3 cities show ways to make local progress on the Sustainable Development Goals

Urban gardening is popular in Toronto's Black Creek neighborhood, where an innovative community-engagement approach has most residents working on sustainability initiatives. (Toronto and Region Conservation Authority)

A year after all members of the United Nations adopted an ambitious 15-year agenda known as the Sustainable Development Goals, we are beginning to see implementation action bubbling up from the local level.

While only one of the 17 goals has an explicitly urban focus — to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” — local authorities have a key role to play on nearly all of the goals, from ending poverty and hunger to ensuring access to water and sanitation.

The Copenhagen-based organization Sustainia knows just how important cities are to achieving these SDGs. The group recently released its annual Cities100 report showcasing 100 innovative urban ideas cities are putting into practice — most of which in one way or another contribute to achievement of the global goals.

“The SDGs act as a guide to how we uncover sustainable solutions in every project at Sustainia,” says research analyst Monica Keaney. Each city has a part to play, but in many cases, they are dealing with very similar problems. “We needn’t reinvent the wheel in every city.  Other cities can learn from these examples, understand why they’ve been successful, and hopefully be inspired to adapt these solutions to their own local context.”

The 100 cases in the report reveal concrete examples of local solutions underway to address the global goals. From hyper-local food production to city-wide urban developments, here are some ways cities are taking action.

Bogotá — turning waste into energy and social value

Taking in about 2 million tons of waste per year, Bogotá’s Doña Juana dump is Latin America’s largest open-air landfill. It’s also infamous as the site of a massive landslide in 1997 that sent mountains of garbage into the Tunjuelo River and caused a health disaster for local residents and garbage pickers.

Now, Doña Juana is a more hopeful symbol, as the site of a plant that turns landfill gas into electricity that is distributed to residents through the grid. The plant reduces carbon emissions from the landfill by 900,000 tons a year.

Meanwhile, a portion of the proceeds from the sale of electricity is reinvested in the surrounding communities. So far, the plant has pumped more than US$2 million into social investments such as new kindergartens, vocational training, wastewater treatment systems and planting 2,500 trees in the areas surrounding the dump — all projects formulated with the participation of the community. Two additional plants are to be constructed by next year.

The project’s benefits cut across many of the Sustainable Development Goals, including adding affordable and clean energy (Goal 7), sparking industry innovation (9), and encouraging climate action (13). In addition, neighboring residents are no longer exposed to harmful gases (Goal 3), clean water and sanitation is being rolled out (6), and stronger communities are formed through economic investment into social projects (8 and 11). Furthermore, the project qualifies to fulfill part of Colombia’s carbon-reduction targets under the Paris climate accord.

Farming cooperative in Tshwane, South Africa

Just outside the South African city of Tshwane, a new kind of city is growing — an “agropolitan” development centred around the sustainable and organic production of food.

The Tshwane Food and Energy Centre is essentially a cooperative where families displaced from nearby townships can make a living from small-scale farming. There are 25 individual plots for raising chickens and growing vegetables; each plot also has a small dwelling served by a tank to harvest rainwater for both drinking and farming, a bio-septic tank for handling human wastes on site, and solar power.

The sustainable living quarters are just the start. The farmers share a chicken hatchery, slaughterhouse and vegetable processing equipment, allowing for an operational scale that can both feed the site’s residents and also generate income from selling to markets.

The initiative, which received 90 percent of its US$2.9 million in funding from the City of Tshwane, is part of the municipality’s bid to become South Africa’s “green capital.” The City Sustainability Unit, established in 2013, is the driving force behind this agenda, with a mandate to address climate change and facilitate the transition towards a green economy. The unit’s other projects include South Africa’s first municipal Green Building Policy, which aims to double the energy efficiency of the city’s buildings by 2030.

While the Food and Energy Centre’s population is small, it aims for a big impact by proving that integrated approaches can tackle poverty (Goal 1), hunger (2), clean water (6), renewable energy (7) and several other SDGs all at once. Scale it up, and this could be a future model for semi-urban living.

Climate resilient community, Toronto

In urban areas, carrying out even simple sustainability initiatives, such as energy-efficient building retrofits or making community gardens, can be difficult. Cities are complex, and cash-strapped government agencies delivering the services tend operate in silos.

“Relationship-building takes time,” says Sonya Meek, senior manager of Toronto’s Sustainable Neighbourhood Retrofit Action Plan, or “SNAP”. “The biggest challenge is often the first step: engagement of non-traditional partners or participants.”

SNAP aims to avoid these pitfalls by engaging citizens to take action themselves. SNAP turns sustainability initiatives such as rainwater harvesting and greening apartment balconies into community-building initiatives driven by residents.

“We started the SNAPs specifically to find ways of overcoming persistent challenges that are limiting the rate of implementation of many plans and strategies for urban renewal and climate action in older urban areas,” explains Meek.

Toronto’s municipality is financially supporting the roll out of SNAPs through the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA). It’s showing positive results in a low-income neighborhood called Black Creek. The area has a lot of homes and apartment towers built in the 1960s, offers little green space and few grocery stores.

Since SNAP launched here in 2010, more than 60 growing plots have been planted in Black Creek; the goal is to grow 20 percent of the neighborhood’s vegetable needs on-site. Residents have planted 40 orchard trees; some residents have received horticultural training and found related jobs. Overall, 88 percent of Black Creek residents have carried out some kind of sustainability retrofit action. These actions are contributing to mitigate climate change (Goal 13), reduce utility bills (7 and 12), improving health (3) and reducing inequality (10).

But most importantly, SNAP has helped build a more resilient community in Black Creek. Homeowners have donated space in the backyards for others to grow vegetables. Surplus food is donated to poorer residents. In all, about 1,500 residents in the neighborhood have connected with each other through SNAP.

“Neighbor-to-neighbor connections are hard to measure,” says Meek, “but they’re vital for increased community resilience and wellbeing.”

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Athlyn is a freelance journalist writing on sustainability, community resilience and architecture in cities, whose work is regularly published by The GuardianFull bio

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