The City of Utrecht and the UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015 when the United Nations agreed on the 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development the City of Utrecht began to envision what local engagement and implementation of the Goals could look like for a city. This is their story so far…..

Utrecht already had a track record of commitment to UN calls through its commitment to the Millennium Development Goals where strong civil society involvement had been activated through programmes such as fair-trade campaigns and a twin city project with Leon in Nicaragua. “Without doubt, the experience as a Millennium City between 2007-2015 set Utrecht up to be able to move relatively easily into a support programme for the UN SDGs,” says Desiree van de Ven, International Coordinator at Utrecht city council who has overall responsibility for the programme together with a team of two part time collaborators.

Recognising that there would be a period of transition from the MDGs to the SDGs, the city council named Utrecht as a Global Goals city in April 2016 and, in the first year set out to understand exactly how the city could engage with the Goals for the period 2016-2030. Early areas of focus were No Poverty, Affordable & Renewable Energy, Clean Water & Sanitation, and Reduce Inequality but by the end of the consultation period, three clear areas of ambition were set out:-

  • Supporting a local campaign together with local stakeholders so that a majority of the Utrechters get to know the goals and see them as an inspiration for local action
  • Forming coalitions with Utrecht businesses and knowledge institutions to take on an international challenge
  • Mainstreaming the global goals in the administrative process of the municipality by e.g. setting up a monitoring system and the embedding of goals in strategic planning

Bringing Local Actors Together
One of the key features of Utrecht’s success is the collaborative and open approach it has taken to facilitate uptake and interest in the Goals. In connecting with local NGOs, community groups and the public, the municipality took the approach to act as a central hub around which information could be convened and actions supported. Utrecht municipality, with a huge database of connections and information, simply supports and facilitates the action that groups want to take by providing connections, helping to develop plans and ideas, and building an ecosystem of mutual interest. The community has gradually shifted from the internationally-focused efforts of the MDGs into looking at what the SDGs also mean for local action.

“One of the key shifts in awareness has been for participants to gradually start to see the impact of their actions locally, on the wider world,” explains Desiree. “Whilst the MDGs focused people’s attention on providing help to the developing world, the SDGs are a framework that help us question whether what we are doing at home – by using another plastic bag, or by wasting food, or by using too much energy, or purchasing a cheap t-shirt – is having a negative impact somewhere else on the planet. It is beginning to help people to understand that we have one planet, and we all live on the one place with a high degree of inter-connectivity. It is beginning to drive more responsible consumption where we, as individuals, see our part in the wider game of a regenerative world.”

As Desiree acknowledges, once such notions as being responsible for others wellbeing in the world in Holland were considered ‘leftist hobbyist ideals’ so overcoming any resistance across political parties was important to success. So the team looked carefully at every single action they took to ensure that they were taking action that would translate across politics, society and business. They co-opted international brands like BMW and used an SDG branded electric vehicle to promote clean energy transition. By bringing the Goals to life through locally connected activities, they have gradually won over all of the 10 political parties represented in the municipality who can see the visible impact the work is having.


Some of the local projects include:-

Utrecht4GlobalGoals:- has developed the U campaign. Utrecht residents, organizations or entrepreneurs who contribute to the Global Goals in an inspiring way can be nominated. In this way, good examples are showcased, rewarded and motivate others to do something. You can watch the video on

Utrecht4GlobalGifts:- The webshop Utrecht4GlobalGifts offers ‘Utrechtse producten met een verhaal’ contributing to a charity. Everyone can order gifts there.

Hier & Daar(Here and There):- Through the subsidy scheme ‘Hier & Daar’, organizations can apply for funding for initiatives that contribute to the realization of the Global Goals in Utrecht and internationally.
The Local Human Rights Coalitionorganises meetings where local human rights organizations exchange how they contribute to a local human rights culture. They thrive to connect the existing network more and more to the global goals (



Making International Knowledge Locally Relevant

The importance of global brands such as IKEA getting behind the UN SDGs has been an influencing factor in bringing smaller, local and national businesses onside in Utrecht. By structuring their performance reporting through the framework of the UN SDGs, IKEA is encouraging smaller suppliers to think about what they are working on because they can see that they need to take action within their own business to remain on the supplier roster of such an influential organisation.

“We see the reaction from business owners,” says Desiree. “They feel that if the connect and frame how they are doing business within the SDG framework, large organisations like IKEA will better understand them. It is becoming an international framework which is percolating slowly down to the SME community.”

A growing part in Utrecht’s SME community already have CSR programmes in place, but developing an understanding of the UN SDGs is helping them to move into more inter-connected action by joining CSR to sustainability and business growth.

The municipality offered in cooperation with the Economic Board Utrecht an economic and knowledge education workshop where business owners can learn about the SDGs, see active case studies from businesses that have successfully used the SDGs as a template, and gain guidance on how to apply the SDGs to their own business. Many of these participating businesses had originally thought they had to start with the whole 17 Goal set, but have learned through participating in the workshop, that they can focus on those that are immediately pertinent to their business and then extend outwards.

As in other countries and cities, businesses find that their business plans, sustainability strategies and actions already map to many of the SDGs. “That is the place to start,” explains Desiree. “That is what generates the first uplift in interest and enthusiasm. Seeing that in fact they have already started but didn’t realise that. The key question to ask is Where can my business be effective, what’s my biggest impact? Businesses have to start with what helps them to improve their business and reach their customers. Then they feel empowered to start gradual work in areas where they are weaker against the Goals.”

In workshops the city helps businesses to pose questions to themselves such as ‘should I provide electric bikes to my employees?’, ‘should we have only fair-trade tea and coffee in the workplace’, ‘should we get together with our employees and look at an international project’. In making the Goals accessible, gradually larger projects can be taken onboard.

Start with cleaning your own house

This apparently is an important phrase in Dutch! Utrecht city council walks its own walk with respect to the SDGs by mainstreaming the Global Goals into the administrative process of the municipality.

Key first steps included understanding what was already in place and aligned to the Goals. A first step was aligning procurement policies with the SDGs, many of which were already in line with the SDGs but were made more explicitly so.

Then began the herculean task of looking at all the other policies on every single topic that council has in place and finding out what already existed where there was a connection in place to the SDGs, creating a dashboard and analysing where we were doing well and the areas in which they could do a lot better. This work has taken most of 2016 into 2017. The city found it was already quite well advanced in areas such as clean energy, quality education and health.

The SDG framework is enabling them to show the connection between the council’s policies and creating a more sustainable world. It has also shown the areas in which the municipality could take future action, including a faster energy transition, decent work and reducing inequality. They also have a much better birds eye view of how one policy affects another, and where they can have more impact.

Health is a special focus for Utrecht, which, sometime before the UN SDGs were released had been looking for a way in which to shape the visible reputation of the City into something more distinct. Whereas other cities in Holland were able to encapsulate what they were ‘known’ for into clear messages – The Hague = government, Rotterdam = port, Amsterdam = capital, Utrecht didn’t have a clear focus apart from being a University city. But local internal discussion revealed a high degree of local employment connected to the health sector, a strong University connected to health and life sciences, and health became something which defined this universal city and its people. ‘Health’ for Utrechters covers all important aspects of what they want to find in their city. A healthy environment, healthy citizens, healthy finance, healthy workplaces .

Internationally Utrecht

  • works together with other UN SDG cities in Europe including Bonn, Copenhagen, Ghent, Malmo and Stuttgart to exchange innovative approaches to translation the Global Goals to the local level and vice versa.
  • have formed the Kajjansi coalition where the city works with companies and knowledge institutions to stimulate the circular economy and healthy living environment in Uganda, thereby creating business opportunities.
  • support a collaborative forest planting from with Leon in Nicaragua where they have to date planted 1 million trees.

And finally they support the Fairtrade Municipality of Utrecht by:

  • participating in the Electronics Watch (Organization for Civil Rights of Workers in the Electronics Industry)
  • support the Fairtrade Utrecht Foundation (Foundation for Retention Title Fairtrade Municipality of Utrecht)
  • signed the Milan Urban Food policy pact (European project focusing on the development of sustainable food policy)

This year Utrecht was named “Most Inspiring Global Goals Municipality” together with the municipality of Oss. This is what the jury said about Utrecht:

“The municipality of Utrecht is affected by the fact that many results are already being made. The municipality knows how to integrate Global Goals into the policy and it actively engages many different parties, including business.”

The next key step will be to develop an impact methodology to assess more deeply what the impact of aligning to the Global Goals is on the city and its stakeholders. The Utrecht SDG team have deep patience and ably demonstrate that constant open communication, a constant learning cycle, collaboratively being open to ideas and above all, taking the role of facilitator rather than imposing leadership, has been the successful approach to gaining buy-in, positive action and impact.


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