First-ever index ranks urban areas on SDGs implementation

With 17 goals and a host of sub-goals beneath each one, measuring the success of implementing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is deemed a herculean task. But a new SDG index shows it can be done. Here’s how.

SDGs and children
Measuring cities' success on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is now more possible with the first-ever SDG index. Image: UN

Cities in the United States can now see how they stack up against international development standards, in an effort that organisers hope will offer a model for other countries.

The first-ever US Cities SDG Index ranks the country’s 100 most populous cities, using statistics for their metropolitan areas, to look at issues such as education, health care and infrastructure.

Such issues are the subject of a global set of benchmarks known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs, which went into effect last year, set a global road map for sustainable development through 2030. As national governments and others have turned their attention to the goals’ implementation, cities have increasingly emerged as key areas — and actors — of focus.

“By measuring the current state of the SDGs across America’s metropolitan areas, we create an accurate starting line for our race to 2030 and a smart, fair and sustainable future,” said Jeff Sachs, director of the UN-mandated Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and co-author of the index.

The index tracks 49 statistical indicators that have been agreed upon by an international meeting of statistical offices for 16 of the 17 global goals.

By measuring the current state of the SDGs across America’s metropolitan areas, we create an accurate starting line for our race to 2030 and a smart, fair and sustainable future.

Jeff Sachs, director, Sustainable Development Solutions Network 

It concludes that the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara metro region — part of California’s tech hub of Silicon Valley — wins the top spot, with an overall index score of 61.04. That is to say, the San Jose metropolitan statistical area (a geographical designation determined by the US Census Bureau) is about 61 percent of the way to achieving the SDGs, according to these metrics.

Provo-Orem in Utah secured the second ranking, with an index score of 58.05. It is followed by Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue (Washington) and San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward (also in California).

Top-ranked San Jose is also one of three pilot cities, along with Baltimore and New York City, that have been working closely with SDSN to align municipal policies and priorities with the SDGs.

[See: North American cities are innovating on community-level development indicators]

By contrast, the worst-performing urban areas were Baton Rouge (Louisiana), Cleveland-Elyria (Ohio) and Detroit (Michigan). These poor performers, and other such cities with depressed economies, led to an overall poverty rate among the 100 metro areas of 15.6 per cent. This means approximately 33.3 million people are currently living below the national poverty line in these areas.

SDSN experts hope that this attempt to track the SDGs in US cities, for which robust disaggregated data already exists, will offer a model for other countries.

“Our current objective is to create contextualised, sub-national indices which are tools for all levels of government to track their progress on sustainability,” SDSN’s Mihir Prakash told Citiscope.

“Obesity in the US is used as an indicator for nutrition, as an example of this contextualisation. We start with the US and look towards developing similar indices for other countries to support their interests in sub-national implementation of the SDGs.”

Prakash indicated that SDSN is not currently planning an index that would compare cities across countries. UN-Habitat, the UN’s lead agency for urban issues, maintains a global comparison tool, the City Prosperity Index (CPI), for over 400 cities. It is pegged to the main issues in the New Urban Agenda, the UN’s 20-year urbanisation strategy, as well as the urban dimensions of the SDGs.

[See: Two models for tracking implementation of the New Urban Agenda]

SDSN sees these two indices as complementary efforts. “While the CPI focuses on urban sustainability from the lens of city leaders, the Cities SDG Index looks at the SDG agenda with cities as agents of implementation,” Prakash said.

“The SDGs and its targets can only be achieved through joint action at all levels of government, and therefore the Cities SDG Index addresses indicators that can be improved through actions at all levels of government.”

At the same time, these indices face a common set of challenges when it comes to city-level data collection.

“A lot of indicators are reported nationally, which makes it easier to monitor the SDGs at the national level,” Prakash said. “But if you dig deeper to lower levels of administration, a disaggregated sample is either not as representative or non-existent. This was also the case in the US, even though it is a developed country.”

He said the SDSN team chose to use the metropolitan statistical area as its unit of comparison because “any lower” level of measurement “would have been difficult to get comparable data on”.

This story was published with permission from Citiscope, a non-profit news outlet that covers innovations in cities. More at

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