Global Goals in a Local Context: The Role of Cities in Making the SDGs Happen

Today, we face many pressing, global sustainability challenges. Place-based work will be key to addressing pressing sustainability challenges and advancing the SDGs globally.

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SDG Cities is collaboratively developed and delivered by 10C Shared Space and Pillar Nonprofit Network. Through events, cohort-based training and applied research, SDG Cities will increase the number and strengthen organizations and purpose-driven businesses actively using and contributing to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Lessons learned from SDG Cities can also be applied in other Canadian cities to make progress towards the SDGs across the country. SDG Cities is funded by the Government of Canada’s Sustainable Development Goals Program.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out a path forward toward a more sustainable, equitable and prosperous future for all people and the planet. These 17 interconnected and interrelated goals recognize that poverty, hunger, climate change, economic marginalization and inequality are global challenges to be addressed by transformative change at every level. The SDGs and the 2030 Agenda requires cities and other local actors to take action. However, the link between work at the local level and global progress towards the SDGs is not always clear. In this article, we provide information and context to help understand the important role cities, regions and communities play in advancing the SDGs.

The Role of Cities

The number of people living in cities is growing rapidly. It is expected that by 2030 more than 60% of the global population will live in urban areas. Cities currently contribute more than 80% of global GDP and are responsible for more than 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. The concentration of people, resources and consumption places cities at the forefront of addressing global sustainability challenges. Additionally, many of the decisions and actions to redesign and repurpose infrastructure to provide the solutions lie with local government and institutions.

These challenges play out differently in each city impacted by factors including policy environments and other place-based dynamics. Therefore, one-size-fits-all, top-down approaches will not support lasting and meaningful change at the city level. Place-based approaches that draw on local resources, and strengths, designed to address challenges identified locally are critical for moving the sustainability agenda forward. It is at the local level where the deep knowledge resides and the strongest relationships are forged.

“Progress depends on the mobilization of local knowledge and community-based networks.”

– (Bradford & Baldwin, 2018)

“We can’t save the planet. It’s too big; it’s an aspiration, but how do we work on it?…When we work in place we can see the impact and respond. Place is the one unit of measurement that allows us to change our behaviour. If we save the places of the world, we save the planet.”

Bill Reed, Regenesis

In today’s interconnected world, locally made solutions don’t remain local for long. Successful place-based solutions can be shared widely, informing the place-based work in other areas. Broader national efforts also benefit from locally developed and tested innovations. A growing number of city focused networks – C40 Cities, Global Parliament of Mayors, Resilient Cities Network, Global Covenant of Mayors – have developed to sustainable development locally.

The Case for Mid-Sized Cities

Mid-sized cities (MSCs) – defined as cities with populations between 50,000 and 500,000 – are home to 37% of Canada’s population and make up 88 of the top 100 cities in Canada. Globally, MSCs are projected to grow at twice the rate of larger cities. In Ontario, MSCs within the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) are experiencing higher growth, while growth rates in MSCs outside of this region can be much slower. Across the province, MSCs are in transition and there is significant potential for the development of new policy frameworks and governance models to support sustainable development.

MSCs tend to have fewer resources and can be left out of national and international urban policy agendas, which tend to focus on larger cities. A lack of research, funding and public policy innovation to support sustainable development has also limited opportunities for SDG localization in smaller urban areas. However, MSCs are increasingly recognized as important areas for innovation, creative re-invention, and for the development of new models of civic leadership. MSCs have also been described as close-knit, nimble and less bureaucratic, making it easier for policy makers and civil society to identify needs and gain support for new initiatives. MSCs also play an important role in connecting urban and rural populations and the development of supportive urban-rural linkages for integrated urban and rural development.

Cities, Regions and the SDGs

Cities have been identified as hubs for SDG innovation and activity; however, progressing towards the SDGs requires broader cooperation between communities and within regions. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has launched programming to support the development of A Territorial Approach to the SDGs aimed at supporting cities, and regions around the world to advance the SDGs. This initiative recognized the potential to cooperate within regions to address key sustainability issues that extend beyond a single municipality. A national survey conducted by OECD identified environment, energy and transportation as important sustainability issues for regions. Sustainable food systems development is another important area where regional cooperation, network building and innovation is essential.

A territorial or regional approach extends SDG action beyond city boundaries encompassing areas that are still small enough for meaningful collaboration, yet large enough to make progress towards high level goals. Place-based approaches at the territorial or regional level can be sensitive and responsive to local needs while still reflecting the international priorities outlined in the SDGs.

MSCs have an important role to play in regional sustainability and work to advance the SDGs at the regional scale. In many cases, MSCs may have limited financial resources and capacity and therefore rely more heavily on partnerships with other MSCs or on surrounding regional partners to advance their sustainability goals. Many MSCs also act as important regional hubs for food distribution, provide economic diversification and employment opportunities and facilitate supportive urban-rural linkages.

Support for Cities, Regions and Communities Advancing the SDGs

As we move closer to 2030 – the finish line for the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs – it is clear that cities, regions and communities – are critical leaders and partners in advancing the SDGs. SDG 11 is a direct call of action to address sustainable development in cities and is a direct result of advocacy at the local level. The remaining 16 SDGs all have targets that relate directly to the role of cities, particularly when it comes to service delivery, policy development, data collection and transparency and citizen engagement.

“Localizing SDGs is not the parachuting of global goals into local context but linking local and regional government’s agendas with the global goals and empowering sub-national governments.”

– Emilia Saiz, Secretary General of United Cities and Local Governments

Canada’s Commitment to the 2030 Agenda specifically recognizes the important role communities, municipalities and cities play in making progress towards the SDGs in Canada. Nationally, this commitment to support cities is backed by funding, policy support and the development of resources, pilot projects and implementation frameworks.

Support for cities and other local actors is also evident in the growth of the movement for localizing the SDGs. The Tamarack Institute is currently engaged in a Canada wide project to support SDG localization which includes virtual events, development of a Community of Practice and publication of resources to support SDG localization. Cities across Canada that are engaged in SDG localization including Kelowna, Nogojiwanong/Peterborough, and Winnipeg are sharing their stories, data and lessons learned to help other communities understand and align with the SDGs.

Today, we face many pressing, global sustainability challenges. Place-based work will be key to addressing pressing sustainability challenges and advancing the SDGs globally. Cities – especially MSCs – have the potential to harness their capacity, resources and innovation to make progress towards the SDGs. SDG Cities is a collaborative project in Guelph and London that aims to provide supports, resources and policies to support SDG localization with a focus on MSCs. Moving forward, SDG innovation will depend on the work of cities, communities and regions cooperating, networking and sharing knowledge towards this common goal.