Localizing SDGs to Build Safe and Equitable Cities

Written by Resilient Cities Network
Wednesday, 24 March 2021

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development outlines 17 goals as a blueprint for peace and prosperity. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cover a wide range of topics under social equity, environmental sustainability, and economic prosperity. Beyond the reach of the former Millennium Development Goals, SDGs call for action from countries that are at all stages of development. Localizing SDGs is essential in building safe and equitable cities. The City Playbook for Advancing SDGs by our partners at the Brookings Institution provides a series of briefs on how-to action these goals at the city-level.


While universally accepted as benchmarks for progress, the SDGs are also valuable in building frameworks for actioning change in areas such as social equality, public safety and climate resilience. While thought of as The Global Goals, often discussed on national or continental scales, SDGs can be effectively implemented at the local city-scale.

The SDGs have successfully guided many cities around the world providing a universal and holistic call to action to solve some of the most complex challenges. Many of these challenges are rooted in systems of inequality, poverty and exclusion and thus, require comprehensive methods of analysis and action.

Applying SDGs to Urban Violence

Mexico City serves as an excellent example of how SDGs have been employed to build a multifaceted approach to tackling urban violence. The city is home to distinguished cultural precincts, affluent neighbourhoods and beautiful landscapes. In contrast, it is also home to deteriorating infrastructure, impoverished communities and insufficient services. The geographic divides are further emphasised by high rates of violence and homicide.

Acknowledging that enforcement-only responses weren’t enough, the city was able to advance efforts to tackle some of the root causes of violence through neighbourhood investment. SDG 16.1 “significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere,” along with several other goals were considered and applied. Including the development of economic and educational resources, addressing discrimination and inequality, and creating safe public spaces.

Implementing PILARES was a key strategy that took a holistic approach to engaging with the most vulnerable communities in Mexico City. PILARES are community centres that offer a range of amenities and opportunities for residents, such as free internet access, recreational space, free online education, job training, and cultural activities. These centres also act as a one-stop shop for city government programs ranging from assistance on applications for small business loans to psychological counselling, among others.

Merely providing these services in neglected areas wasn’t enough – Mexico City had to rebuild trust from the community to help combat violence. Residents were invited to be directly involved in the design and operation of PILARES to leverage their familiarity and relationships with the community. These centres have now successfully delivered academic services and economic autonomy programs to hundreds of thousands of people. Rather than only enhancing law enforcement, multifaceted city strategies like these based on the SDGs, aim to provide residents with options outside of crime and violence, in order to build more peaceful communities.

Leveraging SDGs to Advance Women’s Rights

The city of Buenos Aires took a holistic approach in tackling a different social stressor under SDG 5, “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” In this case, the SDGs helped provide a comprehensive framework not only for strategizing, but for analysis and measurement of the issue at hand.

The Buenos Aires Gender Indicator System (SIGBA), was created in order to measure gender gaps within three realms of women’s autonomy – physically, economically, as well as in decision making. Among other metrics, it includes data on how safe women feel in public spaces, their access to amenities relative to men and how they perform in the labour market. This data-driven approach revealed how best to tackle the inequality gap through understanding women’s autonomy. This process, for instance, revealed a need for tying mobility policies to safer transportation infrastructure facilities that could ensure the safety of women, particularly those living in the more vulnerable neighbourhoods.

Practitioners in Buenos Aires cited having learned that the most valuable policies to improve women’s autonomy involved citizen participation and open government. BA SDG 16+ was launched by the city in partnership with UNDP Argentina to act as a space for co-creating innovative solutions to achieve the SDGs. While rooted in SDG 16, this lab directly works towards achieving several other goals to advance necessary change in the city.

Icons representing the 17 sustainable development goals defined by United Nations as a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all by 2030.

Takeaways for Cities Seeking to Localize SDGs

While both Mexico City and Buenos Aires took different routes in addressing exclusion and community transformation, they resulted in similar takeaways.

  • There is benefit to examining the root cause of city challenges.
  • Community engagement is essential to understanding stressors and advancing change.
  • A government that engages stakeholders and offers equal access to resources and opportunity is necessary to implement lasting change.
  • Holistic and multifaceted solutions that bridge  several goals, are needed for systemic and effective change.

These lessons can serve as a blueprint for other cities seeking to take action on social stressors and building resilient communities.

More information on applying SDGs

To learn about how other cities have successfully applied SDGs to their development strategies, take a look at these City Playbooks. Curated by the Brookings Center for Sustainable Development in collaboration with Apolitical, a series of how-to briefs and case studies authored by experienced government leaders to describe how different cities have localized SDGs to tackle urban stressors and shocks.

Additional reports on cities applying SDGs:

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