The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 13, 2018

New York City is the first city to report on global sustainability goals. It shouldn’t be the last.

Earlier this week, New York City became the first city in the world to present a progress report on the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were adopted by all 193 member states of the United Nations (UN) in 2015. The SDGs represent a historic commitment from all countries in the UN system to develop plans, implement policies, and track progress across many ambitious goals, including eradicating poverty, ending hunger, achieving gender equality, ensuring access to sustainable energy for all, and tackling climate change.

New York City released its report at the UN High-Level Political Forum, the annual meeting of senior ministers from UN member states, which focuses on supporting SDG implementation. The report’s release marks a huge step forward in localizing the SDGs, which experts contend will be essential to making progress on the goals by 2030, when the framework expires.

Our research suggests that other cities can—and should—follow New York City’s lead in aligning the SDGs with local priorities and tracking and publicly reporting on local progress.

Global goals, local action

The UN anticipated that national governments would report on progress on the goals, but New York City took the initiative to align the SDG framework with local priorities and report on local progress. New York City’s actions reflect a growing consensus that city leadership is essential to achieving the SDGs.

Sustainable development challenges like poverty and disaster risk are felt most acutely in cities, particularly as the world’s population shifts to urban areas. Cities can be incubators for the policies that address sustainable development challenges, and local leaders hold the keys to fostering inclusive growth and mitigating climate change.

City governments are also increasingly responsible for delivering services and setting policies across diverse areas that affect residents’ daily lives, such as health, education, infrastructure, transportation, land and resource management, and economic development.

Our 2017 report Hacking the Sustainable Development Goals: Can US Cities Measure Up? provides additional evidence that city leadership is essential to achieving the SDGs in the US. We looked at all 169 targets in the SDG framework and found that local governments can play a critical role in achieving 103 targets (or 61 percent of the total framework). Data are already available to track and compare local progress for 68 (or 66 percent) of the targets most relevant to cities.

When cities use local administrative data and other sources that aren’t available nationally, as New York City did, they can increase their coverage to 81 percent of the relevant targets. New York City’s report tracks the five SDGs selected as the focus of this year’s forum: water (Goal 6), energy (Goal 7), cities (Goal 11), consumption (Goal 12), and land (Goal 15).

We found that local progress on the energy, consumption, and land goals would be difficult to measure using existing national sources. But the targets under these three goals were prime for the infusion of local data. Through its OneNYC indicators, New York City leveraged local city data sources and surveyed residents in areas where these data did not exist. This approach sets a strong example for other cities looking to fill national data gaps.

Sparking a race to the top

New York City’s leadership in submitting the first report on local progress on the SDGs to the UN should inspire other cities to follow suit. Through clear, trackable measurement of progress, cities can place greater emphasis on doing their part to achieve the SDGs by 2030. Reporting on local progress can improve transparency and help constituents hold city leaders accountable.

As more cities generate SDG reports, local leaders can benchmark progress against their peers and learn from best practices. A robust network of voluntary local reports can also create friendly competition as localities compete to excel on each measure, generating media attention and raising awareness to inspire private-sector actors to partner with local governments.

Plenty of tools already exist to help cities along the way. The Sustainable Development Solutions Network created a US Cities SDGs Index that collects data on 44 indicators for the 100 largest metropolitan areas and ranks each metropolitan area on progress across 15 of the 17 SDGs. The United Nations Development Program and partners have created a website for Localizing the SDGs that includes tools for local leaders to initiate conversations on the SDGs in their communities and a platform for sharing local solutions and success stories.

And we’ve made available online our full inventory of data sources to track local progress on the SDGs in the US to facilitate use by researchers, community organizations, and policymakers interested in implementing SDGs in their cities.

Our research shows it is vital that other cities join New York in targeting and tracking their own progress across all 17 SDGs. Intentional local action, accompanied by rigorous data collection and monitoring, can make great strides toward achieving a more sustainable global future.

Photo by Songquan Deng/Shutterstock

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