First step for cities on the Sustainable Development Goals: making people aware of them

Bert Kamphuis, an alderman from the Dutch city of Sittard Geleen, puts his wish for 2030 in a time capsule at a publicity event to raise awareness of the new global Sustainable Development Goals. (VNG International)

What should our world look like 15 years from now?

That’s a question a number of Dutch mayors and city councillors are asking themselves these days — often in the company of schoolchildren and cameras.

Their answers, written down on paper and stuffed into a cylindrical time capsule, aren’t necessarily surprising. Alderman Bert Kamphuis of the municipality of Sittard Geleen shocked nobody when he declared to a room full of high schoolers his hope that “everybody in the world would be able to fully participate in society.”

Still, ceremonies like this have been successful at generating media coverage in local newspapers and television. The small wooden time capsule has visited half a dozen cities across the Netherlands this year, collecting the 15-year wishes of local officials and their constituents.

This all may be a publicity gimmick, but it’s for a good cause. The idea is to get people talking about a new set of “Sustainable Development Goals” aimed at making the world a better place.  

Approved last year by all 193 nations represented at the United Nations, these 17 goals are a framework to coordinate global efforts for ending poverty and hunger, combating inequality and disease, slowing climate change and building peace. Tangible progress is expected on all of these fronts by 2030 — and local authorities have a crucial role to play in getting the job done.

But before anything can happen, local officials need to know what these goals, or “SDGs,” are all about. They also need to build awareness among their constituents so that there is political will to act.

That’s why the international arm of the Dutch association of municipalities, known as VNG, came up with the idea for the time capsule. Any municipality can ask for a visit from the capsule; VNG helps to publicize the events and has published guidance for municipalities on how to stage an event to get media coverage.

[Read: Cities turn to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals]

PR efforts like these are an important first step for localities to implement the SDGs, according to Josep Roig, secretary general of United Cities and Local Governments. Speaking to a recent gathering of European city and regional leaders in Cyprus, Roig said mayors must start with communication and raising awareness.

“It’s very important,” Roig said. “I’m sure not many citizens of our local governments and cities are aware of all these issues. So there’s a campaign to be done on awareness and creating know-how about the SDGs and the need for local governments to work on them.”

Utrecht leads the way

Many local authorities are doing just what Roig suggests. The government of the Spanish city of Valencia is establishing an alliance of cities and NGOs to raise awareness of the 17 goals in schools and universities. Last October, the government of Belarus organized a multi-stop train journey to publicize the SDGs. The heads of executive committees of each region along the train route signed a Declaration of Commitment to the SDGs.

In terms of a communications push, Dutch municipalities may be the most mobilized of any country in the world. And while it hasn’t yet hosted the time capsule, no city in the Netherlands is more mobilized than Utrecht.

The city of 340,000 is located about a half-hour’s train ride south of Amsterdam. Home to the largest university in the Netherlands, Utrecht has a vast array of citizen associations and independent initiatives dedicated to environmental and social-justice causes. “Sustainability seems to be in the DNA of the city,” explains Desiree van de Ven, the city’s coordinator of international affairs. “Utrecht has a large student population that is actively involved in these issues, many of whom continue living in the city after graduation.”

Part of Utrecht’s approach as a local government is to set a good example. An email I received from Van de Ven says at the bottom: “Think about the environment before you print this email.” Public tenders include criteria on working conditions, CO2 emissions, and the production of waste, both for organizations Utrecht contracts with as well as their sub-contractors.

However, the municipality does not see its role as needing to initiate action toward the SDGs. Rather, it’s to bolster and publicize existing bottom-up activities, and to bundle them up and rebrand them under the umbrella of the global goals.  

Utrecht’s annual Fair Fashion Festival educates consumers on the importance of buying fair-trade clothing. (Baldwin Henderson)

An important aspect of the SDGs is that they are meant to apply in rich and poor countries alike. By contrast, a previous worldwide initiative known as the Millennium Development Goals applied only to developing nations. For a prosperous city like Utrecht, this mandate has people thinking about how to educate local consumers about the role they play in global supply chains — particularly with food and fashions. Consumers may want low prices, but maybe not if it means exploiting impoverished textile workers in Bangladesh or generating CO2 emissions to fly in kiwis from New Zealand.

This was a hot issue in Utrecht even before the SDGs came around. Since 2010 the city has been designated a “Fair Trade Town” by a UK foundation that certifies local commitments. The title means that local shops offer clothes produced without child labor, by people who earn a decent income. A substantial number of restaurants must offer food from farmers who’ve received a fair price for their produce. The local government and major businesses and community organizations also must support the fair-trade cause.

Van de Ven explains that fair trade is an important part of the city’s approach to the SDGs. Local actions here touch on Goal 8 (promoting sustainable economic growth and decent work for all) as well as Goal 12 (ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns). To keep the title of Fair Trade Town, she says, “we need to have a working group of volunteers that every year evaluates on the basis of six criteria if we are still eligible.”

[See: Here’s the list of SDG targets that have a role for cities]

That working group has recently been renamed Utrecht 4 Global Goals. The municipality pays part of the fees for four freelance project managers. But the organization really runs on a group of 20 to 25 volunteers who work on publicizing local fair-trade events. Many of them are students or young people who are just starting their careers, but also some people in their fifties are involved.

One of those events is an annual Fair Fashion Festival, which the city hosts in October. Eefke Meijer, one of the project managers at Utrecht 4 Global Goals, says this event is primarily targeted at educating consumers on the importance of buying fair-trade clothing. Last year, 2,200 people visited the one-day festival, which consists of workshops, seminars, a clothes market and a big fashion show in one of the city’s most popular cafés. Meijer says this year’s festival is joining forces with another organization that encourages shops to offer fair-trade and ecologically produced clothing. “Now we can address both retailers and consumers,” she says.

Food factor

On the food side, Utrecht’s initiatives combine raising awareness about fair trade with the parallel goal of boosting the local-food movement.

One initiative run by a pair of local organizations is called Flairtje. During the national Fair Trade Week in autumn, Utrecht chefs prepare at least one dish using fair-trade ingredients. Flairtje actively promotes these restaurants through a website and flyers. The initiative also brings local farmers into restaurants to tell diners about their products and how they are produced. Flairtje is now also targeting workplace cafeterias to reach an even bigger audience.

Utrecht is also active in city networks working to change urban food supply chains. One of them is the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, signed by more than 125 mayors from New York to Shanghai. The pact commits cities to re-think their food systems in ways that counter climate change, fight poverty and improve health.

A workshop in Utrecht brainstormed ways fair-trade and local foods could be better promoted at restaurants. (Food Smart Cities for Development)

A European Union-funded follow-up on this initiative is the Food Smart Cities for Development project. Utrecht is one of a dozen cities across three continents aiming to coordinate their food policies. The goal, according to the project’s website, is to “reduce food waste, promote healthy eating and encourage the purchase of food produced respecting the rights of people and the environment.” An exhibition now traveling through the participating cities is meant to raise awareness about different aspects of the food supply chain and the role local governments can play in changing it.

As part of the Food Smart Cities for Development project, 80 representatives from local workplace cafeterias and retailers recently joined in a workshop organized by the municipality. They identified supply-chain problems, such as the fact that many ingredients are bought locally but not necessarily produced locally. They also brainstormed ways fair-trade and local foods could be better promoted in restaurants, ranging from organizing tastings to highlighting food from specific regions to organizing a fun quiz for guests to raise awareness of where their food comes from.

Jeroen Kreijkamp, Utrecht’s alderman for international affairs, says the city’s aim is to get as many companies and citizens as possible to see how they can be involved in SDGs push. “The global goals,” he says, “match very well with the goals the city of Utrecht has for a better quality of life in the city.”

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Letty is a freelance journalist who writes stories about cities and the people inhabiting them.  Full bio

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