Local Action on the Global Agenda: Helsinki and NYC Lead with the Voluntary Local Review

By Jan Vapaavuori, Mayor of Helsinki, Finland

Incoming Finnish Permanent Representative Jukka Salovaara, Commissioner Penny Abeywardena, and Mayor of Helsinki Jan Vapaavuori, and Ambassador Kai Sauer at the Helsinki Summit

In recent years, it has become clear that many of the world’s great transformations — from digitalization, climate change, and urbanization — take place at the local level. Cities are the new powerhouses of the world, and now build international relationships and collaborations much like nation-states before them.

The desire to impact the global agenda is shared among many cities. As mayors, we are responsible for providing the best possible conditions for the everyday lives of our citizens. Increasingly, this means responsibility beyond our physical borders.

In July 2018, New York City became the first city in the world to submit a Voluntary Local Review (VLR) of the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the United Nations. Through this historic move, New York City took what had been essentially seen as nation-state level commitment to its true universal form — to the level of the people.

Importantly, the VLR made the connection between New York City’s OneNYC strategy and the focus themes of the SDGs. NYC’s example paved the way for other local governments to develop similar targets for achieving the SDGS. It also promoted international dialogue and made the SDGs more applicable to everyday life.

Launched in 2017, Helsinki’s City Strategy illustrates many areas in which the city takes part in global sustainable development. The vision is to be the world’s most functional city, based on equality, non-discrimination, strong social cohesion and open, inclusive ways of operating.

Ensuring comprehensive economic, social and ecological sustainability is one of the growing city’s core missions. Helsinki also aims to profile itself as internationally networked, and a pioneering local implementer of global responsibilities.

After a careful analysis of the VLR model and continuous dialogue with New York City Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, Helsinki became the first city in Europe to commit to submitting a VLR in September 2018.

The goal of the commitment is simple: to illustrate the successes and challenges of Helsinki’s progress toward achieving the SDGs, to produce understandable and open information about the city’s sustainable development, and to encourage open dialogue on sustainability within the global community.

Last week, Helsinki published the first part of the review at the annual Helsinki Summit that included approximately 300 city leaders, experts, politicians and corporate representatives and guests from other European cities.

The mapping between the SDGs and the city’s strategy has been created following NYC’s model. A cross-disciplinary research group evaluated Helsinki’s strategy and made comparisons to the SDGs. The next stage will be to illustrate the city’s successes — and possible failures— in the delivery of the SDGs. At the same time a comprehensive plan for the VLR’s implementation will be drafted.

Penny Abeywardena, New York City’s Commissioner of International Affairs, spoke at the Helsinki Summit about the importance of cities’ SDG work and New York City’s VLR model. She also delivered separately a special keynote to the 21 Mayors from all around Finland gathered in Helsinki. The response was overwhelming. Many cities who participated expressed interest in completing their own VLR.

The keynote was also instrumental in highlighting that the SDG work the cities do individually actually has an important larger global context. Kai Sauer, the Ambassador of the Permanent Mission of Finland to the United Nations, echoed this view in his own remarks, which highlighted the importance of collaboration between cities and nation-states in achieving the global goals.

The collaboration between New York and Helsinki has been crucial in making the review process possible in Helsinki. From early on, it was evident that many cities around the world want to take part in the localization of the SDGs and consider joining the VLR movement.

New York’s leadership has not only shown that cities are able and willing to play a bigger role in making the Agenda 2030 a success, but also that taking action from the city framework does not need to be an overly complicated undertaking.

Since last year, many global organizations and other cities are evaluating their relationship to the implementation of the global goals and the VLR. New York’s example has encouraged us to use a stronger voice on the global stage, and inspire others to use their local experiences as evidence of the important work that cities are doing.

As cities, our most important job is to offer a sustainable future to our own citizens. However, the SDG action taken by cities has global impact. The dialogue with the United Nations, led by the City of New York, is crucial in ensuring that in the future, cities will not be mere implementers of the global project, but are part of setting the agenda in collaboration with nation-states. This will in part ensure the efficient delivery of the SDGs on a global scale.