Orlando and the Sustainable Development Goals: Orlando Releases Voluntary Local Review of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in Partnership with ICLEI USA

To mark the occasion of the United Nations’ annual General Assembly meetings in 2021, Mayor Buddy Dyer and the City of Orlando announced the release of the City’s first Voluntary Local Review of the UNs’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Orlando and the Sustainable Development Goals: A Voluntary Local Review of Progress. Developed in partnership with ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA after more than two years of engaging more than 100 partners, Orlando’s Voluntary Local Review, or “VLR”, builds on the City’s Green Works Orlando sustainability plan and aligns city programs and progress with a globally recognized framework for environmental, social and economic measurement.

“While the SDGs offer a shared lens through which we can all view our work in cities and countries around the world, the Global Goals also help us measure the prosperity of our workers, the growth of our businesses, and the legacy we leave for the next generation,” Mayor Buddy Dyer City of Orlando in the press release. “Consistent with the vision of Green Works Orlando, we are proud to present our VLR to the world and we call upon our fellow cities and counties to embark on this journey to share our progress in the years to come.”

Orlando is the fourth U.S. city to release a VLR—and only the second medium-sized city—but joins a growing community of cities and regions internationally taking steps to support the Global Goals. From New York City, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles in the United States to Buenos Aires, Bristol and Bonn abroad, have built their Voluntary Local Reviews into a vehicle for enhanced engagement locally, nationally and internationally. Cities and regions have been first responders to the COVID-19 crisis. The Orlando VLR is an exploration for systemic recovery, acting as a catalyst to involve all stakeholders in a way that creates ownership and cultivates incentives to advance our shared vision for social, economic and environmental prosperity.

What is a Voluntary Local Review?

VLRs are the local answer to the Voluntary National Reviews, which the UN asks nations to compile in support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. When parties to the UN adopted the 2030 Agenda in 2015, they acknowledged that sustainability is at the core of efforts to eliminate poverty, empower women and girls, safeguard nature, and build prosperous economies. The framework for achieving these ambitious aims, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), offered a blueprint expressed across 17 goals encompassing 169 targets for comprehensive action on sustainability.

VLRs aim to localize the 17 SDGs and 169 targets to the city-scale. For example, New York City’s VLR, Global VIsion | Urban Action, aligns the City’s OneNYC vision to 10 of the SDGs (subsequent VLRs cover remaining SDGs). Orlando’s first VLR prioritizes SDGs 2 (Zero Hunger), 3, (Good Health and Well-Being) 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), 10 (Reduced Inequalities), 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), 13 (Climate Action), 15 (Life on Land), and 17 (Partnership for the Goals). These goals sit at the core of recovery and serve as beginning points to build from.

Sometimes, VLRs are accompanied by data-transparency initiatives. The City of Los Angeles and State of Hawai’i (in partnership with Hawai’i Green Growth) have both created data dashboards to display VLR progress and offer opportunities for residents to get engaged. In any case, VLRs tend to offer cities the ability to act on sustainability across levels of government, support cross-departmental collaboration and data-sharing, and engage in a global conversation with cities around the world.

A History of Sustainability Action in Orlando

When Mayor Buddy Dyer announced the Green Works Orlando plan in 2007, he vowed to move the City—the most traveled-to city in the United States, with 75 million visitors in 2018—to become one of the most environmentally friendly and economically and socially vibrant in the world. Orlando was ahead of its time: the Green Works update in 2018 took the opportunity to align more directly with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), connecting local efforts to a global framework and engaging nearly 100 partners in the process.

Between those key moments in Orlando’s history of sustainability action, the United Nations unveiled the SDGs in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. By deciding to align Green Works with the SDGs, Orlando entered into a global conversation. Led by Chris Castro, the City’s Director of Sustainability and Resilience, the City joined the SDG Leadership Cities in 2018, a group of international communities convened by the Brookings Institution that are committed to taking bold steps on the Global Goals at home. The following year, Orlando attended the UN High-Level Political Forum in New York, the annual gathering for taking stock of progress on the SDGs.

Announced ahead of the UN High-Level Political Forum 2020, the City of Orlando partnered with ICLEI to complete an SDG mapping process to bring Green Works Orlando’s global contributions into greater focus. Orlando’s VLR was developed explicitly as both an internal analysis tool and an external teaching tool. SDG 17 — partnerships for the goals — is showcased in this collaborative effort: By partnering with ICLEI, Orlando’s lessons will inform the efforts of a network of hundreds of local governments throughout the United States.

Methodology: How Orlando Tracks Progress on the SDGs

The VLR is useful for discovering data gaps and highlighting sectors not previously captured and is helping to institute new data-tracking systems among city departments and community partners. Throughout 2020, Orlando representatives participated in the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ VLR Workshop series, where the city contributed to a uniform structure of the VLR. This report adopts that structure, including to outline the methods for data collection and reporting that is both data-driven and people-centered.

Data-driven. Nine SDGs were selected for reporting by the Office of Sustainability & Resilience to ensure the process remains manageable in its first iteration while making room for additional SDG reporting in future years. Decisions were made based on:

  1. Alignment with the priorities established in the Green Works Orlando Community Action Plan,
  2. The subset of SDGs considered under annual review as part of the United Nations’ High-Level Political Forum for years 2020 and 2021, and
  3. The need to address health and resilience better than ever before to guide post-COVID-19 recovery efforts

People-centered. Each SDG can be used both by city operations and by the Orlando community to galvanize additional action, while placing Orlando at the center of an international conversation. We recognize that indicators are only one way of telling a sustainability story in Orlando — and that not all information can be quantified. The voices from both community leaders and city staff captured throughout this review give character to the data and confirm that people are at the heart of the Global Goals.

Green Works Orlando’s priority action areas are aligned with the SDGs.

Putting VLRs to Work in Cities

Innovation around local SDG implementation continues in the city “where dreams come true”. In July, Orlando helped kick off an eight-city learning-and-leadership program led by ICLEI in partnership with University of Melbourne and University of Texas at Arlington. Across 6 months, the City will lend its support to peers (including its home county, Orange County, Florida) in an SDGs Cities Challenge, so that each can discover how to put data, whole-of-government approaches, and finance to work making SDG progress on the ground.

In addition, the VLR process uncovered a number of recommended next steps for the City, including: 1) to address indicators for which no data is currently available, 2) address the remaining goals not covered in this VLR, and 3) to use the VLR to deepen engagement at all levels.

“The SDGs offer us all the ‘Rosetta Stone’ for a better World. Goal 17 of the SDGs is a reminder that none of the prior 16 goals can be achieved without working together,” said Christopher Castro, Director of Sustainability and Resilience at City of Orlando. “In that spirit, we look forward to continuing to work alongside our fellow City leaders to advance a healthier, more resilient, and more sustainable future for all.

With the release of this review of the Global Goals, Orlando offers its stakeholders a moment to reflect on which programs are working, what data remains to be collected, and why it’s important to contribute to a global community of practice. More than a report, we see the Voluntary Local Review as any city’s opportunity to forge deeper cooperation across government, forge stronger regional collaborations, and strengthen their engagement through global networks.