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Bristol and the Sustainable Development Goals




Image credit: @Bristol Design, Bristol City Council


The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are often referred to as “the closest thing the world has to a strategy.” The 17 Global Goals, agreed at the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, set out 169 targets to be achieved by the year 2030. These targets cover a wide range of issues, such as poverty, inequality, gender equality, education, health, infrastructure, energy, climate change and more. Underpinning the Goals is an ambition to reduce our impact on the planet and reduce divisive inequalities in society without making anybody poorer or worse off.

Progress towards meeting the SDGs is normally monitored and reported at the national level through the production of Voluntary National Reviews which are presented to the United Nations at an annual event known as the High-Level Political Forum.

However, there has been a surge of interest in ‘localising’ the SDGs in cities around the world by promoting their use, integrating them into city plans and policies, and monitoring progress at the city (rather than national) scale by undertaking Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs). In July 2018, a handful of cities around the world reported on their own progress by submitting VLRs to the United Nations.

Inspired by these city-level pioneers, researchers at the Cabot Institute secured a grant from Bristol University’s UK Economic and Social Research Council Impact Acceleration Account to produce the UK’s first VLR, Bristol and the SDGs: A Voluntary Local Review 2019



This report was produced through a partnership between the Cabot Institute for the Environment at the University of Bristol and the Bristol City Office. It reflects a whole-city approach to tackling the SDGs and includes information on the activities of 90 Bristol based organisations working to make the city more economically, environmentally and socially sustainable. The report covers all 17 SDGs and includes data from over 140 statistical indicators.

In many areas Bristol is performing well. There have been very significant improvements in the quality of education in the city, particularly in early years attainment. Bristol’s economy has grown consistently in recent years while unemployment has fallen. Energy consumption and local carbon emissions have fallen, and a strong civic commitment to climate action is clear: Bristol City Council was the first city in the UK to declare a climate emergency, followed shortly thereafter by the University of Bristol. While these trends and initiatives are positive, we cannot be complacent. Bristol’s stated ambition to achieve carbon neutrality will require sustained efforts at scale by a wide range of stakeholders across sectors and levels of government.

In other areas Bristol has performed less-well. Child poverty has been rising in the city and food insecurity is deep in some areas. The gender pay gap in the city has barely changed despite rising wages for women. Where it is possible to disaggregate indicators, it is clear that inequalities persist across neighbourhoods, income groups and ethnicities. Poverty, food insecurity and youth opportunities are spatially concentrated. Despite falling mortality rates overall, the life expectancy gap between the most deprived and least deprived citizens has grown. And the unemployment rate among some ethnic minorities is nearly double that of white citizens.

Bristol’s One City Plan, which was developed through extensive engagement with citizens and stakeholders and is mapped onto the SDGs, already reflects many of these challenges, which will not surprise most Bristolians. Fortunately, as our report shows, organisations across the public and non-profit sectors, as well as the city government, are tackling these issues in creative ways, from the neighbourhood scale to the city scale. Many others are seeking to make positive impacts further afield.

In producing this report we encountered a range of difficult questions, data issues and new insights. The functional area of Bristol is much larger than the City of Bristol—the subject of this report. This difference between the de facto urban area and formal administrative boundaries create challenges in both implementing and monitoring the Goals at sub-national level. Beyond this, there is a clear need for an indicator framework that is tailored to the urban scale and suitable across income contexts. We faced a number of data gaps particularly in monitoring poverty, food insecurity, gender equality, domestic material consumption, aquatic life and life on land. A subnational perspective also highlights the importance of disaggregating data if we are to take the ‘leave no one behind’ ethos of the goals seriously. Many indicators showed positive trends at the city level but held hidden inequalities held when disaggregated. If cities are to effectively work towards the ‘Leave No One Behind’ agenda then more ward level data is needed.

Looking forward, cities have an important role to play in tackling global challenges, including influencing how the concentrations of capital in cities are channelled beyond their boundaries. Where and how the capital generated in cities can have enormous consequences on achieving the SDGs within cities and elsewhere and it is vitally important that large investment and pension funds consider how they responsibly use their resources.

But cities cannot do it alone. City governments need support from private sector and non-profit actors, as well as higher tiers of government and international organisations. It will not be possible to achieve the SDGs locally without increased devolution of local powers. The SDGs and the One City Plan both provide the kind of shared vision needed to forge strategic cross-sectoral partnerships to achieve a sustainable future. Cities are increasingly taking the lead in confronting global challenges, but they need support to follow through.

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This blog is written by Allan Macleod, SDG research and engagement associate working across Bristol Green Capital Partnership, Bristol City Council and the University of Bristol Cabot Institute for the Environment.

Allan Macleod






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