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From agenda to action – local implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in Helsinki

The City of Helsinki wants to be among the leading cities in the local implementation of global responsibility. In this work, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals offer a globally relevant framework whose realisation can be monitored to gain not only proof of Helsinki’s success but also insights into the areas to be developed. This article describes how the Helsinki City Strategy is linked with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and how the city promotes and monitors the realisation of the goals. The article is based on the contents of Helsinki’s voluntary local review of sustainable development goals, which was published in June 2019.

In 2015, the UN member states agreed on the Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda (UN 2015). The 2030 Agenda aims to eradicate extreme poverty and achieve sustainable development that pays equal attention to the environment, economy and people. A significant proportion of the actual implementation of the goals takes place at the local level. With the increasing urbanisation, the significance of cities as solvers of global challenges will inevitably increase.

In 2018, New York became the first city in the world to report to the UN on the implementation of measures aimed at sustainable development on the city level (NYC 2018a). In September 2018, Helsinki decided to follow New York’s example and became the first city in Europe to commit to voluntary local reviews of the goals. The purpose of the reporting is to highlight the connections of the Helsinki City Strategy (City of Helsinki 2017) to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, produce understandable and open information about the city’s sustainable development implementation and its results, promote cooperation with the international community and contribute to globally increasing the input of cities in the implementation of the sustainable development goals. In the longer term, the goal is to produce solutions and information that will help Helsinki and other cities around the world to implement the UN Sustainable Development Goals successfully and in a target-oriented manner. Accordingly, the goal is to achieve concrete measures and results – not just to produce reports.

Finland has been one of the first countries to set national focuses, measures and a monitoring and assessment system for achieving the UN goals . Helsinki’s local reporting supplements national reporting and aims to encourage other Finnish cities and actors to take part in the local deployment of the sustainable development goals.

Helsinki’s voluntary local review applies the model developed by New York City

The UN Agenda for Sustainable Development, 2030 Agenda, consists of a total of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and 169 targets. The UN High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) annually specifies the focus goals whose progress is to be reported to the UN. The goals to be reported in 2019 are Quality Education (SDG 4), Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8), Reduced Inequalities (SDG 10), Climate Action (SDG 13), Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions (SDG 16) and Partnership for the Goals (SDG 17). Helsinki’s voluntary local review concentrated on the first five of these.

Helsinki’s voluntary local review (VLR) was implemented by applying the operating model developed by New York City (see NYC 2018b). The first phase involved mapping the connections between the Helsinki City Strategy and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (mapping 1 and mapping 2 phases). At the same time, Helsinki recognised concrete measures realising the UN goals and indicators used to monitor the achievement of these goals. In the second phase, closer attention was paid to the aforementioned focus goals for 2019 and their reporting.

In the mapping phase that preceded the actual reporting, Helsinki identified a total of 14 sets of goals (see Figure 1) that implement at least one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The sets of goals, the measures implementing them and the indicators for monitoring them were collected under three main themes: securing sustainable growth, developing services and responsible financial management. The results of the first mapping phase were published in April 2019 at the Helsinki Symposium (see City of Helsinki 2019).

The development and coordination of the voluntary local review was the responsibility of a working group that included experts from Helsinki’s City Executive Office and Urban Environment Division. The production of the texts describing the progress made also involved a number of specialists from the City Executive Office as well as the Urban Environment Division, Education Division, Culture and Leisure Division and the Social and Health Services. The work was guided by a steering group led by the Strategy Unit. Helsinki’s report was carried out between November 2018 and May 2019.

Helsinki’s goals and actions are strongly linked to UN SDGs

A key result of the mapping phase that preceded the 2019 voluntary local review is that Helsinki’s goals are a good match with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The most extensive connections can be seen in the measures aiming at securing sustainable growth, but connections were also recognised in developing services and responsible management of finances (Figure 2 and Figure 3). Three of the goals set by the UN – No Poverty (SDG 1), Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8) and Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions (SDG 16) – have been taken into account in one way or another in all the main themes of the Helsinki City Strategy. The Helsinki City Strategy’s measures aiming at securing sustainable growth constitute an entity that realises all the goals set by the UN in one form or another.

Published in April 2019, the report presenting the results of the mapping phase (City of Helsinki 2019) highlighted more than 100 measures that implement not only the goals of the Helsinki City Strategy but also the UN goals. However, it must be noted that the review did not cover all the measures promoting sustainable development in Helsinki. From the Carbon-neutral Helsinki 2035 programme, for example, the report only included six measures mentioned as examples, even though the programme consists of a total of 147 measures.

The sets of goals in which Helsinki implements the UN goals the most extensively are ecological sustainability, promoting the well-being of children and young people, promoting general well-being and health and making use of digital development. However, connections were also found for all other sets of goals. Nearly all sets of goals involve measures that promote several of the goals set by the UN.

Helsinki promotes SDGs in many areas of action

The actual voluntary local review delved more deeply into five goals of the 2030 Agenda: Quality Education (SDG 4), Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8), Reduced Inequalities (SDG 10), Climate Action (SDG 13) and Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions (SDG 16). The sections below provide a more detailed description of how Helsinki works to achieve these goals.

Quality Education (SDG 4). The UN’s goals of providing equal, high-quality education open to everyone and ensuring opportunities for life-long learning are also strongly present in the Helsinki City Strategy. Helsinki wants to provide all city residents with equal educational opportunities and be an excellent city for studying, giving all residents the chance to fulfil their learning potential.

The City of Helsinki is already offering high-quality, attractive local services in early childhood education and comprehensive education for all city residents. In the current strategy period, the city is in many ways investing in, for example, the development of learning environments and communal working methods. In accordance with the digitalisation programme, new computers have been purchased for pupils, and presentation technology at schools has been modernised. The city is continuing and expanding its operating model of positive preferential treatment, in which supplementary appropriations are directed at educational institutes requiring special support. Early childhood education is offered to five-year-olds free of charge, and the degree of participation in early childhood education has increased in line with the goal. In addition, Helsinki is implementing the education guarantee, in which all young Helsinki residents completing comprehensive school are offered a place in further education at an upper secondary school or vocational school.

The Development Plan for Immigrant Education 2018–2021, which promotes equality, is implemented by means of a total of 28 measures. In addition, Helsinki has allocated €2 million to the travel costs, learning materials and cultural visits of upper-secondary level students.

Since autumn 2018, studies in the first foreign language have started in first grade. In addition, the city is investing in the teaching of languages by, among other things, increasing the number of places in English-language education and early childhood education. By including environmental education in the Education Division’s environmental management duties and curricula, we make sure that children learn about sustainable ways of life starting from early childhood education.

Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8). As regards economic growth and employment, the UN has set the goal of achieving inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and proper work for all. Helsinki aims to promote these goals by, for example, providing companies and their employees with functional operating environments that support sustainable development, investing in technology development and supporting entrepreneurship and growth companies. Helsinki wants to create a functional and comfortable urban environment that offers a good platform for corporate innovation activities.

Helsinki has started a number of projects aiming to attract foreign companies, investments, work-related immigration and tourists to the city. While the entire city is being developed as a platform for creative innovation activities, particular investments are being made in the attractiveness of the Helsinki city centre area. At the same time, the city is promoting high-growth entrepreneurship and the innovation ecosystem and developing its university campuses. The Carbon-neutral Helsinki 2035 action plan includes a number of measures to advance goals relating to sustainable development and production. The international attractiveness and visibility of the city is also promoted by adopting new urban solutions that improve the city residents’ quality of life and reduce emissions. An example of this is the development of the Kalasatama area. Tourism is being developed in accordance with the sustainable tourism programme.

Employment and job opportunities are being improved by measures such as adjusting the provision of vocational education to meet future labour needs in terms of quality and quantity. The extensive Mukana (Involved) programme has been launched to prevent the social exclusion of young people. In addition, the City of Helsinki Employment Services are actively developing activities for fields with labour shortage and are also involved in developing the employment ecosystem. Particular attention is being paid to those residents whose participation in the labour market is the lowest.

The City of Helsinki currently employs almost 38,000 people. Accordingly, the city has significant responsibility for creating ethically sustainable jobs. In order to ensure this, the city’s activities rely on defined values and ethical principles. At the same time, the city requires its employees to follow its ethical principles in their work – in purchase activities, for example, employees must follow the basic norms and ethical principles of international working life. The same is required of the city’s interest groups.

Reduced Inequalities (SDG 10). Reducing inequalities is one of the key goals of the Helsinki City Strategy. The city’s measures to reduce inequalities strive for humaneness, correctly timed support measures and a persistent approach. The goal is to support well-being before any problems occur. The city is aiming at extensive, systemic change that would reduce social exclusion and its cross-generational inheritance as well as regional segregation in Helsinki.

The City of Helsinki has started several programmes of action to reduce inequalities, including a large number of support and service measures intended for various population groups. The city assumes responsibility for those in the weakest position by, among other things, granting them means-tested income support to supplement basic income support as well as preventive income support, with the intention of promoting the social security and independent coping skills of the persons and families receiving the support and preventing social exclusion and long-term dependence on income support. In addition, the goal is to provide residents with equal opportunities for participation and agency by investing in the accessibility of culture and leisure services, for instance. Measures supporting lifestyles that promote health and well-being are part of this approach. The social dimension is also strongly behind the measures. What is more, the balanced development of residential areas is supported by means of urban planning and housing policy. Support measures are particularly targeted at areas with an accumulation of various factors predicting deprivation.

The City of Helsinki also actively promotes development towards equality in other ways. As an employer, the city strives for equal treatment and equal pay for its employees. Gender equality is a guiding principle in all the city’s activities. In addition, it takes part in preventing unreported employment and takes various measures to contribute to the socially sustainable development of legislation and societal practices. The approach also includes the monitoring of developments relating to inequalities and strengthening the knowledge base.

Helsinki’s measures to reduce inequalities are, above all, targeted at the city residents and areas and at the city’s own employees and activities. In contrast, the city pays less attention in its activities to the goals set by the UN, which aim at improving the situation of developing countries and their residents in particular. However, as regards people’s mobility and migration, for example, it must be noted that Helsinki is significantly investing in the integration of its residents with a foreign background and providing them with opportunities equal to those of the native population.

Climate Action (SDG 13). Helsinki emphasises ecological values in its activities. Helsinki’s goal is to stand out as an internationally networked pioneer in the local implementation of global responsibility. This goal is sought by integrating climate change actions into national policies, strategies and planning, by strengthening the ability to adapt to climate change and by increasing education and knowledge regarding climate change. Helsinki was accepted as a member of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance (CNCA) in March 2019 and has confirmed that it will join the Sustainable Consumption programme of the C40 climate network.

Helsinki has been taking determined climate action for years now and has managed to reduce its emissions by 27 per cent from the 1990 level. While the earlier goal was carbon neutrality by 2050, the current strategy strives to achieve the goal by 2035. With this in mind, the city prepared the comprehensive, ambitious Carbon-neutral Helsinki 2035 action plan, which includes a total of 147 measures and strives to act extensively against climate change and its effects. The action plan is being implemented in the areas of traffic, circular economy and training, smart & clean business, energy production, communications and interaction, climate work coordination as well as monitoring and assessment.

The City of Helsinki’s goal is to take quick action to mitigate and adapt to climate change. In order to adapt to the risks of climate change, the city has prepared climate change adaptation guidelines for 2019–2025, so adaptation has been taken into account at the practical level, even though it is not separately mentioned in the city strategy.

Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions (SDG 16).  Helsinki wants to be a stable, responsible, safe and reliable city that is also dynamic and evolves with the times. While the city’s activities emphasise the provision of various services, it also understands its increasing role as an enabler and provider of opportunities. The city supports and strengthens the involvement, participation and influence of its residents and interest groups in many different ways while also striving to enhance its own decision-making models and service processes.

The city strives to strengthen the sense of security of its residents by means of extensive safety cooperation with various authorities and interest groups, for instance. These measures are aimed at preventing crime, disturbances, accidents, substance abuse, gambling and domestic violence, among other things. The sense of security is also strengthened by providing residents with help and support in various everyday problem situations. In addition, the city is investing in the safety and healthiness of premises intended for city residents and creates prerequisites for a safe urban environment by means of urban planning.

Helsinki also strives to strengthen the trust of residents, companies and other actors in the city organisation and its activities and by the fact that the city is run and its personnel policy implemented in an ethical, responsible and sustainable manner. Above all, trust is being built through openness and transparency. For this purpose, Helsinki is developing digital solutions that make it easy for people to follow and take part in activities that interest and concern them, and is also making public information available for the benefit of everyone.

The city’s stability, responsibility and long-term service capability are also maintained by means of financial planning and ownership policy. As Finland’s largest city, Helsinki also bears significant responsibility for balancing the public economy at the national level.  The city’s own investment capability is taken care of by, for example, adjusting investments to a level that can be financed during the strategy period without increasing the loan portfolio per capita. The starting point of the City Group’s ownership policy is that, in the long term, the city’s ownership and control support the provision of services, the city’s finances and its other societal goals.

Helsinki’s predicted strong growth will increase the city’s role in securing the well-being of the entire country. Helsinki is seeking functional and persistent cooperation with the state. In addition, Helsinki will strengthen its international activities, particularly concentrating on digitalisation and climate change mitigation, which are the strongest global change factors and thus natural areas of profiling in international activities. City diplomacy is utilised to promote business policy interests in Asia, and China in particular. The city is also developing the twin city concept with Tallinn, promoting Nordic cooperation and strengthening its relationship with Russian cities. 

Cooperation to ensure the success of the local implementation of UN SDGs

Helsinki’s report is the first phase in a longer process whose eventual goal is the successful and profitable implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In the future, successful achievement of the goals requires cooperation not only between states and cities but also at the local level.

The City of Helsinki produced its own voluntary local review in a working group with representatives from several different departments and units of the city. Due to the extent of the goals, it is essential to harness the entire city organisation’s know-how and competence in the process. At the same time, it is necessary to ensure strong commitment to the process at management level.

Helsinki has been involved in close cooperation with the City of New York throughout the process. However, it is also essential to ensure that an increasing number of cities choose the voluntary local review model. This will enable the creation of a network whose goal is not only city-level success but global influence. A key part of this is dialogue with the United Nations.

A functional relationship between the state and the city is an essential part of the success of the sustainable development goals. In countries where cooperation is possible thanks to a shared value base and goals, attempts should be made to achieve a close relationship in terms of both reporting and implementation. In Finland, the six largest cities have started cooperation with the Government.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals are universal and, as such, apply to everyone. In order to achieve the desired results, the entire ecosystem must work together. This means cooperation not only between cities and states but also between companies, associations and research organisations.

Next steps

Next, the city will engage in conversation based on the results of the voluntary local review about how its strategy deployment should be developed in order to achieve the sustainable development goals in the best possible way. The efficient deployment of the results requires sufficient coordination as well as the extensive commitment of all of the city’s actors.

The city is also enhancing its communications regarding the voluntary local reviews in order to increase awareness of the significance of the sustainable development goals in the city’s daily activities. This increases the opportunities to find new ways to successfully deploy the goals.

The city will also continue its active international advocacy work. The goal is to get more cities to take part in voluntary local reviews. In cooperation with other cities, Helsinki strives to contribute to ensuring that the importance of cities is recognised in international forums and networks – in the UN in particular – and that cities will, in the future, have the opportunity to participate in not only the implementation of the agenda and goals but also their creation.

Summary and conclusions

The Helsinki City Strategy is an ambitious and extensive document whose goals are in many respects consistent with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Assessing the city’s activities from the viewpoint of the UN goals, the voluntary local review shows that Helsinki has initiated or already completed a large number of measures that promote the UN goals at the city level. On the other hand, it was observed that the targets under the UN goals have several references to international development cooperation, which primarily happens at the state level in Finland.

In Helsinki’s first voluntary local review of sustainable development, the city’s activities were mainly reviewed on the basis of the Helsinki City Strategy, the leading projects implementing the strategy and the Carbon-neutral Helsinki 2035 action plan. Even though the perspective is strategically comprehensive, it does not cover all the city’s basic service provision or activities. Expanding the reporting would enable better coverage and deeper understanding of the connections between the city’s activities and the sustainable development goals.

After the first voluntary local review, it will be possible to assess the future level of reporting. Indicators suitable for monitoring the UN goals should be further developed and supplemented. In terms of the monitoring indicators, a particular challenge is the development of a city-level and internationally comparable set of indicators. The indicators for Helsinki’s voluntary local review have mainly been selected from the Helsinki City Strategy’s monitoring indicators.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals and their targets are an extensive package. It would be good to analyse the connections between the targets and local-level activities in more detail in order to genuinely recognise goals whose promotion still requires development efforts from Helsinki. A more extensive review of the entire urban ecosystem would also highlight connections to activities that are not in the city’s hands alone.


Ari Jaakola, statistics and information service manager, City Executive Office

Johanna af Hällström, team manager, Urban Environment Division

Petteri Huuska, environmental planner, Urban Environment Division

Sanna-Mari Jäntti, director of strategic initiatives, City Executive Office

Marjo Kaasila, senior statistician, City Executive Office

Pirita Kuikka, environmental planner, Urban Environment Division

Olli Lahtinen, special planner, City Executive Office


City of Helsinki 2017. The Most Functional City in the World – Helsinki City Strategy 2017–2021. Accessed 31 May 2019.

City of Helsinki (2019). The Most Functional City in the World. Sustainable Development Goals. First Part of the City-level Implementation Reporting. Accessed 31 May 2019.

New York City (NYC), Mayor’s Office for International Affairs (2018a). Global Vision – Urban Action. Voluntary Local Review. New Yorks City’s Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Accessed 31 May 2019.

New York City (NYC), Mayor’s Office for International Affairs (2018b). Global Vision – Urban Action. A City with Global Goals Part I and Part II. Accessed 31 May 2019.

UN (2015). Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (A/RES/70/1).

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