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2021 SDGs Cities Challenge


Start: July 2021
End: Ongoing
Client or funder: Tomberg Family Philanthropies and individual donors through the Benevity causes portal
Collaborators: Connected Cities Lab at the University of Melbourne, University of Texas at Arlington, Brookings Institution and United Nations Association of Australia (Victoria)



July 14, 2021 [New York, USA]. Eight Local Governments (cities and counties) from the United States have been selected to undertake the first SDGs Cities Challenge for U.S. communities, a leadership and learning cohort delivered by ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA and University of Texas at Arlington, with knowledge expertise provided by Brookings Institution and the United Nations Association of Australia (Victoria). The SDGs Cities Challenge builds on a prior year’s engagement in the Pacific region coordinated by Connected Cities Lab at the University of Melbourne, which continues as a research partner for this year’s U.S.-focused cohort.

The six-month SDGs Cities Challenge commenced July 14, 2021, during the United Nations High-Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development (“the SDG Forum”) and brings participating governments together in a collaborative, learn-and-do group-training engagement to gain SDG expertise and align city goals with the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The engagement will offer deep-dive technical assistance and a facilitated learning environment for mainstreaming SDG metrics and processes into city and county government. Topics covered include: cross-departmental communication, systems for data-sharing, community engagement, and budgeting for SDG progress.

“The Sustainable Development Goals give the County of Maui a shared platform to join our international peers working to eliminate poverty, advance equity, and safeguard the natural resources that underpin our economic health,” said Mayor Michael Victorino. This sentiment is shared by ICLEI USA Board Member and Council Member Kelly King stating that “Strong partnerships, decisions driven by good data, and ensuring our spending goes toward creating a community where everyone thrives are at the heart of the work we do here in Maui County.”

“Strong partnerships and decisions driven by good data are at the heart of the work we do in Atlanta to ensure that everyone thrives,” said Shelby Busó, Chief Sustainability Officer with the City of Atlanta’s Office of Resilience. “The SDGs offer a shared framework for action that allow the impact of our work to be communicated, tracked and accelerated. I am excited for Atlanta to join ICLEI and the Challenge partners as both leader and learner in a global effort to advance system-wide sustainability.” 

Aligned to the UN’s Decade of Action on the SDGs (2020 – 2030), the 2021 SDGs Cities Challenge is supported by Tomberg Family Philanthropies and aims to encourage more cities to take up the challenge of addressing these and other global goals, while also contributing to a collaborative research project documenting how cities use global frameworks for local impact and vice versa. As the second year of the Challenge, Challenge communities in 2021 will benefit from insights gained during the 2020 cohort of cities in the Asia-Pacific region.

“This challenge is inspired by cities showing innovative approaches to contributing at the local level to global frameworks, such as the Voluntary Local Review (VLR) process pioneered by New York City, USA in 2018” said Dr Cathy Oke, Challenge project leader, Connected Cities Lab, University of Melbourne. “The Challenge offers a terrific opportunity for peer learning, across multiple cities and time zones, to leverage local innovation for urban sustainable development for global impact.”

“The SDGs Cities Challenge program leverages ICLEI’s 30-year history of integrated sustainability, and ICLEI’s 2021 Strategic Vision to build a sustainable world for all” said Angie Fyfe, Executive Director of ICLEI USA. “The Sustainable Development Goals offer a data- and people-centered framework for on-the-ground action across these priorities.”

In 2021, the SDGs Cities Challenge welcomes The Brookings Institution as a knowledge partner, which joins the Challenge to share extensive knowledge of how cities are engaging with the SDGs and to collaborate on the research and student engagement aspects of the project.

“Through our Local Leadership on the SDGs initiative and the SDG Leadership Cities Network, we have been harvesting best practices and innovations by cities that are in the global vanguard of advancing local sustainable development,” said Tony Pipa Senior Fellow – Global Economy and Development at Brookings. “As the BIden administration pursues an ambitious agenda to ‘Build Back Better’ from the COVID-19 pandemic, we look forward to sharing this collection of innovative case studies and tools to strengthen the leadership of these U.S. cities on the frontlines of addressing social, environmental, and economic challenges, both at home and globally.”

“The Regional Center of Expertise for Education on Sustainable Development (RCE North Texas) at UT Arlington is an influencer in the community as North Texas confronts environmental, economic, and social challenges,” said Meghna Tare, Chief Sustainability Officer, University of Texas at Arlington. “I am excited that the SDG cities challenge will integrate the learnings of how this multi stakeholder collaborative partnership is advancing regional sustainable development through transformative education.”

“Since the 2020 SDGs Cities Challenge, I have been lucky enough to hear several of the 2020 cities speak enthusiastically about their involvement in the program and the assistance and support it gave them,” said Sophie Arnold, UN Association of Australia (Victoria) Executive Manager. “I am looking forward to assisting a new group to tackle their SDGs challenge.”

The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030 Agenda) is a plan of action for people, the planet and prosperity. There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets to be met by 2030 which aim to place the world on a more sustainable economic, social and environmental path in order to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

About ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA

ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability is the leading global network of more than 2,500 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development. Active in more than 125 countries, we influence sustainability policy and drive local action for low emission, nature-based, equitable, resilient and circular development. ICLEI USA is the United States country office of ICLEI and the leading technical experts on greenhouse-gas emissions accounting, climate action, and sustainability planning.

About Connected Cities Lab at University of Melbourne

Connected Cities Lab is a laboratory designed to address the challenges that city leadership faces, and the information it needs, in an interconnected and increasingly urbanised planet. We work with key stakeholders in urban governance to provide evidence, build capacity and offer advice on the global dynamics shaping the leadership of cities. We offer reliable and innovative sources of applied urban research, producing both policy material, practice-oriented education and scholarly reviews. Connected Cities Lab specialises on the ways networks, international processes and information influence urban governance, and strives to link academic research to practical needs.

About the Regional Center of Expertise (RCE) of North Texas at the University of Texas at Arlington

RCE North Texas is a network of multidisciplinary stakeholders, including higher education institutions, businesses, non-governmental organizations, community associations, and local, regional, state and federal government agencies. As the second most populous state in the nation, the region of North Texas has a larger population than most of the other fifty states. The sixteen counties of North Texas encompass a diverse and vibrant demographic and economic region. At this pivotal moment for North Texas, the formation of this RCE will be an influencer in the community as cities expand, providing the resources to maximize the potential economic opportunity that well-managed communities can offer.

Project Activity

The challenge is a learning cohort for local governments taking action for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

The SDGs Cities (and Counties) Challenge provides a 6-month peer knowledge-sharing experience to guide local governments in integrating the SDGs into processes and programs.

It is designed for participants to develop solutions to sustainable development issues, underpinned by technical support from experts in local-level SDG leadership.

The sessions will be delivered by a program of invited experts in government, academia, philanthropy and business, alongside technical experts from ICLEI USA, the Connected Cities Lab at University of Melbourne and University of Texas at Arlington. Knowledge partnership provided by The Brookings Institution,


SDGs Cities Challenge Cities will Learn:

  • Whole-of-government  and cross-departmental approaches to sustainability leadership
  • SDG-aligned budgeting
  • Data platforms for SDG tracking, including a deeper understanding of SDG indicators and metrics
  • How Pittsburgh is developing its Sustainable Procurement Policy through a ‘Voluntary Local Review of the SDGs’
  • How Central Florida Foundation is aligning its giving to the SDGs
  • Steps to completing a Voluntary Local Review of the SDGs

SDGs Cities Challenge Cities will Receive:

  • 1-on-1 technical support for a self-determined SDG-related project
  • 6 small group sessions with experts
  • International recognition as an SDG City/County

Those Involved

Cities and counties participating in the challenge:

Atlanta, Georgia
Dallas, Texas
Denton, Texas
Fayetteville, Arkansas
Maui County, Hawai’i
New Haven, Connecticut
Orange County, Florida
San Antonio, Texas