• A crucial time to localise the Sustainable Development Goals in the EU

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    Localising SDGs

    The 2030 Agenda is each day closer to its due date and localising the SDGs is paramount, even more in 2023.

    The SDGs are at our reach.
    From urbact

    On 25 September 2015, the world saw a global effort to end poverty, foster peace, safeguard the rights and dignity of all people and to protect the planet. During the United Nations General Assembly that year, the Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development resolution was adopted. This historic document lays out the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with 169 targets and over 230 indicators to be achieved globally by 2030. Eight years later, a draft report by the UN Independent Group of Scientists looks at where we stand now. Although the final document will only be released later this year at the UN SDG Summit, some key messages can already be outlined as the world reaches the halfway point to the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs.


    Sounding the alarm halfway to 2030

    At the halfway mark, sufficient progress towards the achievement of the SDGs has not been made.


    Besides the SDG Summit in September, preparations for the 2023 UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) in July are underway. In both occasions, decision-makers and high-level stakeholders will assess progress on the 2030 Agenda, but the bottom line is clear: we are off track. At the halfway mark to 2030 only about 12% of SDG targets seem to have made sufficient progress, reads the Advance Unedited version of the special edition of the report of the Secretary-General from last April. “[This] makes for grim reading” stated @David_McNair, Executive Director Global Policy at One.org. in a series of Tweeter posts on 27 April. As McNair reminds us, 575 million people will still be living in extreme poverty in 2030 and “hunger is back at 2005 levels”.


    SDGs assessment


    This report also finds that many of the SDGs, though showing progress, are moderately to severely off track and some 30% have either seen no movement or regressed below the 2015 baseline. Although grim, the document also calls out for intensified efforts and policy solutions to steer forces of accelerated, sustained and transformative action. It urges world leaders to come together at the SDG Summit to deliver a Rescue Plan for People and Planet centered around three major breakthroughs:

    1. Equipping governance and institutions for sustainable and inclusive transformation.
    2. Prioritising policies and investments that have multiplier effects across the goals.
    3. Securing a surge in SDG financing and an enabling global environment for developing countries.



    Limited evidence of transformative impact

    Since 2015, there is evidence of governments, business, the private sector and the general public embracing the SDGs. Overall, however, there is only limited evidence of transformative impact.

    Recent scientific research articles, letters or studies have indeed found that, overall, there is only limited evidence of transformative impact of the SDGs. In other cases, these pieces are extremely critical towards the UN. For example, in May 2022, scholars of universities and research institutes from 17 countries around the world state that “UN Secretary-General António Guterres was right to state that humanity is “moving backwards in relation to the majority of the SDGs”, that “It is becoming clear that the assumptions that underpin the SDGs are invalid, including continual economic expansion” and “publicly call on the UN to drop the redundant and unhelpful ideology of Sustainable Development” (Letter to the UN – People will suffer more if professionals delude themselves about sustainable development).

    Also back in June 2022, ahead of the July session of HLPF 2022, another group of researchers published an article, in Nature Sustainability, presenting the results of a meta-analysis of the available scientific evidence on the political impact of the SDGs. The authors find that the goals have had some political impact on institutions and policies, from local to global governance and they assess that “although there are some limited effects of the SDGs, they are not yet a transformative force in and of themselves.”



    Cities are critical battlegrounds for a sustainable future

    Tweet from UN-Habitat ED on SDGs

    On a positive note, the 2022 article recognises that the SDGs are the “most comprehensive and detailed attempt by the UN to advance sustainable development”. Likewise, an interesting critique of the letter highlights that the scientists propose no concrete measures or credible alternative to such a framework. It concludes that “The SDGs provide an indispensable roadmap: without it, nobody would know where to go. Are we seriously going to ditch this, the only global roadmap on which the world has managed to agree? […] Yet this is a transnational issue — climate disasters know no borders — and the only way to deal with it is with increased international cooperation, not less”.

    There are some other bright spots. The paper does find that “some evidence suggests that sub-national authorities, and especially cities, are often more pioneering and progressive than their central governments in building coalitions for implementing the SDGs”. As António Guterres once pointed out earlier this year, “cities are critical battlegrounds. They generate 70% of global emissions. They house half of humanity. And by 2050, over two billion more people will call them home”. The UN Secretary-General’s blueprint for action, Our Common Agenda, and the theme paper on multilateralism for the UN-Habitat Assembly call for a reinvigorated and more inclusive multilateralism, recognising the pivotal role cities and other local authorities play, in addressing the challenges ahead.



    An opportunity to accelerate action

    Marking the halfway point in the implementation of the SDGs, 2023 offers a window of opportunity to steer forces of change.

    The political process in the lead-up to the SDG Summit can help to deliver progress for people and our planet and a momentum to advance the contribution of cities and regions to the SDGs. Throughout the event, global leaders and high-level stakeholder will carry out a comprehensive review of the state of the SDGs, respond to the impact of multiple and interlocking crises facing the world, and provide high-level political guidance on transformative and accelerated actions leading up to the 2030 deadline for achieving the SDGs. The outcome will be a negotiated political declaration.

    The summit will be co-facilitated by the UN’s Permanent Representatives of Ireland and Qatar who, following an initial round of consultations with Member States as well as with major groups and other stakeholders on a draft elements paper, have issued a ‘Zero Draft’ of the Political Declaration. On 7 June 2023, a virtual informal stakeholder dialogue was hosted to solicit concrete inputs and suggestions to improve the SDG Summit Zero Draft Political Declaration.  


    SDGs next steps


    What about the EU?


    The EU has fully committed itself to delivering on the 2030 Agenda and its implementation, as outlined in The European Green Deal and the Commission Staff Working Document Delivering on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, among others as the European Commission’s work programme and the Political Guidelines of Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen. Regular monitoring of progress towards the SDGs in an EU context is essential for this purpose. At informal consultation on 3 February 2023, in its statement the EU urged an ambitious and action-oriented Political Declaration at the SDG Summit.

    Eurostat SDGs

    Furthermore, in May 2023, the Eurostat (the statistical office of the European Union) together with the European Semester Spring Package issued the publication Sustainable development in the European Union — monitoring report on progress towards the SDGs in an EU context, 2023 edition, which provides a statistical overview of progress in the EU. The report shows that there has progress towards many socio-economic goals over the most recent five-year period of available data, while trends in the environmental domain have been less favourable. In particular three objective show a backslide in progress: climate action (SDG 13), life on land (SDG 15) and partnerships for the goals (SDG 17).

    While the Sustainable Development Report 2023, which was quite literally published yesterday, states that "all of the SDGs are seriously off track". Even if the top 20 countries on the 2023 SDG Index ranking are all European, none of them are on track to achieve the goals of the Agenda by 2030, making the partnership for goals (SDG 17) and other forms of collaboration more important than ever. The previous edition of the report, the Europe Sustainable Development Report 2022, sheds some light as to where things might have gone wrong:  “SDG progress in Europe has stalled since 2020”.

    Even if every European Commission’s work programme has put the SDGs at the heart of EU policymaking since 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic and other international crises have led to reversals in progress in many European countries, notably on no poverty (SDG 1), good health and well-being (SDG 3) and decent work and economic growth (SDG  8). The EU has achieved, or is on the road to achieve, around 66% of the SDG targets included in the Europe Sustainable Development Report. Yet, progress has been limited on 20% of the indicators and is heading in the wrong direction on 13%.  To tackle this, five priority actions to accelerate the SDGs in the EU and internationally are put forward in the Europe Sustainable Development Report. These are jointly directed at the European Commission and Council leadership, the European Parliament and Member States:


    1. Ensure that the 2023 EU voluntary review includes three important elements: (1) internal priorities, (2) international spillovers, and (3) international partnerships and diplomacy for the SDGs.
    2. Release, by July 2023, a joint political statement from the three pillars of EU governance.
    3. Prepare a communication, to be issued by the European Commission, clarifying how the EU aims to achieve the SDGs in Europe.
    4. Implement and reinforce recent global commitments.
    5. Develop a new mechanism or renew the mandate of the multi-stakeholder platform.


    The 2022 Europe Sustainable Development Report’s findings and recommendations echo messages called for by other European organisations and stakeholders, such as the Committee of the Regions in its Opinions on Delivering and Progress in the implementation of SDGs, the EESC in its Contribution to the EU-level Voluntary Review (VR) of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, or the European Parliament’s own-initiative to boost EU efforts to meet the 2030 targets. This report also serves in preparation for the European Parliament’s delegation, which will attend the UN High-Level Political Forum in July 2023.


    SDGs progress in the EU


    A pivotal year for the EU

    As a matter of fact, not only the Parliament will be represented during such events, but the EU will also present its first Voluntary Review report at the High-Level Political Forum and the SDGs Summit, with nine Member States piloting Voluntary National Reviews.

    At the halfway mark of the SDGs implementation, the Europe Sustainable Development Report’s also calls for strong European leadership to achieve the goals. Significant action is required to revitalise efforts. Suggested actions include: increasing the visibility of SDGs in EU policies, the creation of a permanent engagement platform for civil society organisations to be involved in the SDG implementation process and enhanced Eurostat data on relevant indicators. In addition, the Agenda 2030 promotes an important paradigmatic shift towards a more participatory model of multi-stakeholder governance for sustainable development.


    EU whole of governance approach


    A Multi-Stakeholder Platform was set up by the Commission in May 2017 to support and advise the European Commission on the implementation of the SDGs at EU level and provide a forum for exchange of experience and best practice on the implementation of the SDGs across sectors and at local, regional, national and EU level.  Unfortunately, its mandate came to an end by 2019 and it was never renewed. As today, the European Parliament’s members are urging for a platform or a forum on the SDGs should to be re-launched.

    Such action would foster a structured engagement with civil society, youth organisations, businesses, trade unions and scientists in SDG-related policy development and monitoring. Highlighting the views from local communities, after all, successful implementation of the SDGs ultimately relies on local actors. This process should examine best practices from other relevant multi-stakeholder forums (such as the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform) and lead the way forward. We can also highlight here a broader need for structured and meaningful engagement of civil society.

    This year, the first Voluntary Review of the European Union on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development takes stock of EU’s internal and external progress to SDGs, detailing how the EU is adding value to the achievement of the goals and also recognising the need to take urgent actions to accelerate the implementation of the SDGs. A process that follow up on the 2016 communication on the Next steps for a sustainable European future - European action for sustainability and the 2019 Reflection Paper towards a Sustainable Europe by 2030.

    Moreover, in the Political Guidelines of the Commission 2019-2024, President von der Leyen attributes a central role to the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs, making sustainable development the keystone of European policies so that Europe can lead the Green and Digital transitions. The role of SDGs at the core of EU policy, legislation and funding is also highlighted with the ‘whole of government’ approach in the 2020 Commission Staff Working Document Delivering on the UN's SDGs - A comprehensive approach. Or even the Joint Declaration of the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union, and the European Commission on EU legislative priorities for 2023 and 2024 includes a commitment to accelerate implementation of this framework.


    European Commission's priorities clusterred by SDGs


    Overcoming implementation challenges

    Regardless of its continuous efforts, the EU did not succeed in properly consulting citizens during the first ever European wide review of the SDGs.

    While the EU Voluntary Review presents the broad range of actions that the EU has put in place across all its policy areas to deliver on the SDGs, and commitments contributing to the SDGs, the lack of involvement of the Parliament or civil society organisations in its preparations and the conclusions looking ahead are rather disappointing, as already criticised by SDG Watch Europe, a civil society alliance of more than 90 EU NGOs established to ensure the full implementation of the SDGs by the EU and its Member States.

    SDG Watch Europe members deplore “the report published this week by the European Commission does not go far enough in its content or process, with civil society organisations and citizens left out in the cold as the report was drafted.” and regret “The Voluntary Review, which merely assesses what the EU has done so far and promotes its flagship policies,  lacks any real vision for structural changes, nor does it provide an action plan at EU level to address gaps and challenges identified by civil society organisations on SDG implementatio".

    SDGs in the EU

    The Commission received input from the ‘Have your say’ platform as well through a consultation process conducted by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) but they claim that “Despite a commendable effort from the European Economic and Social Committee to lead a late-in-the-day stakeholder consultation, the EU did not succeed in properly consulting citizens during the first ever European wide review of the SDGs”.

    Indeed, already the EESC appreciated the Commission’s request to provide written contribution, nevertheless pointed out that a more structure involvement of the civil society in the process with the possibility to comment on the draft report would have been desirable. On June 2022, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the implementation of SDGs. The European Committee of the Regions (CoR) suggested amendments ahead of the adoption to make sure the local dimension of SDGs as well as the sheer contribution of cities and regions is included in the report. The CoR has re-appointed Ricardo Rio, Mayor of Braga, as rapporteur for an Opinion on the “Progress in the implementation of SDGs”, an occasion to engage in an inter-institutional dialogue with EU decision makers ahead of the UN Summit and SDGs review.

    On the opinion, which was adopted in February 2023, Ricardo Rio stresses the importance of a stronger commitment to the fulfillment of the SDGs by all levels of government, a process in which the European Union can benefit from the cities' and regions' experience and exchange of best practices. Still according to him, in such a decisive year in which the EU shall present its first voluntary review, Europe must lead by example, supporting the local and regional authorities' efforts with further financial support and establishing intercontinental connections.



    There is still hope to turn things around


    There is a great need for EU level coordination as well as financial and policy instruments aimed at fostering innovation and boosting investments, which support SDG implementation and recognise the central role of the cities. Nevertheless, there is hope. For instance, the KnowSDGs platform is a platform that provides tools and organises knowledge on policies, indicators, methods and data to support the evidence-based implementation of the SDGs. Its tools, developed by the Joint Research Centre, are increasingly used by policymakers, stakeholders and researchers for better understanding how the 2030 Agenda works and may contribute to develop coordinated and coherent approaches for a successful implementation of the global Goals.

    Likewise, the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) and PLATFORMA have also been working to help local and regional authorities to design, implement and monitor SDGs in their local strategies. On an annual basis, PLATFORMA is publishing a study on the localisation of SDGs, alongside support to local authorities in the writing of their Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs), feeding Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs).

    During 22 months, CEMR has been working in close collaboration with URBACT as part of the Global Goals for Cities network. Based on the outcomes of the project, the Reference Framework for Sustainable Cities (RFSC) is currently providing training for cities on the localisation of SDGs to a selection of eight to ten cities. Throughout three modules, this training academy aims at translating the SDGs at the local level and at encouraging participating cities to exchange on their experiences and issues and replicate it with other colleagues or stakeholders.

    So, there is still definitely hope. There are good examples and practices across Europe, all of which cannot be reported in one single article. An effort is nonetheless made to highlight stories abour governance from Ghent (BE), Tallinn (EE) and Espoo (FI).


    Focus on the case of Ghent (BE)

    UGand with SDGs cube

    For several years, the Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities (VVSG) has been supporting cities the integration of the SDGs as a framework in different phases of the local policy planning process, providing them with guidance and tools and developing a lot of material, which are available on VVSG website. They have a lot of materials, many of which have been developed based on the approach and lessons learned of their SDG Pilot Project (2017-2019). Since 2017, the City of Ghent is one of the ambassadors to help announce and implement the SDGs in Belgium. In 2022, VVSG produced an inspirational ‘SDG monitoring and reporting for a local policy with impact’ guide delving deeper into monitoring local progress on the SDGs.  The city of Ghent foresees linking the SDGs to measures in the city’s multiannual strategic framework and budget. Ghent was the first Belgian municipality to draw up an SDG report.

    Since 2020, Ghent has published annual reviews on the achievement status of the 2030 SDGs. The 2020 Voluntary Local Review monitored the situation across all 17 SDGs, aiming to end this cycle in 2024-2025.  Between the starting and final report, the city highlights annually one of the pillars of sustainable development, by means of ten inspiring initiatives, with roots in Ghent. In the years 2021 to 2023, qualitative reports are prepared for each pillar of sustainable development - People in 2021, Prosperity in 2022 and Planet in 2023. The pillars Peace (SDG 16) and Partnership (SDG 17) are covered in each report. To draw up these reports, the city departments enter into dialogue with platforms and consultative bodies in the city. In the context of international exchange and learning, Ghent translates its sustainability reports and presents them as Voluntary Local Review (VLR).


    Tallinn (EE), the 2023 EU Green capital


    One of the main aims of the 2023 EU Green Capital of Tallinn is sustainability governance. The city argues that for other city administrations to tackle multidimensional challenges concerning People, Planet, Peace, Prosperity and Partnerships, the integration of the SDGs into local strategies requires deep transformations at the local level. The

    17 SDGs must be integrated into every aspect of the city governance, which requires a transition from a checklist mentality towards the SDGs as a holistic disposition of administration. Tallinn has been the Lead Partner of the URBACT ‘Global Goals for Cities’ network of 19 cities, each one from a different European country, focusing on accelerating progress towards localising the SDGs, through peer learning and adopting the SDGs as a common framework for local planning and actions.

    SDGs Tallinn mappingThe Joint Statement of Support for SDG Localisation and the GG4C Learning Kit are part of the final network result product. Module 6 of the Learning Kit is focused on strengthening governance for the SDGs in cities.Local outcomes of the GG4C network were Integrated Action Plans (IAPs) produced by each city partner. Tallinn’s output is the Tallinn Sustainable Development Action Plan for the years 2023-2026 as included in the ‘Tallinn Sustainable Development Guide: Guidelines for the implementation and monitoring of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in Tallinn’ in which Tallinn is trying to align the city’s goals and targets with the SDGs and re-shape the city administration to enable better horizontal cooperation and co-creation.

    As a follow-up initiative, Tallinn has planned to launch an international Peer learning hub on Sustainability Governance. The overall aim is to arrive at a concrete cooperation agreement with interested partners by the end of 2023, with a shared work plan for 2024 when the European Green Capital status will be handed over to Valencia, Spain. This is all work in progress. As one of the next steps, the peer learning hub will be launched in Stuttgart during the Urban Future #UF23 conference, where Tallinn will host a workshop session on SDGs and governance, highlighting on how the SDGs can help to take a leading role in closing the "action gap" towards the SDGs, by focusing on better governance.



    The role of city-to-city exchange


    In his role as rapporteur, the Mayor of Braga, a city that also happened to be a partner in GG4C, provided an useful example of SDG advocacy efforts and stressed the importance of supporting regional and local authorities through EU means is highlighted. For example, it states that the CoR strongly supports the dissemination of local and regional best practice and believes it is fundamental to promoting the SDG agenda. The document continues by saying that the recently created URBACT network pilot of cities localising SDGs is one, among different ways, to achieve this. Nevertheless, the EU must create a new programme for the exchange of good practice between cities and regions across the EU, including cities from other continents, to identify global good practices and promote bilateral agreements.

    Political leaders from the GG4C network have highlighted the importance of forums where cities can exchange good practices on SDG localisation and other challenges facing cities in a Joint Statement of Support for SDG Localisation by URBACT Global Goals for Cities network. The statement underlines that cities need continued empowerment and support to translate the SDGs into local realities. Prior to the GG4C statement, the network joined a call to Eurocities on Strengthening Cooperation and Cocreation with European cities in the Context of SDGs and Voluntary Local Reviews. The importance of city partnerships for SDG localisation is also evident in other existing city networks, such as Nordregio SDG work and the network Strategic Management of SDGs in Cities (SDG46 six-city network) of the Finish cities of Espoo, Helsinki, Oulu, Tampere, Turku and Vantaa, among others.


    Links with the newly approved Action Planning networks


    With the approval of the new round of 30 Action Planning Networks, the ‘Cities for Sustainable Governance (CSG)’ network led by the city of Espoo (FI) will particularly focus on creating locally adapted governance processes and tools by using Sustainable Development Goals as a strategic vehicle. It shall allow to build on the results from the URBACT III Global Goals for Cities network, taking this work to the next level with Espoo, a lighthouse city from the GG4C network that is already considered as a forerunner amongst Finnish cities, including in conducting its Espoo Voluntary Local Review in 2020. The CSG network is a unique chance to work with a new group of motivated cities of all sizes: namely Espoo (FI), Agios Dimitrios (EL), Braga (PT), Gabrovo (BG), Jablonec nad Nisou (CZ), Košice (SK), Mannheim (DE), Tallinn (EE) and Valencia (ES).



    A call for a comprehensive European strategy


    As governments ramp up preparations for the High-Level Political Forum and the SDG Summit taking place in September, Europe now needs to show real leadership on SDGs on the world stage. With many countries engulfed by stubborn inflationary economic crises and global shocks that risk erasing vital SDG progress, the EU needs to revive a spirit of multilateral cooperation and foster the political will required to achieve the sustainability commitments dating as far as 2015. Above all, the EU needs to take measures to reverse the negative trends highlighted in the EU Voluntary Review. 

    “With only seven years left to achieve the SDGs, the role of the incoming European Commission in 2024 will be instrumental to ensure the EU’s delivery of the 2030 Agenda. The EU VR provides a first step, but what we need is an overarching European Strategy on Sustainable Development that guides all policies and measures with clear timelines and targets around all SDGs. Such a strategy also needs to ensure the meaningful participation of civil society participation and citizens,” stated Patrizia Heidegger, Deputy Secretary General and Director for EU Governance, Sustainability and Global Policies, European Environmental Bureau (EEB). “In 2024, we need a European Pact for Our Common Future, a European Green Deal 2 if you want, but one addressing the full spectrum of sustainable development as the main instrument to achieve our objectives for 2030”. 

    URBACT GG4C at the Katowice WUF11


    At the 11th World Urban Forum in Katowice (PL), on 26-30 June 2022, representatives from the URBACT Global Goals for Cities network, presented some of their results. At the closing of the panel discussion participants were asked what they brought home in one word. And the first one that came up was "hope". So, let’s keep our hopes up!






    URBACT Knowledge Hub


    Learn about all the tools and processes the Global Goals for Cities network have used to localise the SDGs in European cities in the URBACT Knowledge Hub!




  • Unlocking the potential of testing actions

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    Unlocking the potential of testing activities - Small Scale Actions SSA - COVER

    Insights from the Small Scale Actions done by Action Planning Networks 2019-2022.


    A member of an URBACT Local Group explaining a Small Scale Action that was conducted in the city of Hradec Kralove (CZ), during an active Citizens transnational meeting in Tartu (EE).

    From urbact


    Experimentation is key to drive change and that's the reason why URBACT has introduced a new instrument to the action-planning process. Understand the positive impact of pilots from the past round of Action Planning Networks and read below some of the findings from URBACT’s latest study on the role of these testing actions - also known as Small Scale Actions.






    It's no surprise that cities involved in an Action Planning Network are expected to develop their own local strategies and set of actions, in response to an urban challenge of their choice. To do so, the partner cities are strongly encouraged to follow a participatory approach, which means bringing together different people to collaborate at local-level. Known as the URBACT Local Group, this multi-stakeholder group gathers a diverse range of people – such as local authorities, community organisations, NGOs, other public institutions as universities, not to mention businesses, and citizens. Alongside the transnational exchanges between partner cities coming from different countries and the Lead Expert support, each URBACT Local Group has the right ingredients to co-create the Action Planning Networks' holy grail: the Integrated Action Plan


    Since 2019 a new element has been added to this mix: the opportunity of running testing actions, through what was called at the time as "Small Scale Actions". But what we understand by it? Well, a Small Scale Action is an idea or a concept, perhaps something that was already tried out in another city or anything brand-new, which now can be put into test. With this experience, the URBACT Local Group can check the relevance, feasibility and added value of its potential implementation in different local contexts. In short, it’s a kind of "proof of concept" to verify if an idea, a hypothesis, is coherent and realistic. If successful, the action can be considered in future city plans and the Integrated Action Plan. To conduct Small Scale Actions, cities from previous URBACT Networks counted with a budget of 10 000 EUR per partner.


    This was a first for the URBACT Programme, so it was uncertain whether or not cities would seize this opportunity, or even see the added-value of conducting such experimentations. To evaluate the successes and pitfalls from these testing activities, a study was commissioned in late 2022. Read on to learn about its main take-aways.



    Small Scale what?


    To better reply to this question, representatives from 23 Action Planning Networks (2019 - 2022) were interviewed. The very first question that was asked to networks was whether or not, the concept of Small Scale Action was easily understood by the city partners. The answers were rather diverse. On one side, cities who had past experience of experimentation-based projects were quite comfortable and understood the concept right away, while for many other cities the concept remained quite fuzzy. This was partially due to the very guidance that was provided by URBACT. Since there was no precise guideline to explain what was (and what was not) a Small Scale Action, cities came up with their own versions and interpretations. "How do you define ‘Small’ in Small Scale Action? It’s not so easy!", commented a Lead Partner. 


    There was no past experience on record, no article, no video or no particular about them in large scale capacity-building events. This means that most networks had to find some clarity by themselves, often relying on URBACT Experts to do so. The exchanges between Lead Experts from different Action Planning Networks has proven to be very fruitful. It allowed discussions on how to better introduce Small Scale Actions. The flexibility and room for expression is precisely what made the overall experience so interesting, rich and diverse across all networks. Once cities understood the principle of these testing activities, one question still stood out: will they try anything? It's worth noting that the Small Scale Actions were not a compulsory product, but rather an optional way to pilot ideas to further develop the Integrated Action Plans. 



    Small actions, big impact


    Did cities seize the opportunity of Small Scale Actions? Without doubt, yes. The study found that all 23 Action Planning Networks used the opportunity to conduct activities, with a total of 236 Small Scale Actions registered across all networks. Nearly all cities made at least one attempt at it, and quite a couple of them carried out three, four or even five actions. "Our partner cities got so excited by Small Scale Actions that they dedicated a lot of time and energy making some. At some point, we had to remind them that the key output of the process was not the testing activities, but their Integrated Action Plan", said one of the Lead Partners during an interview.

    Small Scale Action quote during the URBACT City Festival


    Unsurprisingly, cities were very enthusiastic. The activities were shaped depending on the specific thematic focus, the existing capabilities and skills of involved people, as well the existence of any other actions already in place. Even though it might be difficult to categorise the Small Scale Actions in strict types, we can say that most commonly documented forms of activities include workshops and events, followed by prototype of product-service systems, and surveys or interviews. Among all of them, many experiences were meant to gather public opinions.



    Partner cities have employed a range of methods to engage with their communities, such as organising a photo expedition with teenagers from popular neighbourhoods to explore and document these areas, while and evaluating them, like it was the case from Dinslaken (DE), partner from the Active Citizens Network. Other examples included inviting people with disabilities to conduct a user assessment of the city to grasp the disability-friendliness of urban infrastructures, like in Druskininkai (LT), partner from the Tourism Friendly Cities Network.


    The testing actions have also been effective in co-generating ideas. For example, the city of Modena (IT) from Zero Carbon Cities organised a hackathon as part of the international Climathon initiative, bringing together university students, so they could come up with innovative ideas and spin-off projects for a planned regeneration of the industrial site Torrazzi. When it comes to prototyping new services and processes, the Lead Partner of SibDev, Heerlen (NL) has piloted a "loneliness prescription". The goal was to use social therapy as medicine to address loneliness among ageing people and, thus, develop "neighbourhood connectors" to support patients and spark meetings and social gatherings.

    URBACT Small Scale Action in Santa Maria da Feira PT


    Furthermore, these experimentations have been seized to test new products and spaces, such as setting up a temporary shop in the centre of Coimbra (PT), to promote regional products in line with its Food Corridors Network.  Or even closing a street in the city centre of Turku (FI) to test different spatial arrangements that are more people-centred, as this was one of the core objectives from the Healthy Cities Network.



    Testing matters


    Overall, the study shows that Small Scale Actions were considered as a very valuable instrument for cities to push for actions and to test ideas for real. Whatever you call it -- Small Scale Actions, pilot action, prototype -- testing activities have proven to be beneficial not only to validate or not actions to feed into the Integrated Action Plan, but also as a great tool to foster engagement and participation among the URBACT Local Group members and other concerned people in the city. "Everyone jumped in and enjoyed this opportunity. With our URBACT Local Group, we developed dozens of ideas for Small Scale Actions! We even let our URBACT Local Group carry on some Small Scale Actions by themselves, since they were so eager to make extra ones", said a Lead Partner.


    By pushing partners to carry on testing activities at local-level, URBACT enabled cities to be more flexible, more agile and more creative. All that is, more than ever, needed to tackle the ever-growing number of issues cities have to face now and in the future.  "Most of the Small Scale Actions that were done in our network became long-term activities of the cities’ Integrated Action Plans", commented a Lead Expert, "this was a clear objective for us, to try something before incorporating it to an Integrated Action Plan". Whether in the framework of an Action Planning Network or not, one thing is clear: yes, testing matters.






    This article was co-authored by Elisa Saturno, Liat Rogel, Selam Mebrahtu and Christophe Gouache



    Testing actions are now part of the journey of current URBACT Action Planning Networks 2023-2025. Find out here who they are! 



  • Localise the SDGs in your city using URBACT tools

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    The UN Sustainable Development Goals can be combined with the URBACT Method.

    From urbact

    Using the global goals at local level involves designing actions that contribute to the individual objectives, while monitoring progress accordingly. Used as a policy-making tool, the SDGs can help cities to develop better and more coherent policies and plans for an integrated urban development. Very much in line with URBACT, the SDGs offer a common language for working across policy silos and with different local stakeholders, often strengthening the social dimension of sustainability work and gaining a strong momentum.


    Interested in finding out more about it? Go to URBACT's Knowledge Hub!






  • Why Integrated Action Plans matter: the case of Torino

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    Why Integrated Action Plans matter the case of Torino - COVER

    In the occasion of the CITIES FORUM, let’s take a closer look at the hosting city and its URBACT story.

    Landscape of Torino (IT)


    From urbact

    During the past days urban practitioners, decision-makers and institutions’ representatives across Europe have been on the road to Torino (IT). After three eventful years, the CITIES FORUM is finally back in its 5th edition. Organised by the European Commission, the event will mark the official launch of the European Urban Initiative and expectations could not be higher among all participants. What some might not be aware though is that Torino has an emblematic journey as to EU territorial cooperation, with an URBACT Action Planning Network as a turning point for the city.


    With the current open call for URBACT Networks, the most recent results from the Integrated Action Plans’ study and the CITIES FORUM taking place, there’s no time like the present to remember Torino’s successful story.



    First things first, what’s an Integrated Action Plan?


    BoostInno Torino (IT) Integrated Action PlanCo-designed with local residents, interested groups and other concerned stakeholders, an Integrated Action Plan is a local long-term strategy, a mandatory product to all project partners that are involved in an Action Planning Network – municipalities, development agencies and metropolitan authorities, among others. It’s an effective way to experiment solutions, turn ideas into concrete actions and, most importantly, give a voice to a diverse of people and get different municipal departments to work together.

    Following many rounds of URBACT III Networks (2014 - 2021), roughly 400 Integrated Action Plans were developed throughout the years. A study was commissioned in 2022 to provide useful intelligence on both content and methods used in the plans: identifying trends, pitfalls and good examples, as well as insights into the sustainability and implementation of these documents. This also included how they will be used and resourced and how they link to broader local and regional strategies.

    The findings from this study feed the framework of future Action Planning Networks (2023 - 2025), while also shedding light to outstanding cases, as the Torino’s Integrated Action Plan from BoostInno (2015 - 2018) – a network that aimed at boosting social innovation. Read on to see some of the headlines from the study and Torino’s journey.


    When Integrated Action Plans trigger real change on the ground


    Four years since the delivery and endorsement of its Integrated Action Plan, with the end of BoostInno in 2018, the municipality of Torino had the time to carefully implement a great number of its 37 original actions. The plan was focused on how to harness the potential of social innovation in the city to benefit sustainable urban development, using five key entry points: tools for social innovation; collective actions; engagement and capacity building’ actions; civic technologies; and finance and impact assessment. The city estimates that it has put into place around 80% of actions so far thanks to successfully attracting both national and European funding.

    For example, Torino received € 1.5 million from the European Social Fund (ESF) to deliver the ‘Torino Social Factory’ designed to develop the capacity of local social enterprises. A further € 50.000 of ESF was also attracted to deliver the ‘Civic Crowdfunding Academy’, which aimed to support innovative services and projects with high social impact. Such investments ensured the fulfilment of many topics, as capacity-building and collective actions.


    Still, impacts need to be understood as a part of a longer process


    As in any URBACT Network, cities do not develop or implement their respective Integrated Action Plans “in a vacuum”. Their plans must always – and necessarily – build on existing strategies, activities and available or prospective funding. Some planned activities may be totally new. However, other actions may be modifications or evolutions of existing activities or approaches. Some Integrated Action Plans may be mostly about changing existing approaches to a topic or challenge. For instance, several of the points that were raised during Torino’s experience with BoostInno were also planned under the existing PON Metro Torino programme 2014-2020, which is co-financed by European Structural Funds.

    Torino was also successful with an application for an Urban Innovative Action (UIA) project called Co-City which received € 4.1 million of ERDF money to work on new forms of active citizen participation in the collaborative management of urban commons to counteract poverty and socio-spatial polarisation. It is included as one of the actions of the integrated approach presented in the IAP even though the project launched in March 2017 – in parallel with the development of the Integrated Action Plan. Its impact may, therefore, be better understood in terms of the ability to use EU Funds most strategically for long term implementation (up to 10 years), rather than in terms of the amount of funding and budget that is mobilised.


    BoostInno Torino (IT) Integrated Action Plan - implementation timeframe


    Implementation success is not limited to the Integrated Action Plan’s activities


    The implementation of the actions is a complex process that cannot be reduced to a linear exercise of checking whether exact plans have been put into action ‘to the letter’. The study confirmed that Integrated Action Plans should not typically be understood or assessed as investment-ready plans or project management tools. They are, instead, living documents that can feed into the development of new activities which were not explicitly foreseen at the time of concluding the plan.

    Following the endorsement of its Integrated Action Plan on social innovation, Torino successfully developed a yet second Urban Innovative Action – this time called To-Nite on the topic of community-based urban security. This project fits within the overall vision of the BoostInno Integrated Action Plan and links to the action to stimulate collective actions and the “installation of networks of sensors colleting environmental variables and developing public solutions in the field of mobility and safety”.

    Some partners of ToNite have been active URBACT Local Group members – the co-authors of the Integrated Action Plan. However, it goes much further than the initial plans of the original plan, with strengthened community co-definition of solutions. The € 4.6 million of the European Regional Development Funds (ERDF) mobilised for this project is therefore not about direct implementation of a planned action, but is nevertheless directly related to the impact of the approach and vision defined by the local people who were involved with BoostInno.

    If we limit the Integrated Action Plans to the words written at the conclusion of the URBACT Network, then such activities could not be counted as implementation success. However, if we understand it as a living document that continue to evolve, then it seems quite reasonable to understand that these actions are also part of the Action Planning Network’s overall impact.


    Action Planning Networks, an open door to countless opportunities


    The experience from Torino bears witness of what can be done when an enabling environment and political support are put in place. The design and validation of the Integrated Action Plan was a catalyst element in this process. Besides other URBACT achievements, including participation in different networks, the award of two Good Practices label – one of which, the Innova-TO competition that was envisioned in the plan, and which later became the InnovaTO-r Transfer Network – its first experience with the Urban Innovative Actions, Co-City, has turned into an URBACT pilot: the CO4CITIES Transfer Mechanism, an attempt to share Torino’s secret recipe with three other cities.

    Clearly, the journey from this city is far from over and we look forward to see what comes next. The open call for Action Planning Networks could be the beginning of a new chapter for Torino, but also a starting point for your own city.



    Torino (IT) landscape illustration





    Are you in the #CitiesForum? Be sure to visit our team in the URBACT stand! If you could not come to Torino this time around, you can still follow the live-streamed sessions. Otherwise, you can always read the studies and content on the Integrated Action Plans.



  • URBACT launches a training for cities to "Keep Up with the Digital Transition"

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    A brand-new Moodle course on a key crosscutting theme of the URBACT programme. 

    • Demystifying Tech - introducing eight essential tech terms - IoT, AI, Robots, Drones, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Blockchain and 3D Printing

    • Digital Environment - exploring how digital tools can help us cope better with today’s challenges related to climate

    • Digital Society - exploring how tech and digitalisation are shaping society and how society is shaping digitalisation

    • Digital Government - exploring what digital transformation means for governmental structures and organisations and why it is important

    • Digital Economy - exploring what a digital economy is, what role the city might play in growing a digital economy and how to make it happen



    From urbact


    This training aims to build the capacities of city-practitioners and policy-makers to understand the main concepts and challenges associated with digital transitions in a few key policy areas. The goal is to help them feel more comfortable in considering digital tools and new technologies as a way of delivering against policy goals. 


    Target Audience: the training isn’t for seasoned ‘techies’. Rather, it targets people who might self-define as tech ‘newbies’ and/or people from smaller and medium sized cities. This is because these are the places which have most to gain from understanding and embracing digital transition. The training has been developed by the TechPlace community, which is an online place for city practitioners and policy makers wanting to make a positive difference using tech. We’re building a community of interest and a safe place to exchange, learn and ask stupid questions. We welcome practitioners from across all URBACT cities and beyond. 



    The training is broken down into the following 6 modules, each one with a short video, written and video case studies, city use cases plus a range of handouts and some short tasks to help you check your understanding and progress. The modules are designed to be used together or in isolation so you can dip in and out or watch from the beginning to the end. 

  • BoostInno

    The Intercultural cities programme (ICC) supports cities in reviewing their policies through an intercultural lens and developing comprehensive intercultural strategies to help them manage diversity positively and realise the diversity advantage.

    Amadora launches a Guide on the welcoming of migrants

    Blue Economy Forum

    BluAct Toolkit

    BluAct: The Documentary

    2ndChance on Facebook

    2ndChance on Twitter


    Kick-off meeting in July (Wroclaw). Transnational meeting in November (Barcelona).
    Transnational meetings in March (Baia Mare) and November (Paris).
    Transnational meeting in January (Milan). Final event in April (Gdansk).

    Municipality of Athienou
    2, Archbishop Makarios III Ave.
    7600 Athienou Cyprus


    Municipality of Santiago de Compostela


    Municipality of Udine (Italy)


    For any enquires into Tech Revolution, email: DMC@Barnsley.gov.uk

    Keep following our social media channels as we develop Tech Revolution 2.0 as part of the second wave of URBACT ||| Programme. 

    Follow our Twitter: @Tech_RevEu
    Follow our Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/company/urbact-techrevolution/




    Av. Movimento das Forças Armadas

    2700-595 Amadora



    +351 21 436 9000

    Ext. 1801


    City of Rome


    Department of European Funds and Innovation

    Via Palazzo di Città, 1 - 10121 Turin (Italy)



    Câmara Municipal de Lisboa

    Departamento de Desenvolvimento Local

    Edifício Municipal, Campo Grande nº25, 6ºE | 1749 -099 Lisboa




    Laura González Méndez. Project coordinator.

    Gijón City Council


    Municipality of Piraeus


    City of Ljubljana

    Mestni trg 1

    1000 Ljubljana, Slovenia


    Project Coordinator Martin Neubert

    +49 371 355 7029



    Riga NGO House


    City of Antwarp
    Grote Markt 1 - 2000 Antwarpen

    Manchester City Council
    Manchester M2 5RT

    City of Rotterdam
    Coolsingel 40, 3011 AD Rotterdam

    City Council Bielefeld
    Bürger Service Center
    Phone +49 521 510


    City of Eindhoven
    Stadhuisplein 1, 5611 EM Eindhoven

    City of Loulé
    Praça da República, 8104-001 Loulé
    Phone +351 289 400 600


    City of Igualada
    Plaça de l'Ajuntament, 1, 08700 Igualada, Barcelona


    City of Ghent
    Stad Gent
    Botermarkt 1
    9000 Gent

    City of Genoa
    Via di Francia, 1 - XI floor. 16149 Genova


    City of San Donà di Piave Piazza Indipendenza, 13 – 30027


    City of Naples
    Urban Planning Department 
    Phone +39 081 7958932 - 34 - 17 


    The Barnsley Digital Media  County Way, Barnsley, S70 2JW
    Phone +44 01226 720700 


    Preston City Council
    Town Hall, Preston, PR1 2RL

    City of Piacenza
    piazza Cavalli 2 - 29121 Piacenza - Italia
    tel centralino 
    Phone +39 0523 492 111 

    City of Bilbao
    Plaza Ernesto Erkoreka nº1. 48007 Bilbao. Phone +32 944 204 200 

    City of Poznan
    plac Kolegiacki 17,
    61-841 Poznań


    Westmisnter City Council
    Phone +44 020 7641 6500

    City of Gdańsk
    5 prof. Witolda Andruszkiewicza St.
    80-601 Gdańsk

    The work developed by the cities of this Action Planning network has proven that social innovation is not just a trend, but it could also be qualified as a fundamental change in the management of cities, in the management of impact and in the relations cities uphold and develop with their inhabitants. Some would describe this change as an equivalent of the industrial or the IT revolution: up until now, one of the basic assumptions of urban policy was that citizens were to accept what is decided, planned and built. Recent years have shown that it is often the citizens who make the city, in a collaborative perspective.

    Boosting social innovation
    Ref nid

    Lead Partner : Genoa - Italy
    • Alba Iulia - Romania
    • Lisbon - Portugal
    • Debrecen - Hungary
    • Ghent - Belgium
    • Murcia - Spain
    • Palermo - Italy
    • Paris - France
    • Tartu - Estonia
    • Varna - Bulgaria

    City of Genoa - Via di Francia, 1 - XI floor. 16149 Genova




    • Phase 2 kick-off meeting in September (Alba Iulia)
    • Transnational meetings in February (Lisbon), June (Tartu) and October (Ghent).
    • Transnational meeting in January (Murcia). Final event in April (Genoa).

    This Action Planning network explored how digital, social media and user generated content can improve today’s urban management in European cities, whatever size. This challenge has been tackled in two ways: as an opportunity to redefine and deepen the concept of citizenship and civic engagement today, providing a path to spark cohesion, commonalities and shared value as well as increasing sense of place. As well as a way to improve the quality of public services, in terms of efficiency and transparency, and even widen the current service chart provided by local authorities.

    Interactive Cities APN logo
    Digital, social media and user-generated content improving urban governance
    Ref nid
  • Com.Unity.Lab

    Lead Partner : Lisbon - Portugal
    • Aalborg - Denmark
    • Bari - Italy
    • Lille - France
    • Lublin - Poland
    • Ostrava - Czech Republic
    • Sofia - Bulgaria
    • The Hague - Netherlands

    Câmara Municipal de Lisboa - Departamento de Desenvolvimento Local
    Edifício Municipal, Campo Grande nº25, 6ºE | 1749 -099 Lisboa



    Final Products


    • Phase 1 | Kick-off meeting, Lisbon (PT)
    • Phase 1 | Final Meeting, Lisbon (PT)
    • Phase 2 | 1st Transnational Meeting, Bari (IT)
    • Phase 2 | 2nd Transnational Meeting, Lublin (PL)
    • Phase 2 | 3rd Transnational Meeting, Aalborg (DK)
    • Phase 2 | 4th Transnational Meeting, The Hague (NL)
    • Phase 2 | 5th Transnational Meeting, Lille Metropole (FR)
    • Phase 2 | 6th Transnational Meeting (online), Sofia (BG)
    • Phase 2 | 7th Transnational Meeting (online), Ostrava (CZ)
    • Phase 2 | Final Event, Lisbon (PT)

    This Transfer network aims to replicate the Lisbon Local Development Strategy for areas of Priority Intervention which provides the city a range of integrated tools to tackle urban poverty and empower local communities. This strategy is based on a co-governance and bottom-up participatory perspective, ensuring a horizontal and collaborative local approach, to mitigate social, economic, environmental and urban exclusion, resulting in a smart and effective toolbox to implement a sustainable urban living and enhance social-territorial cohesion.

    Com.Unity.Lab TN logo
    Empowering Local Development
    Ref nid
  • How can local groups live on after URBACT projects end?

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    URBACT Local Groups_COVER

    URBACT experts share three strategies for towns and cities to ensure their URBACT-sparked local participation keeps on thriving.

    From urbact

    How do towns and cities maintain the momentum for collaborative actions and innovation created in their URBACT Local Groups (ULGs)? And what structures can be put in place to continue the ULGs’ role after URBACT projects end? Answers to these questions are crucial to consider with the end of another cycle of Action Planning Networks in the URBACT programme. Anamaria Vrabie, Eileen Crowley and Wessel Badenhorst unpack three possible strategies that each ULG can consider, stemming from their practitioner experience and a ‘fireside chat’ workshop they organised together with the URBACT Secretariat at the 2022 URBACT e-University.


    Before we begin, please also consider using these additional resources, complementary to this article:

    And now, let us share with you some of the transformative stories we have generated, witnessed and supported in the cities of Cluj-Napoca (RO), Dublin and Cork (IE). We reference these cities, not as overall good practices of innovative governance models, but rather in an effort to make things as concrete as possible, in order to understand the structure, context for emergence, and expected impact of such innovative models.

    Strategy #1: formalise your ULG work into an innovation lab

    In the last 15 years, there has been a strong development of innovation labs connected to public administrations. These labs can take a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on their governance model. Some operate at governmental level, some at city level. Some are mandated to specifically improve the delivery of public service, while others are tasked with prototyping solutions for emerging challenges or with the support of emerging technologies. It is useful to think about these labs as a quadruple helix living lab at the intersection with a research and development department specifically linked to a public authority. Each lab can opt to use one or more innovation methodologies, from human design thinking to behavioural insights.

    For an overview of some of the most active labs at global level, this survey and this report can be useful places to start as, like ULGs, such labs convene a wide array of city stakeholders.

    In Cluj-Napoca, Romania’s second largest city with a population of around 400 000 people, it was actually a failed attempt to win the title of a European Capital of Culture (ECoC) that proved a catalyst for the emergence of their innovation lab. The Cluj-Napoca Urban Innovation Unit (UIU) was a programme proposed in 2017 by Cluj Cultural Centre, an NGO comprising at the time around 60 cultural organisations and public authorities, that had prepared the ECoC strategy.

    Designed in partnership with the Cluj-Napoca municipality, UIU would actually have a limited lifecycle of four-five years, in order to test what innovation approaches would be best for Cluj, while building more innovation capacity locally. If successful, the unit would be fully transferred in the local municipality. This aspect is quite relevant for towns and cities facing either a low trust in public sector actors or insufficient capacity. It allows a state or non-state actor to break the vicious circle of questioning how such a complex structure should be governed, by proposing a test-run for a limited period.

    Two pilot projects of the Urban Innovation Unit: temporary use of public space in a residential neighbourhood (left) and engaging artists to promote the use of public transportation for youth (right).

    So, how can URBACT cities use an innovation lab structure as a vehicle for the governance and implementation of their Integrated Action Plan (IAP)?

    Building on the city’s strategic documents, similar to URBACT Integrated Action Plans, the Cluj-Napoca Urban Innovation Unit (UIU) was mandated to develop pilot projects in three thematic areas: future of work, urban resilience and urban mobility. The three themes were chosen as the most relevant for emerging challenges of Cluj as a growing city. In addition, all three topics required collaborative solutions and coordination – a sole city actor such as the public administration, universities, NGOs or businesses, would find them hard to develop alone. This report describes the 15 lessons learned of the unit between 2017-2021, as well as pilot projects in each thematic area.

    Early on in the existence of the Cluj-Napoca Urban Innovation Unit, their proposal for future of work, co-produced with the municipality and other key stakeholders, won the Urban Innovative Actions third call for funding, making Cluj-Napoca the first city in Eastern Europe to receive this type of European grant. This brought considerable funding and legitimacy for the lab, but narrowed down the type of pilot projects it could engage in. Nevertheless, reflecting on the emerging legacy of the unit, there are already a few tangible results:

    • Concrete solutions found at city level on how to better support cultural and creative industries as an emerging sector of the local economy;
    • Supporting academics to make their research usable for evidence-based policy;
    • Develop new funding mechanisms that can allow community groups to work with the public administration as peers;
    • Strategic partnerships and new sources of funding accessed by the city;
    • Consolidated capacity for the public sector to use risk-prone methodologies such as prototyping;
    • Successful transfer of tested innovation practices in a newly established department in the municipality starting from May 2022.

    Thus, an innovation lab may provide a useful governance model to monitor the implementation of the URBACT IAP, being tasked to implement pilot projects together with ULG members. These pilot projects are not necessarily the comprehensive actions described in the IAP, but rather Small Scale Actions for each of them. This enables continuous engagement and a refinement of some of the big ideas planned by cities to accomplish their ambitious vision.

    Strategy #2: keep a stable relationship among key city stakeholders, even if informally

    In Ireland, a partnership model was initiated in the city of Cork with the aim of regenerating the city centre and reinvigorating the city space. Located in the south-west of Ireland, the city of Cork has achieved some success in taking a partnership approach to the revitalisation of its city centre in recent years. The council was rewarded for their innovative governance model in 2021 when they won the Chambers Ireland Excellence in Local Government Awards.

    Cork city has a population of about 220 000 people. For a period, the city centre was losing population, and businesses in the area noticed a decline. In 2014, coinciding with a changeover in city management and the appointments of the city’s first female chief executive, a study was commissioned to kick-start transformative actions to revitalise the city centre in partnership with a wide range of stakeholders. The study made two key recommendations: create a cross-sectoral partnership to drive change; and employ a city centre coordinator – someone to act as the human face of the council, to liaise with businesses, broker relationships and facilitate action.

    Weekend morning yoga on the board walk in Cork City centre

    The city implemented these recommendations and set up two key groups. The first consists of approximately 20 cross-sectoral representatives, including local politicians, business owners and representatives, public transport representatives, members of the Gardaí (police) and some council staff. The second group consists of members of the city council senior management team, with one manager together with an urban planner, responsible for a designated area within the city centre. Action plans and progress reports are revised each year to help realise the aims of these groups.

    Change came about slowly in the city, one step at a time. Early years were focused on forming relationships, building trust and some small quick wins. The council focused mainly on showing their support for businesses by trying to animate the public space and attract people into the city centre. This was done through a variety of soft catalyst-type projects such as chalk workshops, street theatre and street art, all proving very popular and helping to animate the space and to build trust between partners.

    Over time, seeing the benefits and enjoyment to be gained by public space animation, momentum started to grow with several businesses undertaking their own initiatives in this area. Examples include weekend morning yoga on the boardwalk instigated by a local coffee shop owner and the city’s infamous long table dinner which started in 2017. This was led by 12 restaurants in the city centre, feeding 420 guests in one of the city’s main thoroughfares.

    Cork’s long table dinner feeding 420 guests (left) and one of the newly pedestrianised streets in the city, catering for an increase in outdoor dining (right).

    Of course, there were stumbling blocks too, and some initiatives met with great resistance. As the famous motivational author Louise Hay says however: “resistance is the first step to change”. The City Council’s attempt to pedestrianise the main street in the city for several hours a day initially met with great opposition. In spite of this, the City Council held firm and increased their commitment to work in partnership with stakeholders to find solutions and support the continued reinvigoration of the city centre. The cross-sectoral stakeholder group met 13 times over the summer of 2019, intent on co-creating solutions to the city’s challenges. In the end, these stumbling blocks proved to bear great fruit, and working together through these challenges served to strengthen and solidify vital relationships across sectors and between stakeholders.

    These strong partnerships and cross-sectoral structures in place in the city are what enabled the city to respond dynamically and quickly to the shock circumstances brought about by the pandemic.

    Together, city stakeholders worked quickly to develop a response plan and to rapidly roll out activities to ensure the city centre remained an attractive and inviting space for people in the midst of the pandemic. The city quickly set in train the pedestrianisation of 17 streets within the city centre, the development of cycle lanes across the city, increasing cycle parking, creating attractive outdoor spaces with public parklets and street cleaning and supporting the development of streets for outdoor dining.

    So, how can an informal partnership structure become a vehicle as a post-project structure for governance and implementation of actions in the IAP?

    The post-ULG structure can aim to become a go-to forum for other emerging challenges of the city.

    An example of some winter-proofing measures on one of the city quays

    For example, in Cork, thanks to the highly effective and innovative governance models in place for the management of the city centre, the city has been hugely successful in accessing national funding for the winter proofing of many of its newly pedestrianised streets, enabling year-round outdoor dining even in the often inclement Irish weather!

    From small soft measures in the beginning to a visible increase in momentum, the city today is truly transformed. Cork showcases a city offering that competes on par with some of the most well-known and magnetic cities across Europe. This is the power of partnership and taking a collaborative approach to city development.

    This approach is highly replicable and transferable even across varying contexts. Investing in a partnership model can lead to effective and positive transformations of an area, the time and commitment involved does pay off. People, partnerships and leadership are essential. Motivating factors including some soft measures, quicks wins, awards and the showcasing of inspirational good practices can all drive momentum. A clear vision, dedication and commitment however are all vital links to connect a vision to reality. An important lesson we can learn from Cork is that their partnership journey is just as important as the destination. While the city’s physical transformation is impressive, it’s the embedding of this collaborative culture and the institutionalisation of cross-sectoral governance models within the city’s practice that is truly valuable and surely heralds only the beginning of this city’s transformational journey.

    Strategy #3: consider business-led governance structures such as Business Improvement Districts (BIDs)

    In countries like Ireland and the UK, legislation was introduced in past decades to enable businesses in a defined commercially zoned area to form a company that will take on aspects of governance and carry out certain actions. The legislation allows for a business community to form a Business Improvement Districts (BID) company after holding a plebiscite in the ‘BID Area’ where more than 50% of businesses voted to form the company on the premise of a proposed five-year strategy. If the vote is positive, then a board of directors is constituted with the representation of the local authority ensconced.

    Typically, the BID Company will then set up a few working groups that involve local stakeholders focusing on needs identified in the strategy. The BID Company is funded through levies paid by all businesses in the BID area, i.e. the Business District, which are collected by the local authority and then transferred to the BID Company. This amounts to a ‘tax’ paid by businesses in addition to the annual rates owed to the local authority. It also means that businesses have an interest to secure the best return for their contributions. This drives the dynamic of the BID Company as a place-oriented governance structure.

    So, how can a BID Company become a vehicle as a post-project structure for governance and implementation of actions in the IAP?

    Key stakeholders involved in a Business Improvement District

    The aim of the post-ULG structure can be summarised with the following main features:

    1. A structure that coordinates the alignment of stakeholder needs in the designated area;
    2. A structure that provides and supports leadership in the designated area;
    3. A structure that can facilitate delivery of actions and the measuring of impacts.

    In the case of business districts, the stakeholder interests that should drive future development are not only those of landowners or large employers. An interesting case study is the former large industrial estates that have transformed into mixed use business districts, i.e., with new clean manufacturing, office, education, retail and residential uses. One example of how this can work is the Sandyford Business District in Dublin, Ireland.

    More than 20 000 people work in Sandyford and 6 000 people live in Sandyford. There are approximately a thousand businesses in the district, ranging from multi-nationals like the Microsoft European HQ to many SMEs. Six years ago, the businesses voted to form a BID Company. Last year, the mandate for the company was renewed with a second plebiscite.

    Poster for the Sandyford BID Company

    The Sandyford BID Company developed a comprehensive strategy with actions for the next five years covering not only the marketing of the district, but also greening of the district; significantly increasing active transport infrastructure for walking and cycling; increasing permeability and access to the district; and using new technologies to make the district ‘smarter’.

    The BID Company’s approach is to work in collaboration with local stakeholders, including the local authority and residents, with the aim to build a sense of place and community.

    The statutory BID structure ensures that the BID Company has a steady funding stream for the next five years to implement its strategy. The BID Company has however learnt from the previous five years that it is even more important to build the trust with key stakeholders to create a culture of collaboration. This in turn will ensure synergies in the use of resources and a collective responsibility for the future development of the business district.

    There are significant elements from the structure of BID Companies which cities could transfer to their own governance structures for their commercial areas or business districts. The attraction is the certainty of sufficient resources for action implementation together with an approach to build relationships with key stakeholders, thus creating a vehicle for ‘distributed’ place leadership which also involves the business leaders in the city.

    And a bonus, #4: let’s keep the conversation open!

    We acknowledge that there are numerous other governance models to be considered. Our purpose was to start this conversation and make use of the incredible knowledge resources that exist in the URBACT programme – URBACT cities pioneering new ways of governance, lead experts with core expertise in innovation and governance, decades of work by URBACT Secretariat members to design capacity-building activities to make collaborative work in ULGs and beyond possible, just to mention few examples. Several workshops within the URBACT City Festival in June 2022 highlighted the continuation of ULGs’ work in many Action Planning Network cities. Whether they live on as legally-binding structures, or informal meet-ups, we look forward to watching these local URBACT-sparked connections keep on thriving!


    This article was first co-produced by Anamaria Vrabie, Eileen Crowley and Wessel Badenhorst in April 2022.

    Anamaria Vrabie is the Lead expert for the URBACT Tourism-Friendly Cities network. She is a behavioural-informed economist and leader of urban innovation practices with over 15 years of international experience. Since 2017 she has co-designed and managed Cluj-Napoca Urban Innovation Unit.

    Eileen Crowley is the Lead expert for the URBACT Resourceful Cities network. She is a project designer and planner. Having worked for almost 20 years in local & regional government, as well as the research sector in Ireland on a broad portfolio of EU funded transnational projects she now works in the private sector as a consultant.

    Wessel Badenhorst is the Lead expert for the URBACT iPlace network. He previously worked as the Economic Development Officer in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, one of the Dublin local authorities. He also was the interim CEO of the Sandyford BID Company and helped develop its new BID Strategy.


  • How EU cities can localise SDGs through integrated action planning

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    Global Goals For Cities Lead Expert Stina Heikkila shows URBACT cities taking steps to link local and global sustainability goals.


    The sense of urgency to transform our world is felt more strongly now than ever before, and towns and cities are at the heart of this global quest. With less than eight years to 2030, there is good reason to be excited about the results coming from the URBACT Global Goals for Cities network (GG4C).


    Over the last 15 months, partners have identified gaps and priorities to be tackled in their cities in relation to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and are now preparing to co-create actions that will help reach their set objectives. The 19 participating cities delivered their draft Integrated Action Plans before summer 2022.


    In this article, I share some of the action planning highlights so far, hoping to inspire other cities in Europe to embark on similar journeys. This strong focus on developing integrated actions for localising the SDGs is what makes this network unique in Europe and in the world. Enough talking, it is time for action!



    19 cities – 19 unique SDG stories and ways to localise the SDGs


    As a first step of the action planning process, partners worked on their visions for what their cities would look like in the future (by 2030 or another year, depending on the local context). This resulted in 19 ‘SDG Stories’, with lots of diversity and creativity: seven videos, three “news from the future” articles, four infographics and seven narrative stories explaining the cities’ future visions. As an example, Klaipėda (LT) created an SDG story composed of a series of infographics explaining how the SDGs link to the city’s main strategic development plan, Klaipėda 2035, and how their Integrated Action Plan developed as part of the URBACT network will help to accelerate action.In Trim (IE), the SDG story was developed by involving local stakeholders in a ‘shopping’ activity, following an example from Marcoussis (FR) that URBACT Expert Christophe Gouache had presented to the network. In Trim, participants of the visioning exercise were given a certain amount in‘Truros’ – a fictional currency – and could shop for local priorities for the future, including the SDG targets, the five dimensions of the 2030 Agenda (People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, Partnerships), as well as the challenges and priorities identified in the city profile at the start of the network journey. They also included petals from Rob Hopkins’ Imagination Sundial in the shop. The result was three priority areas for the future vision of Trim: a place for people; a safe, equitable and thriving place to live; and a sustainable, environmentally friendly town.


    As a first step of the action planning process, partners worked on their visions for what their cities would look like in the future (by 2030 or another year, depending on the local context). This resulted in 19 ‘SDOne of the infographics from Klaipėda’s SDG Story explaining how the SDGs link to the city’s main strategic development planG Stories’, with lots of diversity and creativity: seven videos, three “news from the future” articles, four infographics and seven narrative stories explaining the cities’ future visions. As an example, Klaipėda (LT) created an SDG story composed of a series of infographics explaining how the SDGs link to the city’s main strategic development plan, Klaipėda 2035, and how their Integrated Action Plan developed as part of the URBACT network will help to accelerate action.In Trim (IE), the SDG story was developed by involving local stakeholders in a ‘shopping’ activity, following an example from Marcoussis (FR) that URBACT Expert Christophe Gouache had presented to the network. In Trim, participants of the visioning exercise were given a certain amount in‘Truros’ – a fictional currency – and could shop for local priorities for the future, including the SDG targets, the five dimensions of the 2030 Agenda (People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, Partnerships), as well as the challenges and priorities identified in the city profile at the start of the network journey. They also included petals from Rob Hopkins’ Imagination Sundial in the shop. The result was three priority areas for the future vision of Trim: a place for people; a safe, equitable and thriving place to live; and a sustainable, environmentally friendly town.



    Moving from vision to action: a mission-inspired approach


    Having developed their SDG stories, the next step for cities is to start defining concrete actions to deliver their vision.


    When co-creating actions together with local stakeholders, one common challenge is to ensure actions are realistic and achievable. Another is how to avoid working in silos with sectoral priorities. The SDGs provide a holistic framework, and should not be seen as 17 separate goals to be tackled one-by-one. But how do you start concrete actions without losing sight of the indivisible nature of the goals, and while remaining selective and strategic?


    Part of the answer lies in the integrated approach promoted by URBACT, fostering horizontal, vertical and territorial integration. The Integration Assessment Grid, for example, helps to ensure that cities consider different types of integration in their action plan.


    In addition, defining clear and cross-cutting priorities helps partners to set the direction for what is to be achieved together with their local stakeholders.


    To do this, we gained inspiration from the ‘mission-oriented approach’ developed by the economist Mariana Mazzucato, and used by the European Commission to set its five EU missions for the 2021-2027 programming period (a novelty of the Horizon Europe research and innovation programme), including the one that focuses on achieving 100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030.



    What is a mission-oriented approach, and why is it useful for cities defining SDG actions?


    Missions can be seen as bold goals of societal relevance that “catalyse investment and innovation from many different sectors and inspire new collaborations at the project level” (Mazzucato, 2020). The idea behind missions is first to ask: “What is the problem we want to solve?” and then define a mission that sets the shared direction towards solving it, through a clear goal and multiple potential paths and partnerships to achieve it. While the approach has been principally applied in the science, technology and innovation (STI) policy domain, in its more recent and broader applications “missions are a pathway towards different ways of working across the public sector and creating better public value for citizens” (OECD, 2021). 


    For the Global Goals for Cities network we used the working definition of a mission as:


    “an overarching societal goal that brings together multiple actors to focus on solving a cross-sectoral problem, within a given time frame”.


    For our purposes, a mission is more specific than the vision (in our case the SDG stories), which describes the desirable future situation in broad terms. Yet, missions are cross-cutting enough to go beyond single objectives or SDGs, promoting an integrated approach. One of the main motivations for using missions is to tackle different inter-connected SDGs under one umbrella while giving a clear and shared direction. At the same time, the mission-oriented approach reinforces the intervention logic that is part of the URBACT method, and is in line with goal-based planning called for by the SDGs. The examples below illustrate what this means in practice.



    Five steps for cities to move from visioning their SDG stories to defining missions

    Global Goals for Cities partners used a new tool to stimulate collective reflection around the question “What’s the problem we want to solve?”. The ‘Vision Wheel’ – shown below – introduces a five step process for moving from vision to setting missions, starting by putting the vision in the centre of the circle. After listing the thematic areas covered by the vision (the petals around the core), the different segments of the wheel are filled from the outside in, following five clear steps:

    1. identify how the vision’s themes link to different SDGs;
    2. pin-point the most relevant targets under those SDGs;
    3. identify the key stakeholders involved in delivering the vision;
    4. map existing initiatives linked to the vision and its themes, and;
    5. connect the dots across different themes, existing initiatives, key stakeholders, and SDGs to find cross-cutting missions that can be agreed among stakeholders.


    The zoomed-in section below the empty tool illustrates what a filled out wheel may look like.


    SDGs vision wheel

    A Zoomed-in section of a pre-filled Vision Wheel, showing how the different themes of the vision in the centre map to different SDGs.


    SDGs vision wheel (zoom)

    The Vision Wheel mapping exercise allows participants to perceive the complexity of the strategic and operative landscape of a city - the filled wheel tends to get quite messy! By mapping the ‘system’ of interlinked initiatives, stakeholders and goals, the Vision Wheel helps to spot gaps and strategic connections across sectors and fields of activity that may otherwise not have been explored. 



    Bringing down silos


    One key advantage of the Vision Wheel is therefore that it helps bring down policy silos. For example, could the revision of the municipality’s procurement guidelines (SDG12) be revised to stimulate social entrepreneurship and innovation (SDG9, SDG8) potentially helping people who are far from the labour market (SDG10) or promote gender equality (SDG5)? Can entrepreneurs partner up with the municipality (SDG 17) to deliver carbon neutrality (SDG 13)?


    Could working on enhancing biodiversity in the city’s green spaces (SDG 15) be linked to mental health programmes (SDG 3), school gardens (SDG 2) and participation in urban design (SDG11)? Could the city’s carbon neutrality plan (SDG 13) become a key lever for promoting multi-functional green spaces and reduce inequalities in well-being (SDG 10)? Which actors are already involved, and are they willing to contribute to a shared mission (SDG 17)? These are some of the questions asked during this exercise.


    In Veszprém (HU), the result of carrying out this collective intelligence practice was a mission combining sustainable water management (SDG 6), multi-functional green spaces (SDGs 15 and 13), natural and built heritage (SDG 11), health (SDG 3) and community involvement (SDGs 11 and 17). It was derived from their SDG story’s four themes: sustainable mobility, sustainable water management, green spaces and community engagement.



    Putting the Integrated Action Plan together: aligning ‘SMART’ objectives with SDG targets and actions


    After identifying their missions, Global Goals for Cities partners continue to set out the details of their SDG localisation work.


    The next step is to build a monitoring framework for their Integrated Action Plans – defining ‘SMART’ (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound) objectives and identifying measurable results – and to link these to the SDG framework.


    To do this, the ‘Integrated Action Plan Canvas’ shows how the different pieces of the puzzle fit together. Reading the canvas from the upper right, the vision leads to defining cross-cutting missions, as explained above, which in turn are linked to relevant SDGs and targets.



    SDGs integrated action plan canvas


    In the yellow segment of the canvas are the so-called ‘Locally adapted SDG targets’ and specific objectives. This illustrates that the specific objectives are derived from (or are at least within the same scope as) the official SDG targets formulated in the global framework. That is how partners can claim to be working towards the global goals (the devil is in the details…).


    The ‘Action’ part of the canvas (in red) includes the action titles. The detailed actions are being developed using a combination of URBACT’s action tables found in the URBACT Toolbox (the Action Table and Refining Actions). This is where cities list the partners of each action, what is going to be produced by the action, available resources, activities, costs, and so on. In short, making sure the Integrated Action Plan is implementation ready.



    Two examples of how SDG targets are localised


    1. Veszprém: linking local missions to Sustainable Development Goals 6 and 17 and beyond

    Coming back to the example of Veszprém, we saw above how their mission is linked to several SDGs. Under those SDGs, the local team has identified Specific Objectives that are in line with relevant SDG targets, adapted to the local level. Two illustrative examples are set out below, both still works in progress.


    Work in progress Veszprem


    The above examples illustrate the main SDG target that is being localised and impacted by the action: the one that will be measured at the results level following a clear intervention logic. In the detailed Action Tables, other relevant targets are also identified to highlight the interconnected nature of the SDGs. For example, for the first action focused on increasing water supply for public spaces maintenance, other relevant targets include:


    • 15.1 Ensuring the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems and their services, in particular forests, wetlands, mountains and dry habitats, in accordance with obligations under international agreements;
    • 13.1 Strengthening resilience and adaptation to climate change-related hazards and natural disasters;
    • 12.2 Achieving sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources.

    For the action aimed at community planning, the following targets are identified as relevant:


    • 11.3 By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanisation and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management;
    • 16.7 Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels;
    • 5.5 Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic, and public life;
    • 10.2 By 2030 empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.



    2. Gävle: linking local missions to Sustainable Development Goal 17.14


    In Gävle, the approach taken is slightly different. Focus here is on strengthening governance aspects of implementing the 2030 Agenda locally. The mission defined by Gävle (SE) in its Integrated Action Plan reads: 'By 2030, Gävle municipality will achieve a holistic perspective on sustainable development by increasing knowledge and collaboration between municipal organizations, residents, associations and businesses'.


    This is derived from the broader vision of 'Collaborating to create the Good Life in Gävle', by working holistically across the municipality’s three strategic programmes for ecological, social and economic sustainability.


    The scope of Gävle’s Integrated Action Plan is hence to build on the municipality’s long tradition of integrated sustainable urban development and to continue to reinforce the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs as a shared framework.


    The locally adapted SDG target in main focus is SDG 17.14: enhance policy coherence for sustainable development. Other goals are operationalised through the three strategic programmes, ensuring a holistic approach.


    The two examples below illustrate how different governance and management actions contribute to the municipality’s SMART objectives, within the scope of target 17.14.


    Work in progress Gavle



    Next step: results indicators


    The next challenge for Global Goals for Cities partners will be to identify results indicators to match their specific objectives and localised SDG targets. This is far from straightforward, since data can be sparse at the local level, and there is a need to remain relevant locally while also adhering to the SDG framework and enabling international comparisons.


    To support this work, a core set of around 50 local indicators were presented to our cities by URBACT Expert Eleni Feleki, based on her research on indicators for measuring urban sustainability, which can also be used for measuring progress on the SDGs at local level. We further compared and presented other existing frameworks developed by leading organisations such as the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), as well as from the meeting’s co-host cities Reggio Emilia (IT) and Gävle (SE).


    Work on identifying indicators is still ongoing and will be among the final lessons shared by the network in late 2022.    



    Moving forward: six peer groups based on cities’ SDG localisation approach


     ‘No-size-fits-all’ seems like an understatement for 19 cities working on localising 17 SDGs! But diversity can also be challenging; we needed to find some commonalities to enable effective peer learning and review.


    In answer to feedback given at the network’s mid-term reflection, we have divided cities into four broad categories, based on their overall approach towards localising the SDGs. Within these peer groups, partners will work in groups of two to three‘peers’ to review each other’s plans. The groups are:


    • The Strategisers. These are partners who are working on an Integrated Action Plans that will serve to operationalise their cities’ comprehensive, long-term city strategies. In these cases, strategic documents are being finalised in parallel to the GG4C network activities, and therefore the action planning steps fit well into the process.
    • The Pioneers. These peer groups are among the first municipalities in their countries to work on SDG localisation in a comprehensive way. As such, they become leading examples, applying the URBACT method to SDG localisation from start to finish. 
    • The Locals. These peers are those who have been working out their priorities for the Integrated Action Plans closely with local stakeholders bottom-up. At the same time, their Integrated Action Plans will fit into the existing strategic landscape of the municipality in different ways.
    • The Intrapreneurs. These partners make a bet on changing the city’s governance towards one that is guided by the SDGs. For example, introducing SDG localisation guidelines or shared indicators for the whole municipal organisation is in focus.  These partners tend to focus on processes to strengthen policy coherence for sustainable development in their local contexts (like in the case of Gävle above).

    The peer groups are now starting to review each other’s draft Integrated Action Plans, and will work on their drafts together in our eighth transnational meeting in Braga in September 2022. The final products will be ready by the end of 2022.


    In short, the cities in our network keep up good energy and momentum. We all understand that in the end, trying to transform our world is no small feat!


    SDGs peer group exercise




    This article was written by URBACT Expert Stina Heikkila
    From urbact