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To build sustainable cities, involve those who live in them

Urban leadership needs to develop a shared vision that guides residents on their individual and collective contributions.

[Source photo: brainmaster/Getty Images, shuoshu/Getty Images]

Cities have an important role in making progress on sustainability and climate change issues. And for them to achieve this, urban residents need to be involved in achieving set goals. This means that cities need to provide opportunities and guidance to their residents to help them make progress.

While national targets are important, they do not mean much to a city resident or an organization.

It can be difficult to determine how to address large and complex national issues. These need to be translated from theoretical commitments into measurable goals to create a sense of commitment and urgency. For example, emission targets need to be broken down into actionable objectives at the city level, which would make it more meaningful to its residents, who can then make small contributions that amount to significant outcomes for the city and beyond.


The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are recognized as strategically important for sustainability. They cannot be achieved without commitment at every scale, from individuals to different levels of government.

Public and private organizations in cities can set the stage to engage everyone to contribute to shared goals. The SDGs may seem large and difficult to achieve, but they can be localized and broken down into achievable pieces.

This is being done by dozens of cities internationally who are reporting their progress in voluntary local reviews. The European Aalborg Charter is evidence of a can-do attitude among cities.


Urban leadership needs to develop a shared vision that guides residents on their individual and collective contributions. The combined achievements at the urban level contribute to global improvements. Measurable indicators and targets are set—such as monitoring energy consumption—reflect a commitment to targets.

Taking collaborative action on larger goals can address concerns with leadership that have been recently reported in the media. The responses of world leaders to the ongoing climate challenges and the global COVID-19 pandemic have produced a global crisis of trust. People need to see action and be part of the solutions that are being proposed.

To build trust, city leadership needs partners, collaborators, and residents to work with them on setting goals, developing a measurement system, and collecting data. There are a number of available platforms and technologies to assist with developing a measurement system and engaging residents in reporting.

Many of these are being used by cities: the PEG platform in Winnipeg, Manitoba, for example, is designed to address local issues while considering data security.


According to Canada’s 2030 Agenda National Strategy, cities are “epicentres for jobs, growth, diversity, culture, and innovation, and they provide frontline responses to address Canada’s most serious social and environmental challenges, including poverty, food insecurity, disaster relief, homelessness, and crime.”

A similar perspective is echoed in the UN Agenda 2030. These documents are evidence of preliminary commitments to sustainability, and need to be translated into goals at the local level. London, Ontario, has developed a process for localizing the SDGs.

Other platforms that provide opportunities for benchmarking and sharing information include award and recognition programs. For example, the Intelligent Community Forum Award shares the achievement of several cities in Canada and internationally. The European Smart Cities benchmarking program provides a measurement system that features a number of important sustainability metrics and allows cities to learn from one another.

At the city level, work begins with agreeing on significant local goals that require partnerships. For example, Guelph, Ontario—in partnership with surrounding Wellington County—is working on a smart sustainable food system. Other communities internationally are working to eradicate poverty.

Issy-Les-Moulineaux, a commune in the greater Paris area, has a history of digital innovation, citizen engagement in green initiatives, and working collaboratively to improve livability.


In addition, since sustainability is an evolving space, cities must discuss new indicators, such as measuring citizen happiness, to develop compassionate cities; improving our understanding and actions toward regenerative and restorative circular economies; and growing through sustainable ecosystems.

Establishing measurable goals at the city level needs, and will result in, the engagement of residents. Everybody wins in the long run—quality of life improves, urban governance is more effective, and businesses develop more efficient models.

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