Applying the SDGs to Cities: Business as Usual
or a New Dawn?
Roland Zinkernagel 1, 2, * , James Evans 3and Lena Neij 1
1International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics, Lund University, P.O. Box 196,
22100 Lund, Sweden; email@example.com
2Environment Department, City of Malmö, 20580 Malmö, Sweden
3Department of Geography, University of Manchester; Oxford Rd, Manchester M13 9PL, UK;
*Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org; Tel.: +46-708-120227
Received: 28 June 2018; Accepted: 5 September 2018; Published: 7 September 2018
With growing urbanisation the sustainability of cities has become increasingly important.
Although cities have been using indicators for a long time it is only in the last decades that attempts
have been made to collate indicators into sets that reﬂect the many different aspects required to assess
the sustainability of a city. The aim of this paper is to review the evolution of indicators for monitoring
sustainable urban development in order to understand how ‘new’ the indicators suggested by the UN
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are for cities and the challenges they may face in using them.
The review reveals that previous indicator sets emphasised environmental sustainability, health and
economic growth. It is also shown that indicator sets that pre-date the SDGs lacked dimensions such
as gender equality and reduced inequalities. In all, the SDG indicators provide the possibility of a
more balanced and integrated approach to urban sustainability monitoring. At the same time, further
research is needed to understand how to adapt the SDGs, targets and indicators to speciﬁc urban
contexts. Challenges of local application include their large number, their generic characteristics and
the need to complement them with speciﬁc indicators that are more relevant at the city level.
sustainable development goals; urban sustainable development; indicators; evolution of
Cities have become important agents for sustainability. Agenda 21, adopted at the 1992 Rio
Earth conference, enshrined the active involvement of local stakeholders in delivering sustainable
development, giving cities a key role in sustainability efforts [
]. In more recent years, cities have
actively engaged in the UN climate negotiations, asking for and committing to greenhouse gas
mitigation targets [
]. At the same time, cities are facing many challenges, such as containing urban
], limiting greenhouse gas emissions [
], ensuring satisfactory and sustainable water
supply, providing adequate waste management and improving human health [6,10,11].
Cities have a key role to play in accelerating sustainable development [
]. A total of 66% of
the world’s population is expected to live in cities by 2060 [
], and rapid urbanisation puts a huge
strain on urban systems [
]. It has become increasingly important to monitor cites’ performance in
reaching sustainability. As urban systems are complex, a common way to simplify monitoring is the
use of indicators [
]. An indicator can be deﬁned as an observable feature that is assumed to represent
a state or a trend, usually an unobservable one, at a certain point in time [
]. Cities have been
and are using indicators to a larger or lesser degree to assess social issues [
] and environmental
] as well as economic development [
]. During the last two decades there have been
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Sustainability 2018,10, 3201 2 of 18
many attempts by international organisations and cities themselves, as well as private and interest
groups, to develop indicators and indicator sets to monitor cities’ sustainable development [
accompanied by a proliferation of different monitoring methods [12,25].
Based on the experience of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) [
], the UN adopted
the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the autumn of 2015, in order to provide guidance for
all countries and all stakeholders to achieve sustainable development [
]. The SDGs comprise
17 goals covering different aspects of sustainable development, as deﬁned by the Brundtland
. These goals in turn consist of 169 targets and several hundred indicators [
to assess progress in meeting the goals (at the time of writing, the number of SDG indicators is 230,
of which nine are repeated twice or three times ).
Since the introduction of the SDGs, a growing body of literature has dealt with various aspects
regarding the historical evolution of the SDGs [
], as well as the degree to which the SDGs
themselves can facilitate more sustainable development [
] through their application to
different levels and contexts.
The SDGs have been adopted by the UN as goals to be reached by 2030 in order to enhance
sustainable development globally. The SDG indicators are meant to monitor progress towards
achieving these goals. In the process of implementing the SDGs, emphasis shifts from the goals
themselves towards monitoring and assessing progress towards achieving them [
at local level, cities use the goals as frameworks for their own sustainability performance.
There is an increasing amount of research dealing with aspects regarding the use of the SDGs
in cities [
]. Guides on localising the SDGs are starting to become available [
Several goals directly address the local level, not least goal 11 (sustainable cities and communities).
However, a number of researchers have noted that cities and urban activities touch upon the majority
of all 17 goals [
]. Recent research has highlighted a number of challenges encountered
when implementing the SDGs at a local level. The core challenges identiﬁed in the literature are
Availability of reliable data in cities [
]. The number of suggested SDG indicators makes
it difﬁcult meet the required demand on data.
Policy relevance in the local context and political prioritisation process [
prioritisation can simplify, but also jeopardise successful implementation of the SDGs by focusing
too much on locally relevant aspects.
Covering the complexity of urban systems [
]. Local governments deal with many
aspects that are interdependent; local implementation of the SDGs will lead to the identiﬁcation
of synergies, but also contradictions in goal achievement.
Dealing with out-of-boundary challenges and externalities [
]. Cities not only have an
impact within their territories but also elsewhere, leading to challenges in allocating those impacts.
Indicators in a multilevel and multi-actor governance structure [
]. Several aspects
might need to be addressed at different levels and with different actors, depending on the
governance structure in each country, including who is responsible for monitoring these aspects.
The challenge lies in identifying which level has what responsibility as well as establishing and
Capacity and skills in academic and practitioner ﬁelds [
]. More knowledge and
experiences needs to be gained to be able to use the SDGs in practice as a tool to achieve
All of this means that, even though the SDGs offer a new opportunity to assess cities’ sustainability
performance at all levels, it is not clear what beneﬁts or barriers exist with regard to implementing SDGs
in cities, the extent to which the SDGs will improve the assessment of the sustainability of a city, or
how cities actively contribute and get involved in the global challenge of reaching sustainability [
This paper contributes to addressing these issues.
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The SDGs have progressed from the original division of sustainability aspects into various pillars
to acknowledge the complexity and interrelatedness of development [
]. They require holistic and
coordinated actions across sectors, illustrated by goal 17, which focuses on enabling actions.
The objective of this paper is to review indicator sets previously developed to evaluate the
progress of sustainability in cities, with the purpose of identifying: (1) which are the most commonly
used indicators so far; (2) the degree to which the most commonly used indicator sets cover various
aspects of sustainable development; and (3) how previously used indicator sets compare with the
indicators suggested by the SDGs. The answers to these questions are used to place the SDGs in
a chronological context and to analyse the new aspects that the SDG indicators are introducing to
monitor the achievement of the goals, and in turn in evaluating sustainability in cities, whether the
SDG indicators match the challenges that cities face today, and some of the challenges they may present
to cities in terms of operationalisation. The results of this study will be valuable for cities implementing
the SDGs at the local level and will contribute to the emerging academic debate by outlining a detailed
research agenda to facilitate the implementation of the SDGs at the city level.
The remainder of this paper is organised as follows: Section 2discusses the use of indicators
in general and in assessing urban sustainability, and also provides an outline of the selection of
indicator sets included in the analysis of this study; Section 3analyses the data collected in order to
identify trends in the past evolution of sustainability monitoring, how well the concept of sustainable
development has been captured, and to compare previous indicators with the ones contained in
the SDGs; and the paper concludes with a discussion of the challenges for cities and key areas for
2. Seeing the Forest for the Trees? Background and Methodological Approach to Analyse
Indicators for Sustainable Urban Development
2.1. Conceptual Background: Sustainability Indicators and the Complexity of Urban Systems
The following section presents the main methodological and conceptual background for
identifying and using indicators for monitoring urban sustainable development as identiﬁed in the
literature. The section summarises key epistemological views on indicator use as well as criteria for
indicator selection, and contrasts these with the actual selection process that cities implement.
Monitoring development through indicators is regarded as an efﬁcient and meaningful way to
condense complex system dynamics into a manageable amount of information that can be used to
assess progress against stated outcomes [
]. Part of the research community argues for a selection
of indicators based on conceptual frameworks describing the interrelation between human systems
and ecosystems. These frameworks are meant to help with structuring the diversity of activities
and interactions and thus make it possible to identify and prioritise how to monitor sustainable
], thereby aiding the process of selecting indicators [
the use of frameworks has been criticised for having been developed mostly through a top-down and
technically-dominated approach, not necessarily considering practical feasibility or use, especially
when aiming to monitor sustainable development [18,22,61].
Literature on indicators in general, as well as literature on indicator use in the urban context, states
that sustainability indicators are used to monitor change in society and to show progress towards
a given goal or objective based on observable or measurable markers
By monitoring the same indicator over time it is possible to identify trends and development
]. Indicators can be used to monitor both quantitative and qualitative changes in
The setting of indicators can either be theoretical and science-driven—in which case the indicators
are seen as non-subjective tools where the selection of indicators is based on theoretical models—or
value driven, where the indicators reﬂect current social debates and priorities. The latter practice is
more often applied when indicators are used for policy-making and/or there is a need to co-produce
indicators with stakeholders such as communities or residents. The reasoning is that in many cases the
Sustainability 2018,10, 3201 4 of 18
subject of analysis changes over time, and hence there is no static relationship between the underlying
theoretical model and the data being produced by the indicators based on the model .
When choosing indicators, it is stressed that they should be speciﬁc, measurable or observable,
and that data are, or could be, made available. However, the selection of sustainability indicators is
challenging. Wilson et al. (2007) showed that different understanding of sustainability will lead to
different indicators being selected, which in turn will lead to differences in the resulting sustainability
]. Mori and Christodoulou (2012) reviewed sustainability indicator sets that have been
used by cities, and conclude that none of these indicator sets satisﬁes the requirements necessary to
monitor sustainable development in line with the triple bottom line in cities across the world .
One criterion for selecting indicators to monitor sustainable development, according to the
literature, is that the total number of indicators should be limited [
] in order to obtain
a manageable workload and not get lost in too many details. Indicators must be policy-relevant,
reliable, measurable, wide in scope and simple. In practice, however, indicators for sustainable
urban development have been selected on the basis of political prioritisation, perceived importance
and/or data availability [
]. Research stresses the importance of involving stakeholders in the
process of selecting evaluation indicators, especially when monitoring progress towards sustainable
When selecting indicators, cities need to deal with the complexity of the urban system, and to
decide what is regarded as representative in order to monitor trends and developments towards a goal
(i.e., be sustainable), whilst the goal is in fact not clearly deﬁned. The process of selecting and applying
indicators is further complicated by the fact that the base line changes; there is no constant status quo.
Consequently, what is important and prioritised, and the related indicators that are most appropriate,
is constantly changing.
2.2. Data Used in This Study
Since the introduction of the concept of Agenda 21 in the 1990s, several international organisations
have developed indicator sets to monitor progress towards the Agenda’s goals (see Figure 1). Indicator
sets to monitor both global and local sustainability goals have been developed by cities [
private companies (e.g., Arcadis, the Economist Intelligence Unit) and in public–private collaboration
(e.g., Sustainable Cities International). Sustainability indicator sets that have been developed for a more
general level have also been applied in an urban context. Examples of these include the Ecological
Footprint, Environmental Sustainability Index, Dashboard of Sustainability, Welfare Index, Index of
Sustainable Economic Welfare, City Development Index, Emergy/Exergy, Human Development Index,
Environmental Vulnerability Index, Living Planet Index and Environmentally-adjusted Domestic
In this paper, we analyse selected indicator sets introduced to monitor urban sustainability.
The broader population of indicators was identiﬁed by collecting information about indicators for
monitoring sustainability, monitoring urban development and monitoring quality of life. Based on
this information, indicator sets were selected based on the following principles: (1) the indicator set
aims to cover sustainability in its entirety and account for each different aspect independently; (2) the
indicators were chosen on the basis that they should be developed for a wider group of interested
parties and not a speciﬁc group of actors; (3) the indicators should be developed by transnational,
non-private organisations to avoid country-speciﬁc bias, and therefore be able to be applicable in
a wide range of different contexts; and (4) the indicators should target societal challenges and not
be speciﬁcally developed to evaluate certain products or services. These selection criteria resulted
in the indicator sets represented in Figure 1. Even though some of the indicator sets have not been
developed to monitor urban sustainability, they have or are being used by cities for this purpose.
Detailed information about the indicator sets can be found in Table 1.
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Table 1. Summary of characteristics of each of the indicator sets analysed in this paper.
Use-Phase Launch Adjustments Use Frequency Urban Aspect
UN Habitats Urban indicator
programme 1996–date 1993 1996
Different versions are used by 200+ cities
Strong urban focus
Commission for Sustainable
Development indicators 
1995–ca. 2008 1995 2001
2005 No information on use in cities
Primarily focusing on national level
reporting on sustainable
development. Several aspects that
are relevant at local level
EU’s Urban sustainability indicators [
1998–ca. 2002 1998 No information on use in cities Strong urban focus
European Common Indicators  2000–2004 2000 Tested by 42 cities Strong urban focus
OECD’s Better Life Index  2011–date 2011 frequent Frequent reporting on national level
Focus on citizens’ quality of life from
a mainly national perspective; some
urban aspect are included
ISO 37 120 indicators (Sustainable
development of communities) 2014–date 2014 30 cities have reported at least
some indicators Strong urban focus
Sustainable Development Goals
indicators 2015 2015 No information on use in cities yet Sustainable development on all
levels in all regards
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Figure 1. Chronological development of selected indicator sets by international organisations since
the 1990s included in this study. The Millennium Development Goals are marked in grey as they do
not make a claim to cover sustainability; however, they are an important link to the development of
the Sustainable Development Goals.
In the present analysis, the studied indicator sets are assessed in relation to the SDG indicator
set, which is built on the experiences and strategies of previous goals and indicators—in particular
the Millennium Development Goals [27,29,45,85,86], which acknowledge and address the need to
explicitly include all dimensions of sustainability, set globally relevant goals and include local
government. In particular, the recognition of the role of urban areas and local governments in
facilitating sustainable development has led to the inclusion of a specific urban goal dedicated to
cities and communities , even though many of the other 16 goals also touch upon urban issues
[3,43,50] and many cities already have their own sustainability goals.
3. Analysis of Sustainability Monitoring in Cities: Increasing Complexity Means That More
Indicators Need to Be Managed
The following section reviews and discusses which aspects have been most commonly
monitored since the development of indicator sets for urban sustainable development began. The
various indicator sets in this study are assessed with regard to the extent to which they cover
sustainability, and to which they contrast with each other and with the indicators suggested by the
SDGs. The section concludes with an analysis of the SDG indicators and of how suitable they appear
to be for evaluating sustainability in cities, both from a theoretical perspective and in practical terms.
3.1. Challenges in Measuring the Undefined
Despite the recommendations of limiting the total number of indicators [68–70], there is a trend
towards an increasing number of indicators. Whereas earlier indicator sets had a relatively small
number of indicators (Urban Sustainability Indicators: 15; UN Habitat Urban indicator guidelines: 38;
European Common indicators: 10; CSD Indicators for sustainable development: 49; Better Life Index:
24), newer indicator sets contain far higher numbers of indicators (ISO 37 120: 97; SDGs: 230). This
reflects the fact that more indicators are needed in order to be able to display all different aspects of
sustainability. At the same time, the increasing number of indicators exacerbates the challenges of
data availability and reliability in cites. The higher the number of indicators, the more difficult and
work intensive it is to collect the information; voices have already been raised pointing out that only
1990 2002 2014
ISO 37 120
OECD Better Life
Chronological development of selected indicator sets by international organisations since the
1990s included in this study. The Millennium Development Goals are marked in grey as they do not
make a claim to cover sustainability; however, they are an important link to the development of the
Sustainable Development Goals.
In the present analysis, the studied indicator sets are assessed in relation to the SDG indicator set,
which is built on the experiences and strategies of previous goals and indicators—in particular the
Millennium Development Goals [
], which acknowledge and address the need to explicitly
include all dimensions of sustainability, set globally relevant goals and include local government.
In particular, the recognition of the role of urban areas and local governments in facilitating sustainable
development has led to the inclusion of a speciﬁc urban goal dedicated to cities and communities [
even though many of the other 16 goals also touch upon urban issues [
] and many cities already
have their own sustainability goals.
3. Analysis of Sustainability Monitoring in Cities: Increasing Complexity Means That More
Indicators Need to Be Managed
The following section reviews and discusses which aspects have been most commonly monitored
since the development of indicator sets for urban sustainable development began. The various indicator
sets in this study are assessed with regard to the extent to which they cover sustainability, and to
which they contrast with each other and with the indicators suggested by the SDGs. The section
concludes with an analysis of the SDG indicators and of how suitable they appear to be for evaluating
sustainability in cities, both from a theoretical perspective and in practical terms.
3.1. Challenges in Measuring the Undeﬁned
Despite the recommendations of limiting the total number of indicators [
], there is a trend
towards an increasing number of indicators. Whereas earlier indicator sets had a relatively small
number of indicators (Urban Sustainability Indicators: 15; UN Habitat Urban indicator guidelines:
38; European Common indicators: 10; CSD Indicators for sustainable development: 49; Better Life
Index: 24), newer indicator sets contain far higher numbers of indicators (ISO 37 120: 97; SDGs: 230).
This reﬂects the fact that more indicators are needed in order to be able to display all different aspects
of sustainability. At the same time, the increasing number of indicators exacerbates the challenges of
data availability and reliability in cites. The higher the number of indicators, the more difﬁcult and
work intensive it is to collect the information; voices have already been raised pointing out that only
geographically relevant indicators need to be reported [
], even though the UN statistical division
Sustainability 2018,10, 3201 7 of 18
asks for reporting on all indicators at a national level [
]. Whereas earlier indicator sets limited
the total number of indicators, thus making it more feasible to collect all information that had been
deemed relevant, newer indicator sets, and in particular the SDG indicators, pose big challenges
(Simon et al., 2016). The number of indicators therefore needs to strike a balance between the existence
of reliable data and the complexity of urban systems, ideally including aspects of boundary challenges
Increasing indicator numbers affect a number of the abovementioned challenges positively or
negatively, as outlined in Table 2.
Using indicators to inform policies at the local level entails a number of different challenges.
Depending on the local conditions and governance structure in each country and/or region, cities might
have more or less capacity to inﬂuence local conditions through policy intervention [
the relevance of indicators from a policy intervention perspective is not necessarily straightforward
and is valid for any type of indicator set that has been developed for an international context. The same
is the case in a regime of multi-level and multi-actor governance, a situation that is widely expected to
become more rather than less prevalent in the future [
]. With an increasing number of actors that
either inﬂuence or are needed to be able to report indicators, it is becoming more and more important
that the choice of indicators reﬂects and acknowledges this trend and the associated challenges and
opportunities of working with a wide range of stakeholders to monitor and report.
The risk of politically-steered prioritisation of policy interventions that are not based on evidence
(delivered by indicators), as mentioned by Keirstead and Leach (2008) and Shen et al. (2011), is assumed
in principle to be equally high across all indicator sets [
]. When coupled with the increasing total
number of indicators, however, it could be argued that politically-led prioritisation increases with
an increasing number of indicators, as it can be legitimised as a way to keep monitoring at a more
manageable level. At the same time, it could also be misused and lead to a prioritisation of areas that
are predominantly of special interest in political debates.
3.2. What Matters Most: Stable and Evolving Aspects in Monitoring Sustainability
The following section gives an overview of the aspects that have been stable in sustainability
assessments since they gained momentum in the 1990s. Table 3presents the most common aspects that
are covered over time by indicators in the selected sets that appear in more than half of all analysed
indicator sets. Other aspects are less consistent over time and can be assumed to reﬂect topical attention
at the time the respective indicator set was developed. It is worth noting that all these indicators are
reﬂective indicators in themselves, i.e., measuring the current state. It is only by relating these to each
other, i.e., the summary of the indicators, that it is possible to give a bigger picture on the state of,
for example, the environment in general. Interestingly, the list contains only one indicator associated
with economic aspects; overall, environmental and social aspects dominate. This economic indicator
(unemployment rate) has, however, a very strong social implication.
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Table 2. Positive and negative effects of each identiﬁed challenge regarding the implementation of SDGs at local level.
Identiﬁed Challenges Negative Positive
Access to reliable data Difﬁcult to gather data of sufﬁcient quality for
More chance of being able to collect data for some indicators
and opportunity to engage wider range of stakeholders
Policy relevance and political prioritisation Risk that groups of indicators are ignored if deﬁned as
non-applicable for political reasons
Possibility to choose indicators that are policy-relevant at
Capturing the complexity of the urban system
Despite the large number of indicators,
interrelationships, interdependencies and synergies are
not highlighted or considered
The higher the number of indicators the higher the likelihood
of being able to capture complexity
Covering out of boundary challenges and externalities Difﬁcult for cities to generate data covering
The higher the number of indicators the greater the likelihood
of covering out of boundary challenges and externalities.
Acting in a multilevel and multi-actor governance system A number of indicators are targeting levels other than
the urban level
Possibility of capturing issues that inﬂuence the urban level but
are dealt with at other levels
Availability of capacity and skills
The higher the number of indicators, the higher the
need for skills in more areas of expertise and the higher
the need for capacity
Involving other competences and other actors will result in
better cooperation and increased capacity across sectors
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Table 3. Most common indicators used in the analysed indicator sets *.
Indicators That Appear Most Frequently Frequency of Use (n = 7 Indicator Sets)
Education amongst children and young people 6
Air quality (particulate matter) 6
Victims of homicide 5
(Un)employment rate 5
Access to sanitation 4
Under 5 mortality rate 4
Safely managed drinking water 4
Greenhouse gas emissions 4
Access to electricity and use per capita 4
Hazardous waste generated and treated 4
Voter participation in elections 4
* Urban indicator programme, CSD indicator for sustainable development, ISO 37 120, Urban sustainability
indicators, European Common indicators, Better Life index, SDG indicators.
The indicators relating to air quality and to employment/unemployment rate have been used
over the longest time span; they can be found in the earliest indicator set from 1998 and have been
used in most sets since then. The indicator relating to greenhouse gas emissions per capita was used
early on but is missing among the SDG indicators. The same is the case for the indicator relating to
voter participation in municipal elections. The indicator relating to hazardous waste is one where
it is possible to see a clear trend indicating an increasing attention in more recent years. For other
indicators in Table 2it was not possible to determine clear chronological patterns.
The analysis of the full data set suggests that the following aspects were regarded as more
important initially but have lost importance over the years: modal split of transportation, total water
consumption per capita, housing according to building regulations, urban population growth and
proportion of households with more than three persons per room. On the contrary, indicators that have
gained importance over the years are: proportion of urban population living in slums, proportion of
teachers having received adequate training, passengers and freight volumes and internet connections.
It is worth noting that the use of indicators has been changing over time, in line with an increasing
trend to incorporate ‘New Public Management’ ideals into public administration, i.e., the ideals of
cost-efﬁciency, decentralisation, customer-orientation and empowerment. The desire to achieve greater
economic efﬁciency through closer management and monitoring is reﬂected in the choice and use
of indicators in the public sector [
]. In all, indicators have moved towards an approach that is
more centred on the individual and quality of life. Instead of measuring total water consumption,
for example, indicators intend to cover the proportion of the population that has access to safe drinking
water or sanitation.
3.3. Evolution of Sustainability Monitoring
The analysis reveals that indicator sets have until now each been used only over a certain
time period, after which they have been developed and adjusted. This indicates that there has been a
tendency towards following new trends and shifts in (political) prioritisation over the years. This might
be explained by the lack of a common deﬁnition of sustainability or sustainable cities .
Figure 2gives an overview of the total number of indicators suggested by various indicator sets,
grouped according to the structure proposed by the SDGs. It becomes obvious that the number of
indicators suggested to implement the SDGs is by far the highest—232 indicators in total—going
beyond other assessment tools in all but two of the 17 goals. Only the ISO 37 120 indicators surpass the
number of SDG indicators on the topics of goal 7 (affordable and clean energy) and goal 11 (sustainable
cities and communities). The high number of indicators with the ISO standard for goal 11 could be
explained by the fact that this standard focuses on smart city data, i.e., collecting data necessary for the
Sustainability 2018,10, 3201 10 of 18
efﬁcient running of a city, although the standard still claims to centre on evaluating the sustainability
Sustainability 2018, 10, x FOR PEER REVIEW 10 of 18
necessary for the efficient running of a city, although the standard still claims to centre on evaluating
the sustainability of cities.
Figure 2 also shows the relation between the number of indicators for the SDGs and the
Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs were developed as a global effort to improve
the quality of life of people, especially those in the developing world. Although they did not
specifically make any claim to cover all aspects of sustainable development, the process of developing
the MDGs, as well as the effort of reaching the goals, has had a great impact on the way that the SDGs
have been developed, in particular by acknowledging the need to cover all aspects of sustainability,
including possible synergies and contradictions between the different goals [26,27]. As Figure 3
shows, both SDGs and MDGs have a strong focus on health and wellbeing (SDG goal 3) and
partnership and cooperation (SDG goal 17). What also becomes apparent is the increased focus on
gender equality (SDG goal 5), economic development (SDG goal 8), sustainable cities and
communities (SDG goal 11) and sustainable production and consumption (SDG goal 12). This clearly
indicates an evolution towards a more holistic approach.
Figure 2. Number of indicators in different sustainability assessments according to SDG structure.
SDG indicators ISO37120
UN Habitat Urban indicator guidelines ECI
Better Life index CSD indicators of SD
Urban sustainability indicators MDG indicators
Figure 2. Number of indicators in different sustainability assessments according to SDG structure.
Figure 2also shows the relation between the number of indicators for the SDGs and the
Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs were developed as a global effort to improve the
quality of life of people, especially those in the developing world. Although they did not speciﬁcally
make any claim to cover all aspects of sustainable development, the process of developing the MDGs,
as well as the effort of reaching the goals, has had a great impact on the way that the SDGs have been
developed, in particular by acknowledging the need to cover all aspects of sustainability, including
possible synergies and contradictions between the different goals [
]. As Figure 2shows, both SDGs
and MDGs have a strong focus on health and wellbeing (SDG goal 3) and partnership and cooperation
(SDG goal 17). What also becomes apparent is the increased focus on gender equality (SDG goal
5), economic development (SDG goal 8), sustainable cities and communities (SDG goal 11) and
sustainable production and consumption (SDG goal 12). This clearly indicates an evolution towards a
more holistic approach.
Furthermore, Figure 2indicates that there are a number of ‘hot spots’, i.e., goals, that have received
more attention than others. Theses hot spots are goal 3 (good health and wellbeing), goal 6 (clean water
Sustainability 2018,10, 3201 11 of 18
and sanitation), goal 8 (decent work and economic growth), goal 11 (sustainable cities and communities)
and goal 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions). These ﬁve topics receive higher indicator counts
throughout the indicator sets, even when disregarding the SDG indicators. The accumulation of
indicators under some aspects, and consequentially the gaps arising under other aspects in the six
pre-2015 indicator sets, indicate that sustainability is covered only to a varying degree during that
period. This is conﬁrmed by the work of Luederitz et al. using a cluster analysis of scientiﬁc literature
on the sustainability performance of urban neighbourhood development, which concluded that none
of the 21 papers covered all three of the sustainability aspects (economic, environmental and social) to
a signiﬁcant degree .
There might be several reasons why certain sustainability aspects are prioritised. One reason
is the historic development of indicator use in cities, where the monitoring of environmental
degradation (in this case indicators under goal 6 and 15) have received a lot of attention since the
1960s, when industrialisation started to have a major impact on people and environmental awareness
in society started to grow [
]. This history and tradition of monitoring environmental performance
also means that the collection of this type of information is relatively easy.
A similar explanation can be used for economic development. The use of GDP as an indicator
for economic growth has been established since the 1940s [
]. Despite the fact that there have been
numerous attempts to develop other indicators, GDP is so established as an indicator that it is ‘the easy
way’ to use it as a main indicator to cover the economic aspects of sustainability. The high indicator
count for goal 11, on the contrary, can be attributed to the more recent trend of increasing focus on
cities as actors to push for sustainable development also on the global level.
Building on past experiences when developing new indicator sets can be seen as a way to
continuously improve and adapt the indicator set, however this approach entails the danger of
reinforcing a path dependency. As the above example of GDP illustrates, analysing past indicator
sets and choosing the ones that ‘have been working well previously’ can easily lead to the use of
established indicators without necessarily reﬂecting whether these indicators really monitor what
is most relevant in current times. It could be argued that it is easier to introduce new aspects to
the monitoring of sustainable development than to change well-established indicators. For example,
introducing indicators to monitor accessibility to green areas in cities is anticipated to be more easily
added to sustainability indicator sets, rather than exchanging the existing indicator of GDP with
a measure of non-economic prosperity. Path dependency also shapes methods. Familiarity with
quantitative indicators can lead to a misconception that everything can be quantiﬁed. Thus, soft
aspects of sustainability are most likely to be measured through quantitative indicators, as this is what
people are used to, thereby risking overlooking important elements.
3.4. Anything New with the SDGs?
Compared to previous indicator sets, the SDG indicators cover aspects that have not been covered
before. Sustainable cities (goal 11) and strong institutions (goal 16) are areas that have only recently
received attention when assessing sustainable development. As for the ISO 37 120 standard, the focus
lies predominantly on sustainable cities. This indicator set has cities as its speciﬁc target group and
hence trying to align the required information to a maximum within this ﬁeld, resulting in 30% of all
ISO 37 120 indicators being repeated under goal 11.
Two areas—gender equality (goal 5) and reduced inequalities within and amongst countries
(goal 10)—attract attention for another reason: these aspects have so far not been covered by indicator
sets at all or only to a very small degree. These ‘soft issues’ have presumably been avoided as they
are based on underlying societal values that are difﬁcult to question from an outsider’s perspective.
Furthermore, they are very difﬁcult to isolate and quantify. The SDG indicators do cover these aspects.
No poverty (goal 1) and zero hunger (goal 2) are also aspects that have not featured as distinctly
in previous indicator sets. They are a legacy from the MDGs and reﬂect a desire to make the SDGs
Sustainability 2018,10, 3201 12 of 18
There are a number of areas that the SDG indicators do not cover. In general, the SDG indicators
remain on a general level. Examples of this are indicators regarding access to health services. The SDG
indicators cover health aspects at a general level, but other indicator sets are more speciﬁc, such as
the number of hospital beds/100,000 people or indicators on key diseases. The same is the case for
indicators on waste and waste water management or air pollution, where in the SDGs only particulate
matter concentrations are required and other air pollutants are summarised in an indicator on mortality
rate due to air pollution. Two aspects that seem particularly relevant from an urban perspective are
missing, namely the availability and/or accessibility of green recreational areas and the modal split
of individual mobility. Voter participation in elections is one aspect that other indicator sets have
commonly included but which is missing from the SDG indicators.
The majority of indicators that have previously been used are included in the SDG indicators.
However, the SDGs remain more general and overarching and lack a degree of detail. It can be argued
that this is due to the fact that the SDGs themselves are meant to follow the logic of ‘governance
through goal setting’ where it is beneﬁcial to stay on a more general level leaving room to specify goals
based on the local context [
]. The purpose of following governance through goal setting is to be able
to be more inclusive, thereby stimulating action rather than holding parties to account or benchmarking
performance. The generic characteristics of the goals have been translated into indicators, but this still
creates a need to localise goals, targets and indicators. Of the SDG indicators, it is assumed that the
majority are relevant at the city level, although some indicators under the goal ‘Reducing inequalities
within and amongst countries’ (goal 10) can be considered less relevant for cities as they mainly deal
with countries’ roles in international organisations or money ﬂows between countries.
The challenge of capturing the complexity of urban systems [
] and acknowledging system
interactions and interrelationships also remains. Assuming that the majority of SDG indicators are
relevant on the urban level, a process of localising them, including some form of political prioritisation
amongst them, is necessary in order to end up with a policy-relevant indicator set for which reliable
data can be collected. It does not necessarily follow that the resulting indicator set will take into
account the possible contradictions in the urban system or how factors might inﬂuence each other.
This challenge has not been addressed in the SDG indicator framework, as it has not been addressed
in any robust process for prioritising certain goals or deﬁning goals that need to be met before
]. The goals and associated indicators are not ranked or weighted and some may even
lead to contradictory actions in the short term (such as economic growth/increasing average income
and limiting greenhouse gas emissions). This suggests that decision makers need to evaluate what
is deemed more important on a case-by-case basis, as has been suggested by some research [
especially in the context of implementing the SDGs at local level [30,45,48,50,51].
The Sustainable Development Solutions Network has developed a guide for stakeholders,
“Getting started with the SDGs in cities” [
], outlining steps local governments can take to localise
the SDGs. The report highlights some of the challenges identiﬁed in this paper, i.e., to “develop
an affordable yet comprehensive monitoring and evaluation system effective in reliably capturing
progress on local goals and targets”. The indicators that the SDGs suggest are all quantitative, and the
majority of them are proportional indicators indicating a relation between two variables, such as
renewable energy share in the total ﬁnal energy consumption. There are no indicators that are based
on qualitative aspects or that ask for subject valuation, both of which are key to understanding local
needs and desires. Examples of qualitative and/or subjective indicators can be found in the Better Life
Index developed by the OECD in 2011, and include “How do you judge your health situation?” or
“Do you feel safe walking alone at night in the city or area where you live?” More research is needed if
qualitative indicators are to complement the SDG indicators by capturing local needs and desires more
efﬁciently than a larger number of quantitative ones.
Sustainability 2018,10, 3201 13 of 18
4. Conclusions and Directions for Further Research
The UN SDGs have been introduced to augment global sustainable development. Although the
goals were not intended as a framework to assess sustainable development, they are increasingly being
used for this function, especially at the local level. This paper has therefore analysed how the SDGs
can advance the assessment and monitoring of urban sustainability, by comparing the SDG indicators
with previously developed indicator sets. One of the main differences of the SDG indicators compared
to previously used indicator sets is the larger number of indicators in the SDG system.
The SDGs themselves cover sustainability aspects that have not been covered previously, namely
aspects of gender equality and reduced inequalities, thereby balancing aspects that have been overly
covered in previous indicator sets, such as environmental aspects, aspects of health and aspects of
economic growth. Overall, the SDGs may make policy integration across sectors easier [
]. The high
number of SDG indicators can facilitate a stronger cooperation across sectors where universities,
NGOs and the private and the public sector need to contribute with data to be able to monitor
development and thus report in line with the SDG requirements. However, in order to capture the
complexity of urban systems, monitoring also needs to include qualitative aspects of development.
A number of the SDGs and targets are formulated qualitatively rather than quantitatively. However,
it is unclear how far the SDGs and other indicator set cover the qualitative sides of sustainable
development. In the process of localising the SDGs, it becomes increasingly important to monitor
city-speciﬁc conditions, thereby increasing the need to identify relevant qualitative indicators that
enable the monitoring of soft aspects of sustainable development.
The analysis also indicated that the idea of an underlying model for human–ecosystem
relationship on which to develop the indicators, which was popular in early work on indicator
] but has been given up. Instead, there seems to be acceptance that a number of
important aspects are worth following and decision makers need to prioritise which local conditions
are to be monitored.
Recommendations for Future Research
The study found that the SDG indicators have the potential to monitor urban sustainable
development, but that future research needs to analyse and support their practical application in cities.
In detail, research needs to be carried out with regard to:
How the process of articulating the SDG indicators into local urban contexts can be carried out,
taking into account the potential for local policy making and political prioritisation
The potential for quadruple helix cooperation and participation for implementation (reﬂecting
the complexity of urban systems), monitoring and evaluation
How to identify relevant and achievable targets by long-term, goal-based planning for SDG
implementation that counteract short-termism
Effective and efﬁcient capacity building for practitioners and within academia with regard to local
monitoring of SDG implementation
At what levels of governance the SDG indicators should be applied to deal with externalities and
how monitoring might be tested
Whether the suggested indicators, as they are currently formulated, can be optimised in a speciﬁc
urban context taking into account different local conditions
Whether alternative or complementary qualitative indicators are needed that are more relevant at
an urban level and able to capture missing aspects.
Conceptualization, R.Z. and L.N.; Methodology, R.Z. and L.N.; Validation, R.Z., J.E.
and L.N.; Formal Analysis, R.Z., J.E. and L.N.; Investigation, R.Z.; Data Curation, R.Z.; Writing-Original Draft
Preparation, R.Z., L.N. and J.E.; Writing-Review & Editing, R.Z., J.E. and L.N.; Visualization, R.Z.; Supervision,
L.N. and J.E.
Sustainability 2018,10, 3201 14 of 18
This paper is the result of two projects run in cooperation between the Environment Department of the
city of Malmö and the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics at Lund University: the
project NärKom, funded by the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial
Planning, the objective of which is to increase hands-on cooperation between municipalities and academia; and
the project Malmö Innovation Arena funded by ERDF, which is a city development project that aims to create
innovation that can rapidly, sustainably and cost efﬁciently boost the implementation of sustainable housing and
sustainable city districts. It has also been informed by experiences coordinating the monitoring and assessment of
smart solutions for urban sustainability across Manchester, Eindhoven and Stavanger in the Horizon 2020 funded
Smart Cities and Communities project, Triangulum (European Union Grant No. 646578, 2014).
Conﬂicts of Interest:
The main author has worked within local government for a long time, resulting in large
amounts of tacit knowledge. The research hypothesis, but not the discussion or results, of this paper has been
inﬂuenced by the current situation and interests in the municipal administration. The funders had no role in the
design of the study, in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data, in the writing of the manuscript, or in the
decision to publish the results.
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