In April 2015, New York City (NYC) committed to the principles of growth, equity, sustainability, and resiliency through its groundbreaking OneNYC strategy. When global leaders committed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015, NYC recognized the synergies with our local strategy, and established the Global Vision | Urban Action platform to use the SDGs as a common framework to both share our experiences and learn from partners in NYC and worldwide. In July 2018, NYC became the first city in the world to report directly to the United Nations on our local implementation of the SDGs through a Voluntary Local Review (VLR). Since then, the NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs launched the VLR Declaration to enable subnational governments to formally commit to the Sustainable Development Goals.
The VLR transforms the way that cities can use the SDGs as a common language to identify challenges and share solutions. Throughout the 2030 Agenda, there is recognition of the important role that local authorities play in achieving the SDGs, and the VLR demonstrates in practical terms what this means and why it matters. This includes city-to-city cooperation as well as engagement with other key stakeholders, including the United Nations (UN), civil society, academia, and other groups. The VLR is a tool that demonstrates ways all stakeholders can engage in SDG conversations. Through the VLR Declaration, the SDGs can be adapted to the local contexts of subnational governments, ensuring that the unique needs of constituents are met across all societies.
Linking NYC’s local sustainability work to the SDGs requires both external partnerships and internal coordination with key NYC agencies. Because the SDGs are a common framework that all stakeholders can use to discuss shared challenges and solutions, we formed extensive external partnerships, including with member states, local governments, UN agencies and offices, city coalitions, civil society, and academia. Internally, we worked with NYC agencies to educate them about the SDGs and help link them to the external stakeholders to facilitate the exchange of good practices.
When global leaders committed to the SDGs in September 2015, the NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs established the Global Vision | Urban Action platform to use the SDGs as a framework to discuss and share our best practices with partners in NYC and around the world. First, we mapped OneNYC’s goals to the SDGs, and then we used this mapping as a basis for our programming. Through the program, we invite NYC’s diplomatic corps to visit our communities to see firsthand how NYC is implementing SDGs at the local level and to discuss our shared challenges. We also bring City voices to the UN to infuse the local perspective into policy discussions about the implementation of the SDGs.
NYC announced on May 1, 2018, that it would become the first city in the world to submit a review of its progress directly to the UN during the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF). Modeled after the Voluntary National Review (VNR) that countries are invited to submit to the HLPF every year, the VLR highlights NYC’s sustainable development achievements since 2015, using the SDG framework to translate NYC’s local actions to a global audience, with a focus on the five priority SDGs for the 2018 HLPF.
To complement the written report, the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs partnered with relevant city agencies to develop a series of site visits for the UN diplomatic community, focusing specifically on the SDGs to be reviewed in July 2018. This included a trip to the country’s largest recycling facility to explore SDG 12, a ride on a sludge vessel to learn about SDG 6, and a tour of a community garden to delve into SDG 15. During the site visits, NYC agencies also highlighted how their work is integrated with additional SDGs.
Through this process, NYC agencies have actively engaged in linking the City’s local sustainability work to the SDGs, and we have identified additional opportunities for deeper engagement with UN agencies, member states, local governments, and other stakeholders. We are now building on these connections through the VLR Declaration, a way for subnational governments to formally join the VLR movement. We now have over 208 local governments committed to (a) aligning their local strategy to the Global Goals, thereby strengthening community focused actions, (b) facilitating opportunities for key stakeholders to engage in solving challenges in their neighborhoods using the framework of the SDGs and (c) submitting a report to the UN on their SDG progress. We hope other local and regional governments will join us by signing the declaration and joining the VLR movement.
We use both qualitative and quantitative metrics to measure the impact of our work in three key areas, namely internal coordination with NYC agencies, engagement with other cities who may be interested in using the common language of the SDGs to share their work, and cooperation with other stakeholders.
In terms of internal NYC coordination, we have engaged with more than 20 agencies since the inception of the GVUA platform. This includes organizing over 25 events, panel discussions, and site visits for the UN diplomatic community. During the July 2018 HLPF, nearly 20 NYC representatives shared their expertise at events, bilateral meetings, and additional exchanges. NYC also joined a VNR breakfast hosted by DESA to hear from countries who were submitting their own VNRs.
Following the launch of the VLR, NYC agencies expressed increased interest in the SDGs. Most notably, the NYC Mayor’s Office launched an updated version of the OneNYC strategy in April 2019, and International Affairs joined the core planning team to ensure that the SDGs were incorporated into the strategic plan.
Regarding engagement with other local governments, since we launched the VLR Declaration in September of 2019, over 208 local and regional governments committed to sharing good practices using the framework of the SDGs and VLR. During the July 2019 HLPF, a number of cities either submitted a VLR or expressed a commitment to submitting a VLR through signing the VLR Declaration. Additionally, many institutions and city networks such as UN-Habitat, the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments, and C40 have committed to promoting VLRs. Other groups such as ICLEI, SDSN, and the Brookings Institution have also expressed a commitment to support local engagements with the SDGs.
As far as external partners, NYC’s SDG efforts have been lauded by the UN Secretary-General, the UN Deputy Secretary-General, the UN Development Programme Administrator, the UN Habitat Executive Director, and numerous other high-level UN representatives. Civil society groups in NYC regularly invite IA to present our work and have requested closer cooperation, and advocacy organizations such as the UN Foundation have identified NYC’s VLR as a trend to watch. We also regularly brief academia on these topics.
As host city to the United Nations and home to the largest diplomatic community in the world, NYC recognizes that we are uniquely positioned to advocate for the priorities of cities before the international community, which includes our work in localizing the SDGs. Additionally, NYC hosts hundreds of foreign government delegations every year, which provides us with an additional opportunity to connect and liaise with cities and countries around the world.
However, NYC agency colleagues rarely have spare time to commit to additional obligations beyond their assigned duties, so we have endeavored to ensure that our activities are complementary to existing NYC agency activities, rather than an extra burden for them. To do this, we work with agency colleagues to identify opportunities to join their ongoing programming activities.
Furthermore, we have a limited budget as an office for travel to connect with international colleagues who are committed to localizing the SDGs. However, we have a robust social media presence and we have developed thematic webinars, as well as virtual check-ins with our international counterparts to ensure that our work is well represented. These efforts ensure that other subnational governments can learn about our local SDG implementation strategies and engagements regardless of our ability to travel.
Local and regional governments have always been at the forefront of implementing the topics addressed in the SDGs, though every subnational government has a different language for thinking about problems, a different governance structure, a different way of planning and prioritizing urban challenges, and a different way of implementing strategies and accountability measures.
Therefore, the SDGs are not entirely new commitments for local and regional governments, but rather a common language we can use to discuss our existing priorities in practical terms, and also to identify gaps where we could learn from each other.
Because national governments, not local authorities, have committed to the SDGs, the only reason for us to engage is if we can benefit from the process. Here in NYC, International Affairs did not use additional funds to implement programming or to develop the VLR. We built activities that complement the work already outlined by OneNYC. Our office has three staff members who are also responsible for the GVUA platform. NYC agency staff time is occasionally needed to conduct site visits, with the understanding that all participants benefit from these activities by discussing shared challenges and solutions.
Subnational governments have all the information necessary to speak the language of the SDGs, but we need to engage with each other as well as other stakeholders to better understand ways we can most effectively use the VLR and other tools to do so. To facilitate this engagement, we are calling on other local and regional governments to join us by signing the VLR Declaration and committing to map their existing strategies and programs to the SDGs, provide at least one forum where stakeholders can come together to share good practices using the SDG framework, and submit a VLR.
As we enter the fifth year of our GVUA platform, NYC continues to demonstrate what the SDGs can be — a common language for local and regional governments to exchange and develop strategies for a more just and sustainable world.
NYC agencies are increasingly taking on the language of the SDGs in their work as a way to connect with international counterparts and other stakeholders to share good practices and improve their own service delivery. Additionally, NYC is leading the SDG Strategy Hub Action Stream on Cities and Local Authorities, and will use the opportunity to continue to amplify the VLR as a tool for localizing the SDGs.
We look forward to strengthening NYC’s engagement with subnational governments and other stakeholders that share our commitment to finding equitable solutions to some of the world’s toughest challenges. The SDGs are an unprecedented opportunity to learn how we can better serve our own constituents.
NYC’s Voluntary Local Review Report
Press Release: “On Global Goals Day, Mayor de Blasio and International Affairs Commissioner Abeywardena Announce Historic Step to Report Local Progress on Global Sustainable Development Goals”
Local, National and International Coverage of the VLR
“NYC Acting Locally,” Commissioner Abeywardena interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, Tuesday, July 17, 2018: https://www.wnyc.org/story/nyc-acting-globally
“Why NYC is reporting its sustainability progress to the UN,” CityLab, July 13, 2018: https://www.citylab.com/environment/2018/07/why-new-york-city-is-reporting-its-sustainability-progress-to-the-un/564953/
“New York is first city to show how fairing on goals,” Reuters, July 11, 2018: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-un-goals-newyorkcity/new-york-says-first-city-to-show-how-faring-on-goals-to-end-social-woes-idUSKBN1K1365
Coverage of the VLR in Sustainability and Specialty Media
“Cities are engines for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals,” Coverage of Commissioner Abeywardena appearance on UN sustainable Development Group panel with UN Deputy Secretary, UNDP, July 17, 2018: http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/news-centre/news/2018/cities-are-engines-for-achieving--the-sustainable-development-go.html
“NYC Filed a voluntary report to the UN on its 2030 Sustainability Goals,” Inverse, July 20, 2018: https://www.inverse.com/article/47262-un-nyc-2030-renewable-energy-climate-etc
“Have we made progress on the SDGs?” UN Foundation for the Global GoalsCast, July 30, 2018: https://globalgoalscast.org/?powerpress_pinw=1781-podcast
“Science X HLPF,” International Science Council, July 17, 2018: https://mailchi.mp/a0b8a67b8d14/science-x-hlpf-vnrs-lolita-jackson
“UN forum spotlights cities, where struggle for sustainability will be ‘won or lost,’” UN News Centre, July 12, 2018: http://www.eco-business.com/news/un-forum-spotlights-cities-where-struggle-for-sustainability-will-be-won-or-lost/
“NYC submit voluntary sustainability report to UN,” Smart Cities Dive, July 16, 2018: https://www.smartcitiesdive.com/news/new-york-city-united-nations-voluntary-sustainability-report/527778/
“New York City is the first city to report on global sustainability goals. It shouldn’t be the last,” Urban Institute’s Urban Wire, July 13, 2018: https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/new-york-city-first-city-report-global-sustainability-goals-it-shouldnt-be-last
SDG 11 Review at HLPF Emphasizes Role of Cities in Achieving 2030 Agenda,” IISD SDG Knowledge Hub, July 12, 2018: http://sdg.iisd.org/news/sdg-11-review-at-hlpf-emphasizes-role-of-cities-in-achieving-2030-agenda/