Cities Retrofit United Nations’ Goals to Remake the World




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“The work of U.S. mayors and regional leaders has taken global center stage,” said the director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program.

A growing number of U.S. cities are attempting to implement the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals by 2030 to improve their residents’ quality of life.

Adopted by all U.N. member states in 2015, the goals are aimed at improving public health, education, racial equality, economic growth, and the climate.

Recognizing the goals already aligned with their community visions in many cases, cities like New York and Los Angeles are localizing them.

“We have a federal government that is abdicating its responsibility on multilateral agreements,” said Penny Abeywardena, New York City commissioner for international affairs, at a Brookings Institution event on Thursday in D.C. “So this an opportunity for cities to lead.”

New York City has the largest diplomatic core in the world, but many residents associate U.N. General Assembly meetings with bad traffic. When the city began working on OneNYC, a sustainable redevelopment plan after Superstorm Sandy, it mapped its vision to the sustainable development goals—particularly with respect to equity, Abeywardena said.

Programs like the NYC Junior Ambassadors, which inspired thousands of youth to help clean up the South Bronx River, came out of the effort.

Los Angeles has localized the United Nations’ framework as well. For example, the city embraced the goal focused on gender equity, but has discussed incorporating LGBTQI and non-binary genders as well.

Similarly, another goal calls on countries to reducing maternal mortality to 70 deaths per 100,000 live births. Los Angeles only sees 7.3 deaths per 100,000 live births but found African-American mothers die during childbirth four times as often as any other subgroup, so the city has made reducing that disparity a priority.

“Rather than declare victory at that, we looked deeper at the data,” said Nina Hachigian, Los Angeles deputy mayor of internal affairs.

While Pittsburgh hasn’t formally adopted the goals, its work developing a resilience strategy has seen sustainability synergies.

Partnering with the Rockefeller Foundation and The City University of New York, Pittsburgh developed equity indicators to better identify community disparities.

“It’s work that we’re doing and have been doing,” said Grant Ervin, Pittsburgh chief resilience officer. “But [the goals] develop that common language that brings us all together.”

New York City took things a step further recently, recognizing the Trump administration wouldn’t submit a voluntary national review to the U.N. on the federal government’s progress toward sustainable development. So the city became the first internationally to submit a voluntary local review.

“Our rating is good, but it’s not perfect,” Abeywardena said.

Los Angeles Sanitation now grades the cleanliness of every street quarterly, having found residents on the cleanest streets tend to complain the most while poorer neighborhoods see illegal, toxic dumping from time to time that goes unreported.

The city even has a goal for how long any resident calling City Hall for service should be on hold.

“If you don’t set ambitious targets, you don’t know whether you’re doing as much as you could be doing,” Hachigian said.

Of the 11 metropolitan areas that have translated job growth into greater productivity, only two managed to improve wages for both white residents and people of color, said Amy Liu, vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings.

City leadership must work with employers and social justice advocates to upgrade career ladders, build professional networks and grow their knowledge economies, Liu said.

“The work of U.S. mayors and regional leaders has taken global center stage,” she said.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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