A woman places plastic bags containing meals on a table, in The Bronx, New York City

Meals are prepared for New York City residents at the Thessalonica Christian Church in October 2020. The Bronx, a borough that has long struggled with poverty, has been especially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, recording New York City’s highest death rate related to the virus.Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New York City has mapped the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to its OneNYC 2050 strategy, established in 2019. A long-term vision for the city to 2050, it encompasses 8 goals and 30 initiatives that are aligned to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), says Tasfia Nayem, senior policy adviser at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Climate and Sustainability.

Among New York’s priority goals are SDG4 (Quality education), SDG10 (Reduced inequalities) and SDG13 (Climate action). These areas concentrate efforts to address what the mayor’s office calls the “striking contradiction” of a city where extreme wealth exists alongside poverty and homelessness.

They are also areas of research strength for New York City and the wider New York metropolitan area (MA), which includes the five largest cities in New Jersey and six of Connecticut’s seven largest cities. In SDG-related output in the 82 selected natural-science journals tracked by the Nature Index, the New York MA was placed third for the period 2015–20, after Beijing and the San Francisco Bay Area, placed first and second, respectively. It was the fastest rising city in the United States for SDG-related output over the same period (see ‘Rising city stars’). In 2020, the New York MA’s total output in the Nature Index (including all non-SDG-related research) was second only to Beijing. (For more information on the analyses used in this article, see ‘A guide to Nature Index’.)

Rising city stars: bar chart showing the top 5 fastest-rising cities in SDG-related research output in Nature Index

Source: Nature Index

With its high concentration of leading academic institutions, including Yale, Columbia and Princeton universities, and hospital research institutes, such as the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Mount Sinai Health System, the New York MA has benefited from having access to some of the best medical research in the world, an advantage few other urban centres can match.

Tracking progress

The strategy driving OneNYC50 had early input from stakeholders in and around the city. Researchers from local universities, such as the City University of New York and Columbia University in the city of New York, and those farther afield, such as Rutgers and Princeton universities in New Jersey, worked to identify the most relevant challenges to target. “OneNYC 2050 is intentionally a very data-driven and science-driven plan,” says Nayem.

Accountability is a strong focus of New York City in its work related to SDG targets. It pioneered an initiative to share progress on SDG targets with the UN through a voluntary local review, the first of which was submitted in 2018. More than 20 cities from around the world have since signed up, including Helsinki in Finland, Buenos Aires in Argentina and Guangzhou in China. In doing so, cities signal their intention to follow three non-binding commitments: to identify how existing strategies, programmes, data and targets align with the SDGs; to provide at least one forum where stakeholders can share SDG-related experiences and information; and to submit a voluntary local review to the UN during its High-Level Political Forum, an annual meeting of political representatives to discuss progress on the global goals.

As a general rule, research feeding into New York City’s planning is scoped to answer a specific policy need, says Ke Wei, assistant deputy-director of infrastructure and energy at the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Sustainability and the Office of Climate Resiliency. Wei’s office runs a partnership programme called Town and Gown, which encourages academics, students and industry to team up on projects to support city initiatives. Some of the most high-profile projects to come out of the partnership programme are related to SDG13 (Climate action), for which the New York MA is ranked second in the Nature Index, after Beijing, in 2015–20.

Such projects include the New York City Stormwater Resiliency Plan, informed by the first-ever citywide analysis of rainfall-based flooding. Released in May, the analysis projects that climate change will cause a 25% increase in rainfall in the city by 2100, placing a growing strain on its existing drainage infrastructure.

The Heat Vulnerability Index, a decade-long partnership between the city and researchers at Columbia University, which was also born out of the programme, is identifying neighbourhoods where residents are at a heightened risk of dying due to periods of extreme heat. “In some ways, it started as an academic exercise that turned into a very helpful tool for us to understand and inform how we can invest in communities to minimize heat risk,” says Wei.