US Cities Sidestep Trump to Embrace UN's Social Goals - OZY | A Modern Media Company
A growing number of American cities are showing that small can be big — and effective — in using the U.N’s sustainable development goals as a framework to monitor their own progress.
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From the environment to police accountability, American cities are turning to an agency Trump hates: the U.N.

By Sophia Akram

President Donald Trump has made his feelings about the United Nations clear, pulling the United States out of global agreements like the Paris climate accord and refusing to join others, such as the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in 2018. Go to the South Bronx, though, and you wouldn’t know that the American government’s commitment to sustainable development has wavered. 

Here, a young student spent much of 2016 and 2017 talking to people in her school and neighborhood about cleaning up the Bronx River. In Brooklyn, an ongoing school project has students using art to talk about the impact of climate change, displaying their artwork in school and their communities and at the World Ocean Festival. And in Manhattan, children passionate about ending hunger are using scales to measure food waste in their school every day to educate their peers. The unifying factor? New York City.

It may sound heavy for schoolchildren, but a growing number of American cities are showing that small can be big — and effective — in using the U.N’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) as a framework to monitor their own progress and shield themselves from the adverse effects of a fraying relationship between the U.S. and the U.N. Diplomats at the international body may have laughed at Trump when he was addressing them in September, but the U.N. and cities ranging from New York, Baltimore and Orlando, Florida, to San Jose and Los Angeles are tightening their embrace. 

For these cities, it’s more effective to work almost as city-states in dealing with the U.N. at a time when going through the federal government is unlikely to prove helpful.

The cities are eyeing different gains by using the SDGs as their lodestar. Baltimore, still scarred by the riots and the declaration of a state of emergency by Gov. Larry Hogan after the death of Freddie Gray, a young Black man, while in police custody in 2015, has homed in on fixing a biased justice system. Six officers were charged with Gray’s death; none were convicted. The city has picked SDG 16 — to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” Local community initiatives such as the Maryland Access to Justice Commission have helped identify three indicators that the city is now using to track progress: state and local public funding for legal aid; length of time that defendants are forced to spend in jail before trial for misdemeanor offenses; and the ratio of civil legal aid attorneys in Baltimore to poor residents.

Los Angeles is measuring itself against a modified version of the SDGs that it has devised, called Resilient Los Angeles, with targets on improving economic security for the poor, disaster preparedness, civic engagement and education. Orlando, which started with similarly city-specific goals, now wants to measure itself against other cities — and not just in the U.S. The World Council on City Data, a U.N. agency, has developed a global standard — the ISO 37120 — based on 100 indicators identified as the most pressing priorities cities must meet. Orlando hopes to become the world’s first ISO 37120 city, says Director of Sustainability Chris Castro.


Some cities, like New York, are trying to use both strategies. New York not only has a city-specific set of modified SDGs that it’s targeting under a program known as the OneNYC but is also working to meet the U.N.’s global goals through its Junior Ambassadors program, in which young people adopt a commitment to action based on the SDGs and their community needs. It was through this program that the Bronx River project started, says Penny Abeywardena, New York City’s commissioner for international affairs.

“It was so powerful,” says Abeywardena. “We now have over a thousand alumni [of the Junior Ambassadors program].”

Of course, some of these initiatives started before the current tensions between the U.S. and the U.N. The 17 SDGs were finalized in 2015, building on the previous millennium development goals. In 2014, before the SDGs were finalized, the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), a research network enabling policymakers to implement the goals, launched the USA Sustainable Cities Initiative to connect directly with cities. It quickly brought on New York, Baltimore and San Jose to pilot it.

More and more cities are turning to these U.N.-led strategies. Los Angeles and Orlando have joined the USA Sustainable Cities Initiative, and the SDSN is working with forums like the U.S. Conference of Mayors to promote broader SDGs. Cities that had ties with the U.N. before the Trump administration say that collaboration is more important than ever as not just the U.S. but governments across the globe abdicate responsibilities and commitments they had formally made. 

For these cities, it’s more effective to work almost as city-states in dealing with the U.N. at a time when going through the federal government is unlikely to prove helpful or efficient. And it’s not just about how to connect with the U.N. These cities feel they have a role to perform. New York, for instance, is clear, says Abeywardena, that cities can use “city leadership, city diplomacy to step into the void left by federal governments.”

Not all sustainability indicators are equally relevant for every city. “Human trafficking isn’t as much of a problem as some of our other issues, like teenage pregnancy,” says Seema D. Iyer, associate director of the Baltimore-based Jacob France Institute, explaining how the city held consultations to pick indicators and goals to monitor. Other cities, like New York, have adopted global goals. New York has the status and resources that give it the ability to do so — it’s the home of the U.N., the world’s biggest financial hub and America’s wealthiest city.

Both Iyer and Abeywardena recognize that the choice their cities have made is increasingly at odds with the federal government’s attitude toward the SDGs and other global commitments. But that only serves as still greater motivation to pursue the path they’ve taken. It’s a chance, says Abeywardena, of “being representative of sane policies in the U.S.”

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