Opinion - The Sustainable Development Goals: A useful framework for sustainable and resilient cities in Europe

SDG Cities Leadership Platform

We congratulate the SDSN and their research partners from the Brabant Center for Sustainable Development (Telos, Tilburg University) for the launch of the 2019 SDG Index and Dashboards for European Cities and welcome them to the team! This work builds on the series of data driven progress report produced by SDSN to track the implementation of the SDGs at the national and subnational level and, in particular, in tracking efforts made by Mayors in the U.S. to implement the SDGs. This proven method provides an impressive first framework for quality research within Europe to deliver the Agenda2030.

The main finding of the report is clear: no European city has fully achieved the SDGs. Decarbonizing cities, addressing high (and sometimes rising) pollution levels and ensuring access to and quality of housing to all citizens remain important challenges in Europe. While city leaders are at the vanguard of formulating some of the policy responses, the findings of this report are a call to action for policymakers at all levels. Persistent and visible issues at the urban level often require multilevel policy responses.

Without a proven and tested data driven report it is difficult to convince stakeholders to start and test solutions to achieve the SDGs and their 169 targets adopted by the 193 UN member states. Rankings help stimulate awareness that the success of the SDG implementation is closely dependent upon how Mayors around the world lead the path. As such they also help Mayors gain awareness and recognition for their day to day efforts in promoting and implementing sustainable development policies in cities. This first report for European cities gives us the opportunity to get an understanding of the challenges we face in urban Europe and what remains to be done.

The implementation of Agenda 2030 is a momentous opportunity for European cities. The framework provides a tool to address the great social, economic and environmental challenges of our times in an integrated way. Our data and research in 25+5 show that it increasingly pays off for cities to actively implement the SDGs in order to attract Foreign Direct Invest and other economic returns, including sustainable tourism. It is often a challenge for cities to strengthen their positive image internationally as they are often mentioned in the news when disasters or crisis happen. The SDGs might very well become a tool for Mayors and city leaders to increase their visibility and positive image, including to investors and businesses. The latest data from the SDG Commitment Report SCR500 shows that the 500 largest companies in the world are dedicated to implementing the SDGs as a whole and, in particular, SDG 11 (Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable).

The SDGs as a tool to increase the visibility and positive image of global cities?

Top 20 Cities, Source: Number of reports in Walt Street Journal, Financial Times, Handelsblatt, MINT, Les Echos." caption="Source: Number of reports in Walt Street Journal, Financial Times, Handelsblatt, MINT, Les Echos.

The SDGs also provide a tool for strengthening cities’ resilience to economic, social and environmental shocks. I have just returned from Ravenna in Italy, the former “silent capital of old regimes”. The city has shown impressive results including in making sure that none of their citizen feels ‘left behind”; a key principle of Agenda2030. Recently, the city weathered critical floods. The strategy put in place by the Mayor and his team to respond to this natural disaster combined short term actions to mitigate risks and protect the population with a long-term vision to strengthen the local ecosystem to support safer, more sustainable urban development. The approach builds on the SDG framework.

Why is the SDG framework so relevant for European cities? The SDGs and the 169 targets provide a time-bound transformative agenda that replaces old ways of doing business. Previously, the environmental, social, cultural and economic facets of society were addressed in siloes and at times lost in party politics. The Agenda2030, and related SDGs, provide a more holistic approach, accepted by all, that can inform sustainable development policies and shape the future of our cities.

Espoo, a city of 300, 000 inhabitants and part of the Helsinki Metropolitan area is another example of best practices: it has been awarded the Most Intelligent Community in the World in 2018 and the Most Sustainable City in Europe for several years in a row. With its dynamic industry and academia partners and networks the city illustrates how using the SDGs as a compass helps cities “weather any storm” and ensure resilience.

A few years ago, Espoo’s city budget was called into question by the financial difficulties faced by the main local economic champion and employer: Nokia. These difficulties threatened local revenues and by extension the access and quality of local city services in Espoo. Instead of being frustrated by the lower income, the city expanded its strategy of involvement and helped Nokia rescale and grow in a more sustainable path together with other corporations and stakeholders. Today Espoo, Helsinki and Finland are stronger than ever. Last year SLUSH, the annual gathering of young entrepreneurs from the IT sector exceeded 22,000 participants. Top investors from the Silicon Valley travel every year to Espoo/Helsinki seeking a future talent pool. And the latest World Happiness Report, also produced by SDSN, shows that Finish people are more satisfied with their lives than any other country in the world.

Leaders like the Mayor of Ravenna, Espoo and other city leaders included in the SDSN and Telos 2019 SDG Index and Dashboards for European Cities have understood more quickly than others, that working hard towards SDG implementation is the most secure path to sustainable and resilient cities.

At the 25+5 SDG Cities Leadership Platform we are grateful to know that our friends from SDSN and Telos are part of the team working with all Mayors in the world to support the implementation of the Agenda2030. Co-creating solutions with citizens and various stakeholders is key to ensure buy-in and long-term results. 25+5 is committed to support SDSN and Telos by gathering data, bringing new ideas and providing concrete support to make sure that the SDGs become the leading policy framework in Europe and elsewhere in the world to inform urban strategies and policies. Without solid data and cutting-edge research by governments, civil society and research institutions we will not achieve the SDGs by 2030.

There is no Plan B nor a Planet B. Success will only come if we look at this year’s 2019 SDG Index and Dashboards for European Cities with the eyes of scholars eager to contribute and make it even richer in 2020, 2021, 2022…

With our best wishes,

Roland Schatz
Founder and CEO UNGSII Foundation

Prof. Taina Tukiainen
Member of the Cabinet of the First Vice-President, European Committee of the Regions