Challenges working with the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda 

Two new articles by Mistra Urban Futures’s researchers and partners have just been published about the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda. One of the articles is about aspects that should be considered when adapting these two agendas to the city level and is rich in examples from Cape Town (South Africa), Kisumu (Kenya), Sheffield (UK), Gothenburg (Sweden), Malmö (Sweden), Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Shimla (India). Using Gothenburg as a case study, the second article draws on a critical analysis of the 244 indicators connected to the Sustainable Development Goals to examine their dual role as both a report card and management tool. 

The Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs form part of the UN’s Agenda 2030 that was adopted in 2015. Never before has such a broad and universal declaration been agreed upon by world leaders. The seventeen individual sustainable development goals represent different aspects of sustainability, provide a holistic agenda and highlight the complexity of sustainable development. Goal 11, Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, is the urban goal. The New Urban Agenda, NUA was adopted by heads of government at the Habitat III summit in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016. These two global agendas show that the UN recognizes the important role of cities in the endeavour towards sustainable development. 

Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs
The Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs.

The article Adapting the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda to the city level: Initial reflections from a comparative research project draws upon initial lessons from the Implementing the New Urban Agenda and The Sustainable Development Goals: Comparative Urban Perspectives project. Since both agendas were signed by national governments, implementing them at the city level requires adapting them to local circumstances. The article discusses five aspects that need to be considered in this local adaptation: delimitation of the urban boundary, integrated governance, actors, synergies and trade-offs, and indicators.

The urban boundary – what defines a city?

Defining the urban boundary is an important step to adapting the SDGs to local level. This involves defining the city and its limits. This varies significantly from country to country. In India a city needs to have a minimum population of 5000 compared to Kenya’s requirement of 250 000 people. Comparing the results from different cities will be hard considering these differences. Institutional mandate is another aspect relevant to the boundary as municipal governments worldwide have different mandates over issues that take place within their city. In Sweden municipalities have mandate over physical planning and education at elementary and secondary level, while post-secondary education is the responsibility of the national government. Health care and public transport issues are decided by regional governments. In Cape Town, the city has limited mandate to address issues around social development, education, health as well as safety and security. The mandate of the municipalities limits their ability to address all SDGs and requires collaboration with other levels of government and actors. 

Integrated governance – working together 

A key aspect of Agenda 2030 is the importance of addressing social, environmental and economic dimensions in an integrated way. This requires collaboration among different actors and between national, regional and local levels. Within a city this requires collaboration across sectors, breaking institutional silos which limit cross-sectoral work. The City of Malmö has formed a sustainability unit within the City Office to encourage collaboration and by 2020 the city´s overarching budget process will align with the SDGs. Agenda 2030 also stresses the importance of harmonizing with different global agendas for example the Paris Accord on Climate Change and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. In Cape Town, the city is looking into aligning its work with Agenda 2030 with its resilience work, as the city is part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative. The article points to the importance of guidance and support from the national level, to improve local implementation. Such initiatives have started in Sweden, India and Argentina to name a few. 

Actors – leave no one behind

‘Leave no one behind ‘is at the heart of Agenda 2030 and both this agenda and the NUA call for inclusive participatory implementation. The government/public sector, business and civil society all need to get involved. Issues around who is included and excluded in planning and implementing these agendas become relevant as well as the role of citizens. Potential conflicts, vested interests and discerning views among the actors are discussed in the article as challenges for inclusive participation. Another issue is overcoming short term planning that follows political cycles and limits the long-term planning required for achieving these agendas.

Trade-offs and synergies

Both potential trade-offs and synergies are relevant when implementing the New Urban Agenda and is apparent when implementing the 17 SDG goals. Working with individual SDG targets can lead to trade-offs in achieving other targets. For example, increased housing can lead to a decrease in farmland at the urban edge, affecting ecosystem services and food production. On the other hand, if urban areas are densified this can affect urban green areas, air quality and health. To implement the NUA and the SDGs assessment of these kinds of conflicts and synergies is necessary to better foresee intended and unintended consequences. It can also help when prioritising different efforts. 

Indicators – what we measure 

An important aspect of the NUA and SDGs is the possibility to monitor and follow the progress in reaching the goals. NUA has no formal monitoring mechanism except for four-yearly progress reviews. The SDGs include 169 targets and 244 indicators. The challenges in reporting include the uneven availability of data across the globe, unclear targets and lack of clarity of how these are to be measured. One example is target 11.b which refers to increasing the number of integrated policies, but there is no mention of the quality of the policies that are being produced or the implementation of those policies. Many targets also cut across complex issues as well as across jurisdictions within a city. In India, multiple agencies are responsible for water and sanitation and thus assessing and monitoring progress towards SDG 6 on clean water and sanitation becomes a divided task. The article stresses that targets and indicators are not a sufficient way to monitor progress, complementary metrics (both quantitative and qualitative) need to be developed by local governments. Thought-through indicators can be useful for local and global discussions, for planning and monitoring but their limits need to be addressed. 

The double function of the SDG indicators 

The second article, Governance for sustainable urban development: the double function of SDG indicators draws on detailed analysis of the 244 SDG indicators to reflect on key issues relating to their use. It draws on experiences from the Pilot Project to Test Potential Targets and Indicators for the Urban Sustainable Development Goal which was carried out in 2015 before the SDGs and its indicators were adopted. The project engaged the cities of Gothenburg (Sweden), Greater-Manchester (UK), Cape Town, (South Africa), Kisumu (Kenya) and Bangalore, (India). The recommendations from the project were taken up by the UN statistical team in UNDESA (United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs) and partly reflected upon in the final version of Agenda 2030.

The article discusses the double function of the indicators being both a report card, measuring progress and performance, and being a management tool, aiming to help countries develop and implement strategies and allocate resources towards those strategies. Measuring the progress of the SDGs through the 244 indicators is not an easy task, as the complexity of sustainable development needs to be handled, rather than being reduced to these indicators. Monitoring processes should contribute to integration, rather than fragmentation and create incentives for innovation to face the challenges we are facing. 
Integrating the indicators 

Leading through the SDGs

The focus of the article is the potential of the SDGs as a management tool, drawing on lessons of planning officials from the City of Gothenburg, Sweden. Lessons are also drawn from the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, the predecessors to the SDGs. The lessons include the need to avoid reducing complexity, the need for integrated indicators and that they need to apply both to the Global North and South. The authors argue for a need to re-prioritise the SDG indicators to better serve governance for sustainable development in diverse urban contexts worldwide. The indicators are criticised for setting the bar too low when it comes to ambitions and for prioritising the possibility to measure them and being practical, rather than being a management tool pushing sustainability issues forward. The indicators should rather be designed and implemented as a whole, with a clear purpose to promote certain behaviour.  

Read the articles 

‘Adapting the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda to the city level: Initial reflections from a comparative research project’, written by Sandra Valencia, David Simon, Sylvia Croese, Joakim Nordqvist, Michael Oloko, Tarun Sharma, Nick Taylor Buck & Ileana Versace´, published by International Journal of Urban Sustainable Development

‘Governance for sustainable urban development: the double function of SDG indicators’, written by Stina Hansson, Helen Arfvidsson & David Simon, published by Area Development and Policy.

Read more about the projects 

Pilot Project to Test Potential Targets and Indicators for the Urban Sustainable Development Goal 

Implementing the New Urban Agenda and The Sustainable Development Goals: Comparative Urban Perspectives


Sandra Valencia, Lead Researcher, Implementing the New Urban Agenda and The Sustainable Development Goals: Comparative Urban Perspectives, 

David Simon, Director, Mistra Urban Futures,