Localisation of the Sustainable Development Goals in UK Cities: Is There a Place for Culture?

An aerial view of Canterbury with the Cathedral in the centre of the image
An aerial view over Canterbury

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are ambitious in their scope and global reach, but how are they being implemented on a local scale, and is there a place for the often-overlooked role of culture in a localised approach? In this guest blog, University of Leeds students Emilia Francis, Hannah Hogg, Alice Tenney and Ciara Wallace explore how a localised approach is being implemented in London, Canterbury, Liverpool, and Bristol.

Starting points: SDGs, Voluntary Local Reviews and culture

In 2015 the United Nations (UN) set out its ambitious 2030 Agenda that sought to provide a global framework for sustainable development. Within this road map, 17 SDGs were outlined to address a spectrum of problems from poverty to climate action.

Throughout the world, 87 local and regional governments from 27 countries have been navigating and monitoring the implementation of these goals through the production of Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs).

VLRs are in depth analyses of how the SDGs are implemented in local contexts, and they vary drastically from place to place.

There is recognition of the growing need for interaction between local, and national institutions. VLRs ensure more in-depth ‘review’ of SDG implementation, rather than simply reporting, and cities can play a crucial role. According to the IIED for the Cities Alliance (2015) urban stakeholders must be involved in roughly two thirds of the SDG targets, for them to be obtained.

This is in line with the emphasis the UK Government places on their key role in designating the goals, especially the goal for gender equality (SDG 5) and peace, good governance and security (SDG16) (GOVUK).

The VLR findings have so far improved the local frameworks of governance for SDG implementation but have also fostered a bond of transparency and accountability between local municipalities and their community (ARCO, 2021).

The missing foundation

Heritage, tangible and intangible, is arguably overlooked in the SDGs, with it only directly mentioned in one target (11.4). Despite this, it has a more crucial role in sustainable development than this lack of engagement suggests.

As highlighted by the recent release of ‘The Missing Foundation: Culture’s Place Within and Beyond the UN Sustainable Development Goals’ follow-on report to the 2020 ‘The Missing Pillars’ report commissioned by the British Council, connections between culture, heritage and the arts and community-led activity can aid in promoting a better and more sustainable planet.

In this blog, we dive into the VLRs produced in four UNESCO-designated cities in the UK — London, Canterbury, Liverpool, and Bristol — to discuss the complexities of SDG implementation and their interplay with the wider role of culture in SDG implementation.

As a City of Film, Bristol has a strong orientation on diversity shown by their action to celebrate its interculturality. Liverpool is a City of Music, having being home to prolific musicians like the Beatles, and hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in 2023. Canterbury’s cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey, and St Martin’s Church are recognised as a World Heritage site. London has four UNESCO heritage sites — the Tower of London, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s Church, and Maritime Greenwich; these were all selected due to their role in British history and their worldwide significance.

Following Bristol, the first UK city to produce a VLR, these three cities and the national governments of Wales and Scotland have published their own VLRs. A fundamental question has guided our reflections: is there a genuine space for culture in the localisation of the SDGs?

Which SDGs do the four cities focus on?

During our analysis, we found that in Canterbury, the SDGs which they have focused on are health and wellbeing (SDG 3), public open spaces (SDG 11.7), waste management (SDG 12.5), climate action (SDG 13) and partnerships for sustainable development (SDG 17).

For example, working with The Kent Health and Wellbeing Board and The Canterbury Clinical Commissioning group on a 5-year plan addressing gaps in existing services, such as maternity services. In the area of education (SDG 4) they have created a film production programme aimed at children to help develop their literacy.

Liverpool has an interest in no poverty (SDG 1), quality education (SDG 4), decent work and economic growth (SDG 8), reduced inequalities (SDG 10) and sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11).

A notable focal point in Liverpool, is the promotion of wellbeing (SDG 3) to forward other SDGs. It is developing and embedding Early Help Hubs and the Early Help Offer to preventively safeguard children and families in the face of problems such as family breakdown, housing or financial problems, substance abuse and more. Both Canterbury and Liverpool have chosen similar goals in scope but have different main focuses in terms of what they want to achieve.

In London and Bristol, most focus on the SDGs are about addressing long-standing inequalities, with Bristol honing in on poverty (SDG 1), zero hunger (SDG 2), and education (SDG 4). London and Liverpool share a focus on their homelessness as it relates to poverty (SDG 1), public well-being (SDG 3), and inequality (SDG 10).

So, is there a place for culture in SDG implementation?

As UNESCO-designated sites, the four cities are an ideal focus point for the implementation of the SDGs through culture. The city of Canterbury most explicitly referenced arts, culture, and heritage, particularly in terms of sustainability education (SDG 4.7) and public open spaces (SDG 11.7). The City Council is drafting a Heritage strategy to highlight the importance of both built and natural heritage. Liverpool and Bristol predominantly reinforce culture through education, which links to SDG 4.

In Bristol, the Film for Learning programme aims to improve literacy, by teaching children about film production. Bristol instrumentalises the celebration of culture to enhance the city’s identity and attractiveness, encouraging its economic growth (SDG 8). In Liverpool the inclusive growth plan highlights the importance of improving Liverpool’s cultural presence, which they see as the “city’s lifeblood”.

The Reader charity’s ambition is to forge stronger community connections by reading great literature aloud. However, whilst Liverpool’s 2030 hub marks the first UK effort to track SDG localisation, it is less clear to what extent its cultural revitalisation efforts advance the SDGs locally.The clearest anomaly in this situation is London, where we have discovered minimal VLR engagement with culture.

While there was a clear focus on countering the striking inequalities within London, and economic sustainability through the Doughnut Model, the VLR does not mention specific cultural initiatives. We think this is connected to London’s large population and its role as global economic hub.

The insights and questions so far: a call to action

The VLRs of Liverpool, Bristol and Canterbury evidence that culture is valued, but not formalised into SDG localisation strategies. Evidently, culture is broadly defined, whether in the form of historical awareness, the social influence of literature, music and film in supporting communities and young people, or the focus on pressing urban challenges. Interestingly, culture is mentioned most in relation to education (SDG 4) and addressing poverty (SDG 1).

Cities recognised for their creative vibrancy such as Bristol and Liverpool found it easier to connect their local culture with SDG implementation than those cities that have only a segment of their urban area listed as World Heritage sites. The City of Canterbury is making the most progress and believes in a strong place for culture. The relative cultural inaction of London in localising the SDGs might indicate the difficulty of scaling the SDG framework in metropoles, and how smaller communities might lend themselves better to culture mobilisation.

In terms of reporting, we also think that London’s VLR is an example of what Perry et al. conclude about the UK Voluntary National Review (VNR); according to them, there was “a selective and partial VNR which was criticized for being overly positive and providing ungrounded emblematic examples.”

The SDG agenda in the UK has seen a lack of the engagement of local authorities. In Scotland, for example, the SDG Network Scotland ensured a signed commitment from all local authorities, a kind of concerted effort in which the four cities have not yet been involved. This highlights the lack of agreed-upon UK action plan driving the collective use of local heritage and culture in achieving the SDGs.

The four cities’ approaches to culture as a tool for sustainable development also raise key questions: what role can problematic heritage play in forwarding inclusivity and other SDG goals? Which factors influence the scalability of the SDG agenda in cities, specifically with regards to culture? How does the impact of culture on progress of SDG localisation need to be reported?

The structural obstructions to the UK’s SDG implementation which we have mentioned above, may partly explain how culture has been left out as a fourth pillar of SDG implementation.We think there should be a stronger lean on culture to localise the SDGs.

About the project

This blog is the output of a student research project undertaken by second year Liberal Arts students at the University of Leeds for the module FOAH2001 Research Placement. The project was supervised by Dr Francesca Gilberto, research fellow in management, cultural heritage and sustainable (urban) development at the Leeds University Business School in partnership with the UK National Commission for UNESCO.



Horizons Institute, University of Leeds
Horizons Institute

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