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How U.S. Cities Stack Up On The Sustainable Development Goals

That happens when we apply the UN’s latest metrics to U.S cities? A stark contrast between cities making progress on issues like clean water to equality to hunger and those that are falling behind.

How U.S. Cities Stack Up On The Sustainable Development Goals
The San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara region of California comes in top, scoring well in areas like poverty (SDG 1), education (SDG 4), and affordable clean energy (SDG 7). [Photo: GerardoBrucker/iStock]

When the world came together two years ago to agree on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it created universal metrics for progress going forward. Instead of development at any cost, the SDGs ask nations–and cities–to embrace an agenda of “people, planet, and prosperity” that’s more holistic. The SDGs cover everything from ending poverty and spreading education, to reducing inequality and protecting the oceans, and the point is to balance economic objectives with social and environmental ones.

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On this score, the U.S. isn’t doing too well. In a ranking of performance of the SDGs recently, we came in 42nd place, behind most other advanced nations. We score well for economic opportunity and levels of affluence, but poorly on measures like gender and income inequality (SDGs 5 and 10), unsustainable consumption and production (SDG 12), taking climate and environment action (SDGs 13 to 15), and ensuring peace and security at home and abroad (SDG 16).

We’re also marked down in the ranking for “spillover effects” on other countries, including carbon emissions that cause global warming, and for widespread corporate tax evasion that harms developing countries.

“The cities index is designed to be an advocacy tool that motivates mayors and other local government leaders to track sustainable development across cities.” [Photo: SDSN]
“America is a paradox: the world’s leader in technology and dynamism and yet increasingly a laggard in well-being, public health, inequality, and even confidence in the future,” says Jeffrey Sachs, director of the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), in a new report looking at the U.S.’s performance at a metropolitan level. The metro picture shows wide variations between the best and worst performing cities. The San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara region of California comes in top, scoring well in areas like poverty (SDG 1), education (SDG 4), and affordable clean energy (SDG 7). It gets an overall score of 61.04 out of 100, meaning it’s 61.04% of the way toward achieving the SDGs by 203o. Second is Provo, Utah, (58 points) which scores well on clean water (SDG 6) and particularly in reducing inequality (SDG 10).

At the other end of the spectrum, the lowest scoring metros include Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Cleveland, and Detroit. All are only about 30% toward reaching the SDGs by 2030 and have high levels of relative poverty, unemployment, and CO2 emissions because of heavy car dependence.

“America is a paradox: the world’s leader in technology and dynamism and yet increasingly a laggard in well-being, public health, inequality, and even confidence in the future.” [Photo: Derek_Neumann/iStock]
“The cities index is designed to be an advocacy tool that motivates mayors and other local government leaders to track sustainable development across cities,” says Mihir Prakash, lead author of the report, in an interview.

The worst U.S. cities on the index are marked by poor planning, high crime levels, and persistent poverty and inequality. The data finds that, across the 100 cities, 33 million people are currently below the national poverty line. Among the 100 cities, only 4 have a poverty rate of less than 10%.

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“Urban sprawl in U.S. cities is a factor fairly well known in the urban planning community. High crime rate also make cities unsustainable, and there’s a lack of access to parks and relatively high carbon emissions by person,” Prakash says.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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