U.S. Cities as Magnifying Glasses for the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Are Mayors our Best Hope for a More Sustainable Future?

by Hanna Thiele

Cities are where the battle for sustainable development will be won — or lost if we fail.

Jan Eliasson’s opening remarks, at the Mayor’s Forum of the World Cities Summit 2015

This statement makes it abundantly clear: sustainability begins in the cities. They form the indispensable basis for implementing the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with their 169 sub-goals. The concept of sustainable development is based on a three-part normative framework that encompasses economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability and is pursued in harmony with each other (Espey et al. 2018: 3), and it has already been defined in many different ways. The most used definition comes from Our Common Future, the so-called Brundtland Report: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland et al. 1987: 54). The UN’s sustainability goals also work with this definition. These consist of 17 goals contained in the Agenda for Sustainable Development of 2030. They were developed by 193 UN member states between 2012 and 2015 and endorsed by them in September 2015, including the USA (Espey et al. 2018: 3). SDG 11, or urban SDG, is entirely dedicated to cities. It aims to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

Cities can provide much-needed linkages and integrated approaches across sectors and objectives, as cities are a microcosm of all other SDGs. SDG 11 represents a decisive step towards integrating sustainable urban development into the global framework for action. SDG 11 is particularly important in this context because a major obstacle to global sustainable development in an urbanized world is that urban policy is far too often conducted in a disintegrated manner (Monkelbaan 2019: 51). The UN has developed 10 targets and 15 indicators for SDG 11. Sub-goals specify the targets and indicators provide metrics that show whether these targets are being met. The sub-objectives cover housing, transport systems, urbanization/planning and management of cities, public green spaces, disaster preparedness, protection of cultural heritage, reduction of the environmental impacts of cities (waste, air pollution) and support for the least developed countries in developing sustainable buildings.

Cities can be key players in the transformation of our society. The majority of humankind already lives in cities and the United Nations assume that by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities (Frantzeskaki et al. 2018: Preface). Thus, it will be decided in the urban spaces whether the implementation of the SDGs will be judged as success or failure. Possible undesirable developments and challenges as well as successes on the path to sustainability first become apparent in cities. Thousands of cities around the world have already put sustainability at the top of their agenda, recognizing that the combination of environmental sustainability, social inclusion and economic prosperity should be the basis of all urban development. Many cities use the SDGs as common goals and indicators to measure their own progress in sustainability, also in comparison to other cities’ progress, to learn from other cities, and to mobilize national and international resources. The SDGs themselves clearly recognize the prominent role of cities: 15 of the 17 goals refer to cities or are specifically applicable to them. SDG 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities deals exclusively with cities as drivers of sustainable development. They are centers of business and innovation with the ten largest metropolitan regions accounting for 34% of the US total GDP. However, cities are also responsible for much of the country’s waste and environmental degradation, including more than 80% of the country’s CO₂ emissions. It is thus the cities in the US that will enable or prevent sustainable development for the future of the USA (Espey et al. 2018: 2).

Globally, the US rank 31st out of 166 in terms of achieving the complete SDGs (UN 2020)[1]. Clearly, there is room for improvement. The US city that is making the best progress towards achieving the SDGs is San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA and the city with the worst performance towards that end in the US is Baton Rouge, LA (UN 2019). To become a top performer, cities need to be collaborative, democratic, pragmatic, creative, interconnected, and willing to learn. Tried and tested solutions to specific challenges regarding the SDGs, as well as best practices, need to be exchanged between cities. An advantage here is that cities are less restricted in their actions and in their exchange with one another, since they are to a lesser extent confined by questions of borders and sovereignty than states. Functioning and effective city networks such as ICLEI, UCLG, the Covenant of Mayors, and the Global Parliament of Mayors” already exist. Through cooperation, the divergent agendas of the cities are disseminated. Furthermore, city networks can contribute to increased public awareness and public approval of measures regarding sustainability. Areas in which it is difficult to achieve success with a top-down approach could be better addressed by a city network because cities and communities are closer to their population than countries’ governments and could enhance acceptance of actions towards sustainability.

In particular, mayors can play a pivotal role in these networks and can utilize them for the SDGs, provided they are committed to them. Barber, political theorist and author of the book If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities assigns a special role to mayors and sees them as important actors in global governance. He demands: “Let mayors rule the world” (2013: 4) and sees them as strict pragmatists and efficient problem solvers. He also emphasizes that they are particularly dependent on their citizens and feel committed to them. Barber is also of the opinion that mayors are not ideologists who are fixated on certain ideas and concepts. On the contrary, the author idealizes them as open and independent of political party affiliation. These features can result in citizens having more trust in their mayors than in other politicians. Mayors are oftentimes closer to their citizens and their needs, which strengthens their legitimacy. They are concerned with the everyday and often sober work of a government and less with abstract issues, as politicians at higher levels are often accused of doing (preface xiii).

A mayoral parliament as initiated by Barber in 2016, for example, can have a positive effect on democratic participation and citizens’ satisfaction. Citizens might feel that they are heard and understood because they have (in most cases) directly elected their representative and often know them personally. In addition, a mayors’ parliament can form a system of mentor cities, in which successful cities (in relation to the SGDs) cooperate with struggling cities to share best practices with them. New ideas can be implemented, and organizational tasks can be taken over by a secretariat established by a mayors’ parliament.

Yet, mayors have shown in the past that they are only interested in a mayoral parliament if the interests of their own city are taken into account by the assembly. Only then are they willing to invest time and resources (Barber 2013: preface xxiii). This already points to potential conflicts; mayors might quickly lose interest as a result. Still, a mayoral parliament as created by Barber can enable mayors to advance into the realm of global governance and to at least address problems that states have not been able to solve (Barber 2013: foreword xxiii). It can meaningfully implement the role of cities and city networks, facilitate global cooperation in the area of sustainability, and promote it long term. Hence, the mayoral parliament can serve as a network of networks for specific areas such as the renewable energy sector (Barber 2013: foreword xix).

However, in comparison to large international organizations, individual cities are small players with small budgets and little decision-making power. This makes it difficult for them to finance and implement large-scale projects. In addition, urban areas are part of a multi-level system. If measures initiated by a city are not followed by implementation at the state or national level as well, their scope is rather limited. Therefore, a transfer onto the national level is necessary so policies can achieve greater reach and thus have long-term effects. Other challenges of a mayoral parliament include lack of commitment and jurisdiction. Cities could only pay lip-service to sustainability through the label of a sustainability network and could fail to consistently implement measures. In addition to that, areas of responsibility can quickly become unclear and legal frameworks complex. Cities are still part of a federal state or province and thereby subject to its legislation. This significantly restricts their authority as actors. Courts can intervene in the decisions of mayors and nullify them, as can be seen in the example of Bloomberg’s failed attempt to ban large serving sizes of soda in New York City. The state still has considerably more power than cities, as it has legislative sovereignty and decides on budgetary issues. There are numerous opportunities to block the actions of cities, which is one of the reasons a good relationship between state and city is essential. If states are regarded as an adversary, it is challenging for city and state actions to complement each other in achieving the SDGs.

Apart from that, the authority of cities is weakened by a strong personalization of the mayors’ role. It should not be overlooked that the term of office of mayors is limited. After the end of their time in office, the concepts and solutions developed by a mayor are regularly abandoned. In addition, mayors are often accused of conducting identity politics. The focus is on the wishes and needs of a particular group of people. Accordingly, mayors only lobby for the constituents of their city. Potentially, this could lead to other interest groups being ignored while policy areas are being dealt with unilaterally. Beyond that, mayors tend to be white, male, and well-off, which does not comply with the spirit of representation, diversity and inclusion promoted by the SDGs (Berman 2018).

In summary, cities and their associated city networks as well as mayors themselves can be considered promising new players on the way to realize the SDGs set by the UN. But an emphasis on cities and their leaders is not unproblematic. These actors face challenges, albeit different ones than countries. This is especially true for SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities). A mayor’s parliament as founded by Barber can be a way to connect cities with each other in their common progress towards the fulfillment of the SDGs. Cities can serve as magnifying glass in the global strive for sustainability. Hopefully, Barber’s resolute words will prove to be true: “Can cities save the world? I believe they can.” (2013: 3)

[1] In this ranking, so-called Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA) were used as a geographical unit since more comparable data is available at this level. For the sake of simplicity, the term ‘city’ is used.

About the author: Hanna Thiele is an MA student at the Goethe University Frankfurt in International Relations. Hanna received her BA in American Studies from Heidelberg University and is interested in sustainability, security and climate change. She has previously contributed to the blog, click to read her article Rising Levels of Skepticism on organized climate change skepticism in the U.S.


Barber, Benjamin R. If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

Berman, Russell. “The White Men’s Club Leading America’s Largest Cities.” The Atlantic. Last modified April 9, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/04/the-white-mens-club-leading-americas-largest-cities/556193/.

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Espey, Jessica, Dahmm, Hayden, and Manderino, Laurie (2018). Leaving No U.S. City Behind.

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“2019 US Cities Sustainable Development Report.” Sustainable Development Report – Sustainable Development Report. Accessed November 11, 2020. https://www.sustainabledevelopment.report/reports/2019-us-cities-sustainable-development-report/.

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