Highlights from the Social Affairs Forum in Utrecht, 7-8 March 2018

  • cooperation

On 7-8 March, the social affairs forum met in Utrecht. A record number of 175 participants from over 50 cities, including 15 elected city politicians and representatives of the European Commission, OECD and UN-HABITAT, took part in the meeting. They agreed cities play a key role in translating the Sustainable Development Goals into relevant actions at local level and involving citizens in the process.

The meeting was opened by the deputy mayor of Utrecht, Kees Diepeveen, who welcomed all participants to the most inspiring Global Goals City of the Netherlands and called for aligning our city policies to the SDGs to ensure a sustainable future for all. The chair of the social affairs forum and deputy mayor of Barcelona, Laia Ortiz, noted the great interest of cities in getting involved in the SDG agenda. She said: “co-creation is very important because only by involving people in our policy-making we can empower our communities”. 

The former executive director of the UN-HABITAT, Dr. Joan Clos, gave an inspiring keynote speech about the role of cities in addressing global challenges, such as rising inequalities and urban poverty, by adopting a new model for sustainable development. He said: “Urbanisation is a strategic issue for a sustainable future. The role of cities is increasing as a source of value, so we need to look at urbanisation as a source of development. This changes the approach to policy-making in cities. We need national governments to support urban policies and work with cities for sustainable development”.

The UN special rapporteur on adequate housing, Leilani Farha, sent a video message to the social affairs forum, in which she called upon cities to “make the shift to defend housing as a human right, following the example of Barcelona that can inspire other cities to follow”.

During two panel debates, city representatives and invited officials from the European Commission and OECD agreed that all SDGs have an urban dimension and thus should be implemented through a shared responsibility of cities, regions and member states. “While SDG 11 on sustainable cities is central, most SDGs are inter-connected and have implications for cities so we must apply a city lens for each SDG”, said the OECD representative, Stefano Marta who added that “65% of the SDG indicators cannot be achieved without cities”. OECD announced a new programme on territorial approach to SDGs, which helps cities to localise the SDG indicators and monitor progress, promote multi-level governance dialogue and share good practices on SDGs. 

EUROCITIES secretary-general, Anna Lisa Boni, spoke in one of the panels and stated: “translating SDGs at local level means being an innovative government, one that considers citizens as co-creators and works with them transversally. It’s about learning and experimenting, changing the mindset of how to do policy-making. It’s not about the money but about the willingness to learn and do urban development in a different way. Support from institutional frameworks like the Urban Agenda and financial support from cohesion policy is key to enable social innovations in cities”. 

The key messages highlighted during the two days of discussion were:

  • Many cities are already working on SDGs in different ways. Some cities re-design their urban development strategy to embed the SDGs (e.g. Malmo and Stuttgart) while others link their existing policies to one or several SDGs (e.g. Utrecht) as addressing one goal helps address others at the same time as the SDGs are interconnected. Regardless of their chosen approach to localising the SDGs, it is important that cities realise that many of their policies and actions already in place are in line with the SDGs and can be promoted as such. 
  • There is no golden rule to implement the SDGs, but cities need to translate the global goals to their local context. The 17 SDGs are not the end solution, but are a tool for cities to use in order to translate what is relevant for their own city to move forward towards sustainable development. Each city needs to ‘localise the SDGs’ by translating them into their own context. 
  • Co-creation is key to localising the SDGs. To respond to the interconnected social, environmental and economic challenges, cities collaborate with all actors at local level (private companies, academia, citizens and residents) to design, create and implement together actions in line with the SDGs. For example, Utrecht has a strategy to ‘making the city together’. While every city has its own approach and strategy to SDGs, co-creating it with the urban community is a common ground for all. Cities can engage citizens to learn more about the SDGs and to get these global goals into their daily lives. 
  • Urban Innovative Actions prove that cities can work in partnership with the EU towards sustainable urban development. Synergies between different levels of government are key to developing joint solutions in line with the SDGs. Many of the cities involved in UIA stressed the added value of having a direct line of communication with the European Commission to develop innovative projects that are then recognised as good practices at national level. 
  • Cities need more financial support and capacity-building support to work on SDGs. While policy-making and governance are important, the key is to translate SDGs into an action plan and support it with adequate funding. “Start where the money is and add social responsibility to it to ensure that investment in infrastructure benefits investment in people”, said Andreas Schönström, the vice-chair of SAF and deputy mayor of Malmo.

Political study visit

15 city politicians had the opportunity to visit the Plan Einstein and learn about Utrecht’s urban innovative action on inclusion of refugees and asylum-seekers. They engaged in an interactive dialogue with the young refugees and the Dutch residents of that neighbourgood to find out how they live and learn together in an inclusive way despite their different backgrounds. The session was an eye-opening experience for the politicians who learned from the life experiences of the refugees and the Dutch residents in the neighbourhood. “These are the visits that give real meaning to our work”, said Raffaele Barbato, the project coordinator of the Urban Innovative Action programme that financed this project. 

Imagine the Urban Future 

The members of the social affairs forum had the opportunity to debate and exchange views on the current and future social challenges in their cities and how to address them. The top three challenges identified were housing and gentrification, increased inequalities and the demographic change. Participants converged that cities can better address these challenge by working with partners at local level, co-learning and replicating good practices from fellow cities, improving internal coordination and partnering with regional, national and EU authorities. 

The next meeting of our social affairs forum will take place on 23-24 October in Stuttgart.

EUROCITIES staff contact

Bianca Faragau-Tavares