The role of cities is evolving. This is mostly out of necessity. An estimated two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2030 and, increasingly, people living in cities are the ones on the frontlines of issues like the Covid-19 pandemic, poverty and climate change.
At the same time, as a society, we are also witnessing more and more national governments – from the U.S. to Brazil to Poland to Australia – who are not living up to their responsibilities on the global stage. As national leaders step back, however, subnational leaders are leaning in.
Over the last six years of the de Blasio administration, the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs has been working to connect our local initiatives to global efforts. After the United Nations ratified the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, we recognized there were synergies with the city’s existing OneNYC sustainable development plan. So we mapped the commonalities and launched a platform called Global Vision | Urban Action to highlight ways to localize the Global Goals.
Local global goals
We first tried to bring New York voices into discussions at the UN about the SDGs. To do so, we brought UN diplomats into our local communities to see firsthand how New York is addressing some of these global issues on a local level. These exchanges became a way for our city to both showcase what we do well, but to also learn from the wealth of international expertise we have access to as host to the largest diplomatic corps in the world.
“What if we took our successes and challenges on issues related to the Sustainable Development Goals and shared them directly to the UN?”
For example, in the spring of 2018, the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs took a small delegation of international experts on a sludge vessel tour to show how the NYC Department of Environmental Protection treats wastewater and provides more than 1 billion gallons of fresh water for 8.5 million New Yorkers each day.
That summer, our office also invited a small delegation of UN sustainability experts on a walking tour of New York City’s community gardens where experts exchanged ideas on issues like biodiversity, climate change and urban resilience.
Through these engagements, the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs recognized the need to lean in even further. As part of the Sustainable Development Goals process, all UN member states are invited to submit a report, detailing their progress on implementing the Global Goals. It is a voluntary exercise called the Voluntary National Review. The U.S. (neither under the Obama nor Trump administrations) has never committed to doing one. That stance is unlikely to change any time soon.
In New York City, however, we knew we had all the information needed for such a report since we already collect much of that data for our OneNYC sustainable development plan. Given that more than 65% of the Global Goals and targets are relevant to cities and given our unique relationship to the UN, we asked ourselves: “What if we took our successes and challenges on issues related to the Sustainable Development Goals and shared them directly to the UN?” It was not an attempt to usurp member state authority. Instead, we wanted to complement multilateral efforts to achieve the Global Goals.
An opportunity for cities to dialogue with each other, exchange best practices and accelerate change on the ground for their citizens
A fellowship of cities
With approval from top UN leadership, in July 2018 New York became the first city in the world to report on our progress in achieving the Global Goals via a process we dubbed the Voluntary Local Review. In the months that followed, we called on other cities both in the U.S. and around the world to join us in doing their own reporting. Helsinki, Finland was the first to join.
To be clear, this isn’t about choosing a handful of metrics to showcase before the UN. It is an opportunity for cities to dialogue with each other, exchange best practices and accelerate change on the ground for their citizens.
During the 2019 General Assembly, two dozen cities representing nearly every continent — from Accra, Ghana to Kazan, Russia, to Orlando, Florida — signed on to the NYC Declaration on the Voluntary Local Review.
The Declaration consists of three key commitments:
- Commitment 1: To identify how existing strategies, programs, data, and targets align with the Sustainable Development Goals
- Commitment 2: To provide at least one forum where stakeholders can come together to share experiences, lessons learned, and information gathered using the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals
- Commitment 3: To submit a Voluntary Local Review to the United Nations during the United Nations High-Level Political Forum
The SDGs provide a common framework and language for cities large and small to share best practices. The Declaration also emphasizes using existing resources in an intentional effort to keep the barrier to entry low. Cities can engage with the process in their own time, using their own resources and processes.
The Voluntary Local Review has since turned into a movement. To date, more than 200 cities and regional governments have signed on. And many others have committed independently to doing their own reports.
Ultimately, the Voluntary Local Review represents an opportunity for cities of all different sizes to talk to each other and exchange best practices so subnational governments can accelerate impact on the ground and more efficiently meet the needs of their people. That exchange seems especially crucial as the world grapples with the pandemic. With the SDGs, we have a common language and framework to find solutions. And so New York City is moving aggressively to grow this movement because we know the challenges of public health, climate, and inequality are often felt most intensely at the subnational level and the solutions lie there as well.