the UN’s Goals, city leaders are able to bolster equity, resilience, social inclusion, public health, while simultaneously formulating strategies for growth.

Challenges Presented by the New SDGs

Despite their considerable progress in meeting the UN’s previous objectives, cities will undoubtedly face major challenges when attempting to meet the new SDGs. Limits to data and funds for implementation, poor communication with local governing institutions, and an absence of standardized metrics for tracking progress will likely reduce the efficacy of some goals—at least in the short term. Furthermore, differing interpretations of what resilience, safety, equity, and sustainability mean, as well as the lack of a definition of what the UN considers to be “a city” complicate expected outcomes of the Goals. The new Goals address the powerful role cities have in improving citizens’ well-being, but require clear metrics and standards to be more effective. Creating metrics of progress for the SDGs in March of 2016 will prove critical in creating a practical foundation for the implementation of the SDGs in urban settings. In sum, indicators for success will lend more credibility and substance to the goals, and allow cities to best understand the logistics of moving forward.

The SDGs are a step forward in the recognition of cities as engines of development. In the future, cities will continue to act as labs of innovation and progress if they focus on development goals as they intersect with local challenges. The launch of this week’s SDGs is taking place in New York City—an appropriate setting for the release of a new set of goals that recognizes the power of cities in the global fight for healthy, sustainable development.

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