Localising the Urban Sustainable Development Goals

The Realising Just Cities programme at the University of Sheffield's Urban Institute worked with international partners to explore how cities are engaging with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the New Urban Agenda. This project was funded through Mistra Urban Futures and included the cities of Buenos Aires (Argentina), Cape Town (South Africa), Gothenburg (Sweden), Kisumu (Kenya), Malmö (Sweden) and Shimla (India) as well as Sheffield.

The local team also worked with UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development to produce a policy brief, detailing current progress in UK cities. Download the brief:

We agreed a partnership with Sheffield City Council to explore the local relevance, interpretation and implementation of SDG goals, targets and indicators at city level, through pilot work applying the SDG framework to key local strategies and associated delivery plans. 

In-depth analysis was carried out in each participating city by local researchers together with local authority partners, in parallel with a comparative component, with all cities involved in cross-city learning and interaction. This included knowledge exchange workshops in Kisumu (2017), Cape Town (2018), and Sheffield (2019). Full findings were then brought together to feed back to ongoing UN revisions of SDG targets and indicators. 

Project outputs include:

  • a Policy Brief based on the findings from the workshop organised with UKSSD.
  • a series of 'City Briefs', which give an introduction to the case study cities and how they have started to engage with the SDGs, including the UN's recommended Tier 1 infictaors for Goal 11 on Sustainable Cities and Communities. 
  • an evidence submission to the Environmental Audit Committee's follow up inquiry on the Sustainable Development Goals in the UK (September 2018), based on our learning from international partners about how SDG localisation can be supported and enabled. 


The Sustainable Development Goals 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) form part of Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, a global agenda for sustainability adopted in 2015 by the UN General Assembly. The SDGs replace the Millennium Development Goals and are for all countries regardless of their level of development. There are 17 Global Goals with various associated targets and indicators, that together focus on ending poverrt, protecting the planet and ensuring prosperity for all. 193 countries—including the UK—have formally adopted the SDGs and are required to report on progress over the period 2016-30. Goal 11 focuses on Sustainable Cities and Communities and aims to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. This has led to a greater focus than in previous UN initiatives on the importance of city-level actors and efforts to localise the SDGs. 

The New Urban Agenda

The New Urban Agenda (NUA) was adopted at the Habitat III summit in Quito, Ecuador, in October 2016 and formally adopted by the UN General Assembly on 22 December 2016. The NUA set out a vision for sustainable urban development and is the guiding document for the UN's urban engagements over the next 20 years. Although, for political reasons, there is no formal link between the NUA and the SDGs, there is widespread consensus that the SDGs, especially Goal 11 and the urban elements of the other goals, should constitute the de facto monitoring and evaluation framework for the NUA. 

Mistra Urban Futures pilot project and contribution to Goal 11

Mistra Urban Futures undertook a comparative pilot project in 2015 to test potential targets and indicators for the Urban Sustainable Development Goal (Goal 11). The pilot tested the data availability, relevance and appropriateness of the draft targets and indicators for Goal 11. This was carried out in the four cities where Mistra's Local Interaction Platforms are based: Cape Town, Gothenburg, Greater Manchester (now Sheffield-Manchester) and Kisumu, as well as in Bangalore as a contribution to the Urban SDG Campaign, of which the Centre was a member.  

A key conclusion of the pilot study was that if Goal 11 is to be a useful tool to encourage local and national authorities to make positive invesments in urban sustainability transitions, then it is vital that it should prove widely relevant, acceptable and practicable. In this diverse set of cities, the pilot study found that not one draft indicator was regarded as both important or relevant and easy to report on at city level. Based on these results, a set of recommendations was produced, which were taken up directly by the UN statistical team in UN DESA (United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs) in charge of finalising the targets and indicators. Some of these recommendations are reflected in the final version of Agenda 2030 adopted by the UN General Assembly. 

The team

The international project team is led by David Simon and Sandra Valencia, and also includes researchers Sylvia Croese, Kristina Diprose, Aishwarya KS, Joakim Nordqvist, Michael Oloko, Tarun Sharma, Nick Taylor Buck, Ileana Versace and Yutika Vora, together with city partners. Locally, the work in Sheffield is overseen by Realising Just Cities Director Beth Perry. 

Policy Brief

The Sheffield research team forged a partnership with UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD) to facilitate an exchange of practices at the national level. Aided by a grant from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, Realising Just Cities and UKSSD co-designed and co-delivered a two-day workshop with local authorities and stakeholders from other cities. Download the illustrated policy brief, Localising the Sustainable Development Goals, to learn from that event.

People involved

Nick Taylor Buck

Nick was a Research Fellow at the Urban Institute and a Sheffield-Manchester Local Interaction Platform Coordinator. In this role he helped to coordinate the programme of work and the design, delivery and evaluation of co-production projects across two city-regions in the North of England. His research interests are in: urban ecology, food systems and co-production, including urban innovation processes and demonstrators. A PhD in the natural sciences fitted Nick to lead on collaborative research and publications between the faculties of Social Science, Science and Engineering. He is a qualified Chartered Surveyor with substantial real estate practice experience, specialising in sustainable design and assessment. He has also sat on several urban design advisory panels. Nick coordinated the Self-Organising Action for Food Equity (SAFE) and Sustainable Development Goals projects.

Kristina Diprose

Kristina was a Research Associate at the Urban Institute and within the Sheffield-Manchester Local Interaction Platform from August 2018 to September 2019. Her work within the Realising Just Cities research programme focused on what 'just' sustainability means for Sheffield and local implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Other research and publications have focused on: urban residents' views on intergenerational justice, consumption and sustainability; media representations of sustainability; local narratives and moral geographies of climate change; and intergenerational community-based research. She has an MA and a PhD in social geography from the University of Leeds, where her research focussed on voluntary sector ethnography and youth participation. Before joining the University of Sheffield as a postdoctoral researcher in 2015, Kristina worked for The Young Foundation's 'Socially Sustainable Leeds' project, which combined ethnographic research and community organising. 

Beth Perry

Beth is a Professor of Urban Knowledge and Governance and Co-Director of the Urban Institute. Her research focuses on urban governance, transformation and the roles of universities, with an emphasis on socio-environmental and socio-cultural transitions.

Beth Perry joined the Urban Institute in September 2016 and is now Co-director and leads the Co-producing Urbanisms theme.  Following degrees in European Studies and Modern Languages (BA Hons, University of Manchester) and European Integration (MA, University of Bradford), she joined the Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures (SURF) at the University of Salford and became its director prior to moving to Sheffield.  During this time she completed her PhD which focused on the relationship between universities and the knowledge economy in the context of multi-level and multi-actor governance. From 2010 to 2019, Beth was the UK Programme Lead for the Mistra Urban Futures Centre, a research centre headquartered in Gothenburg, Sweden and led the UK's Realising Just Cities programme. 

Email Beth

News, events and blog

In October, the University of Sheffield hosted the fourth international Realising Just Cities conference. Several parts of the programme were captured on video and are now available to watch on the UK Realising Just Cities Youtube channel. We're also pleased to be able to share slides from the policy exchange with Greater Manchester Combined Authority (see downloads below).

The YouTube selection includes:

Five responses to the question "What difference did it make?" including UK Realising Just Cities co-researcher Sharon Davies:

We've just published a Policy Brief on localising the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This stems from the work we did in partnership with UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development, which involved convening a residential workshop for various UK and international cities.

By Vicky Habermehl, Urban Institute, University of Sheffield 

In April 2019 the inception meetings for the project started with a series of visits across the Kisumu region. These were organised with communities in different cultural heritage and sacred sites. At each meeting organisers, communities or elders took the group around the site and discussed the key concerns, and organising strategies, as well as future plans. This provided a context for cultural heritage in the area, as well as meeting potential research partners and allowing for broader understandings of different cultural heritage challenges across the region.

Kristina Diprose reflects on lessons from a recent workshop on Localising the Sustainable Development Goals, co-organised by Realising Just Cities and UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development.

View of Cape Town

‘Comparative Co-production’ was the theme of the 2018 Mistra Urban Futures conference in Cape Town earlier this month, which was attended by members of the Urban Institute’s Realising Just Cities team.


Nick Taylor Buck and Kristina Diprose from the University of Sheffield’s Urban Institute reflect on key learning so far from a cross-national project exploring how cities are engaging with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 4th October 2018