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Mid-sized cities have been identified as places where new models of civic leadership, social transformation and economic recovery are emerging.

Varying in size from 50,000 and 500,0000 people, mid-sized cities are described as more connected, nimble, and less bureaucratic than larger cities making it easier to identify challenges, create buy-in and implement solutions. These characteristics, as well as the complex and unprecedented challenges facing mid-sized cities, set the stage to explore and advance place-based action for the UN’s sustainable development goals, or SDGs. The SDGs are a global blueprint for a sustainable future setting out clear targets to be achieved by 2030 related to human health and well-being, economic equality and the environment as well as a set of global indicators to help track progress.

With mid-sized cities in the throes of social and economic transformation, they are ideal locations for local SDG action. However, few tools, strategies and examples to support SDG implementation in mid-sized cities and smaller communities exist. Canada’s own national SDG strategy identifies that those working at the local level are needed as leaders to translate the SDGs, or the global goals, into practical actions that can have immediate impacts on communities and residents.

In 2021, SDG Cities was launched in Guelph and London, two Ontario communities that exemplify the strengths and challenges of mid-sized cities across Canada. SDG Cities is a place-based model that aims to develop, cultivate and enhance local programming. For these cities, successful implementation means that the sustainable development goals are not only understood locally, but used effectively by stakeholders to drive forward solutions and measure progress.

In Guelph and London, promising examples of implementation of sustainable development goals are emerging. Direct engagement with students has brought forward the voices of young people, who are sharing their perspectives on sustainable development.

Community-engaged research is providing evidence for how the SDGs can be used to develop, support and guide local policy. Public events held in London and Guelph have explored topics like business as a force for good, the often-overlooked role of arts and culture in sustainable development, and the importance of looking inward to develop the capacity to support community-wide action on the SDGs. Community conversations hosted by SDG Cities during provincial and municipal elections in 2022 introduced SDG language to discussions about public policy and local community development.

Public events held in London and Guelph have explored topics like business as a force for good and the often-overlooked role of arts and culture in sustainable development. Photo by Manny Chukwu @chukwuart

The SDG Cities Academy, a unique curriculum designed to help bring locally relevant and adapted tools and resources to stakeholders, has also played a key role in building local knowledge and capacity for SDG action. In 2022, training was delivered to more than 75 participants representing 43 local organizations, businesses and initiatives in Guelph, London and surrounding communities.

Through focused training, network support and the implementation of locally adapted tools, the academy supports organizations to understand, grow and share their SDG impact. Participants have aligned their work to the SDGs and are learning how to tell their stories and communicate impact by leveraging the shared global language of the SDGs.

Mid-sized cities in the throes of social and economic transformation are ideal locations for local SDGs, global blueprints for clear targets related to human health and the #environment, writes @emilyahansen. #SDGCities #sdgs

For example, a community development co-operative is creating opportunities for access to fresh food through community gardening (SDG2: zero hunger) and reducing income-related barriers to food growing faced by some community members (SDG1: zero poverty and SDG10: reduced inequalities). A social enterprise providing language services helps to improve health outcomes by providing access to translation and interpretation services in health-care settings (SDG3: good health and well-being). This initiative also advocates broadly for better language policies through direct engagement with governments and institutions (SDG10: reduced inequalities and SDG16: peace, justice and strong institutions).

In Guelph and London, the SDGs are being advanced by a growing number of organizations, community groups, and social entrepreneurs. With implementation happening in a decentralized way, the role of a central hub where knowledge can be gathered, resources can be deployed and connections can be made is key.

In Guelph and London, 10C Shared Space and the Pillar Nonprofit Network are driving forces behind SDG Cities. Both organizations are well-positioned in social innovation ecosystems to engage directly with the organizations, businesses and people who will play an important role in sustainable development locally.

Future SDG Cities can look to Guelph and London for direct support through the sharing of open-access curriculum tools and locally developed resources, as well as for the inspiration to develop their own programs that fit local needs. A growing network of local SDG implementation projects, inspired and informed by the SDG Cities model, will result in richer sources of information and inspiration for those in mid-sized cities and small communities working for the SDGs, while also directly supporting national efforts by unlocking the potential of Canada’s mid-sized cities.

Emily Hansen is a community planner, designer and researcher. She joined the 10C team as SDG Cities lead in Guelph, supporting exploring local activation of the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) alongside collaborators in London.