20 years of Local Agenda 21

Ania ROK, Stefan KUHN, 2012

ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability

In June 2012 global leaders meet in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced it as “one of the most important meetings in UN history”, crucial for determining our collective futurei. With urban areas home to 50% of the world’s population and accounting for 75% of carbon emissions, it is increasingly clear that it is in cities that this collective future will be shapedii.

1 - Returning to Rio

The name “Rio+20” refers to the 20th anniversary of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, better known as the Earth Summit. The Conference ended, among others, with the adoption of Agenda 21, the voluntary UN programme of action for implementing sustainable development. This document contained a chapter entitled “Local Authorities’ initiatives in support of Agenda 21” (Chapter 28) which gave birth to the global Local Agenda 21 movement. In the words of Maurice Strong, the Secretary-General of the 1992 Earth Summit,“of the many programmes that have resulted from the Earth Summit, none is more promising or important than this one, which has hundreds of local authorities around the world now setting out and implementing their Local Agenda 21s”.

Returning to Rio in 2012, the global community should take note of the unprecedented success of this movement, one of the most extensive follow-up programmes to Agenda 21, and discuss how to further support and scale up local action for sustainability.

“As the level of governance closest to the people, [local authorities] play a vital role in educating, mobilizing and responding to the public to promote sustainable development.”} Chapter 28, Agenda 21 (1992).

Local sustainability initiatives take many forms and reflect the self-defined goals of local communities, who often define sustainability in different ways that reflect their values and priorities. While Local Agenda 21 helped inspire a movement, the concept of sustainability is now embraced widely by municipalities, businesses, and organizations that may have never even heard of Agenda 21.

The aim of this study is to document the variety of local processes for sustainability – whether they are related to Local Agenda 21 or not – that have emerged across political and economic cultures globally. It is beyond the scope of this report to calculate how far these processes contributed to improving the condition of our planet and living conditions of its citizens, if such calculations are at all possible. However, it is important to acknowledge that local initiatives, many of them inspired by Local Agenda 21, have made a lasting mark not only on local but also on national and international governance systems, changing profoundly the way we think about sustainable development and pushing the boundaries of what is achievable. ICLEI, the original proponent of Local Agenda 21, has long argued that“local action moves the world” and the purpose of this study is to show how this has been done.

2 - ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability

Founded in 1990, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainabilityiv is today the largest international association of local governments for sustainable development. Membership is constantly growing and today numbers about 1200 local governments, coming from over 70 different countries and representing almost 570 million people. With its network of offices around the globe and daily contact with local government officials, ICLEI is uniquely positioned to act as a repository of knowledge and experience related to local sustainability processes. Over the last 20 years ICLEI experts have assisted countless local, regional and national governments in planning and implementing local sustainability initiatives, authored numerous manuals, guidebooks and reports on the theme and participated in thousands of events, with and on behalf of local governments.

In the run up to the Rio+20 Conference ICLEI is heavily involved in the official UN preparatory process, acting as Local Authority Major Group Co-organizing Partner and, together with United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), coordinating the input of local governments into the international discussions. At the conference itself ICLEI will facilitate the presence and participation of local governments. This study is therefore not merely a theoretical exercise but will also lay the ground for the local government contribution to the Rio+20 Conference, drawing from the experience and lessons learned from the last 20 years to propose new ways forward for local governments and the wider global community.

3 - Rio+5: Local Agenda 21 takes off

Twice in the past ICLEI has analyzed Local Agenda 21 progress on a global scale. In 1997 the first assessmentv was conducted to inform the UN General Assembly Special Session, which was tasked with a five-year review of Agenda 21. According to Agenda 21 chapter 28 quoted above, “by 1996 most local authorities in each country should have undertaken a consultative process with their populations and achieved a consensus on a ‘local Agenda 21’ for the community”. For the purpose of this first assessment, ICLEI had adopted the following, working definition of the Local Agenda 21 process:

“Local Agenda 21 is a participatory, multi-sectoral process to achieve the goals of Agenda 21 at the local level through the preparation and implementation of a long-term, strategic action plan that addresses priority local sustainable development concerns.”

This definition excluded, among others, activities that were stemming from the simple delegation of national or state-level responsibilities to the local level, ones that included only a one-off consultation process or did not engage a diversity of stakeholders. The assessment was based on the results of two separate questionnaires, developed to capture the distribution and progress of Local Agenda 21 initiatives. The first one was addressed to national governments, National Sustainable Development Councils and national and regional local government organizations, while the second one directly targeted ICLEI local government members.

According to the survey, in 1997 Local Agenda 21 activities were underway in more than 1800 local governments in 64 countries. Over 80% of the reported activities were taking place in 20 countries with established or nascent national Local Agenda 21 campaigns. A staggering 90% of initiatives were taking place in high-income countries. Those underway in middle- and low-income countries were less focused on environmental issues but aimed at a better integration of environmental, social and economic issues, even if they included a shorter time perspective than those in high-income countries.

The analysis highlighted the key role of national municipal associations who, thanks to their established legitimacy with local government leaders and capacity to provide country-specific training and technical support, proved very effective in mobilizing and supporting local action. In particular, local government organizations were instrumental in using the experience of early pilots and model cities to generate a truly national movement, engaging the majority of local governments.

ICLEI predicted a rapid increase in Local Agenda 21 processes in middle- and low-income countries following the establishment of national campaigns and the growing interest of international donors in supporting these kinds of processes.

Asked about major obstacles in implementing local sustainability, local governments listed lack of financial support, lack of community consensus to set priorities, lack of support from national governments and, finally, lack of information. The national governments and institutions complained about similar obstacles, such as the lack of funding, lack of information and lack of expertise. To remedy those, ICLEI recommended:

Even if at that time a majority of the local governments surveyed were still in the early stages of Local Agenda 21 planning, the mere decision to engage in these processes already set in motion the changes in the local governance structure, gradually allowing for the integration of key requirements of sustainable development into local planning and budgeting. The authors concluded that:

“the implementation of the Local Agenda 21 process requires local governments to decentralize governance, reform their current departmental structures, and change traditional operational procedures. As a result, these local governments are becoming more open, more participatory, and more dedicated agents of the sustainable development agenda.”

4 - Rio+10: from agenda to action

Five years after the Rio+5 assessment, ICLEI conducted a second surveyvi, in collaboration with the Secretariat of the 2002 UN World Summit for Sustainable Development and the UNDP Capacity 21 Programme. Again, two surveys were developed, one addressed to the national, regional and international institutions and the second one addressed directly to local governments.

The report identified over 6400 local governments in 113 countries worldwide that were engaged in Local Agenda 21 (LA21) activities, a more than three-fold increase over less than five years. Even though over 80% of these local governments were located in Europe, a significant increase has been noted in the number of countries in which one or more LA21 processes were underway.

Over 60% of local governments surveyed had developed Local Action Plans, even if the environmental focus still dominated over the wider, sustainable development approach, with the following issues commonly identified as main priorities on the local level:

It is interesting to note that water was the common priority issue for all municipalities, regardless of their economic situation. Asked about the actual improvements achieved in the course of LA21 processes, local governments pointed to:

All municipalities observed progress in terms of public awareness and water quality. Answers from high- and middle-income countries noted the greatest progress on waste reduction, while low-income countries highlighted the success of community empowerment. There was also considerable progress observed in terms of integrating LA21 processes into the municipal systems, with 60% of surveyed municipalities claiming at least partial integration. The changes included improved interdepartmental cooperation, public/private partnerships and LA21 activities included in official documents.

The higher number of processes identified allowed for better regional comparisons, painting a picture of what a “typical” LA21 process might look like in different world regions. African municipalities prioritized poverty alleviation, economic development and health issues, responding to the most pressing needs of the communities. African local sustainability processes were characterized by strong stakeholder involvement, sometimes even contributing to a further strengthening of the role of certain groups, e.g. women. In addition to the lack of financial and political support, the lack of expertise was perceived as one of the key challenges.

The Asia-Pacific local sustainability process was typically driven by a national campaign, had a strong environmental focus and was well-integrated into the municipal governance system (e.g. through official documents, such as local environmental strategies). Stakeholder participation was also important but the relationship with the national government was perceived as key, with repeated calls from the local level for a more favourable policy framework and tax reform.

The European case was particularly interesting since this is where most of LA21 activities were taking place. Here again one could observe a strong involvement of national governments but also an important role played by national municipal associations and the European Sustainable Cities and Towns Campaign, acting on a regional level. Some European countries were greatly advanced in their uptake at an early stage. Sweden, for example, reported that 100% of the municipalities had adopted LA21 by 2002. The priority issues named by European municipalities included energy management, transportation, land use and biodiversity. Interestingly, it is the only region that cited climate change as one of the top priorities. European municipalities complained about a perceived lack of commitment from the national government and a lack of community interest, calling for greater alignment with national sustainability strategies and further embedding local sustainability processes into municipal operations.

The Latin American priorities included community development, economic development, poverty alleviation, security and water resources management. It was the only region to identify tourism as one of top priorities and indicate heritage and culture preservation as one of the key achievements of local sustainability processes. Latin American municipalities boasted the highest rate of stakeholder involvement, even if some groups continued to be excluded from LA21 processes (e.g. ethnic minorities or indigenous peoples). Amongst challenges, local governments pointed to the slow decentralization process and called for more power to be delegated to the local level.

Similar concerns were shared by North American municipalities who called also for a revised tax structure and the removal of subsidies placed on unsustainable products and policies. Local governments in North America highlighted community empowerment as one of the main achievements of local sustainability processes, with the activities focused mostly on land use, transportation, water resources management, economic development and air quality.

Despite the progress, the main challenges remained similar to the ones identified five years earlier. Based on the results of these assessments, prior to the 2002 UN World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg local governments called for:

The last point reflects the move from agenda to action and the need for better tools to evaluate local sustainability performance.

How many of these conclusions and recommendations still hold true today? What progress have we made and in which areas are further effort needed? Ten years after the last assessment it is time to consider these questions.

5 - Evaluating local sustainability processes today

One of the most pressing questions to answer before embarking on this study was how best to analyze local sustainability processes on a global scale. The two previous reports, as described above, were based mostly on multiple choice questionnaires, targeted at national and local level separately. These tools were well suited to the main purpose of the reports, which was to identify the number, geographical distribution and thematic variety of LA21 activities worldwide. However, today, 20 years after the adoption of Agenda 21, we wanted to know more about the dynamics and impact of these processes, institutions and mechanisms that emerged and political and social changes to which they contributed.

Local sustainability is now established within the mainstream, becoming a part of everyday activities for thousands of local governments worldwide. More and more cities, asked about their commitment to sustainable development, answer that it has become a cross-cutting issue, a guiding principle applied to all their activities. A growing variety and complexity of local sustainability processes, as well as their progressive integration into the municipal systems, means that it is now increasingly difficult to study them from an international perspective using quantitative instruments.

Moreover, the reports of 1997 and 2002 were very much focused on the Local Agenda 21 approach, even if there were a few countries that did not use the actual term (e.g. United States). However, as we have observed in the last years, some countries have moved on and replaced the previously used Local Agenda 21 with another term such as e.g. “local sustainability strategy” or “integrated development programme”, reflecting local conditions but also a changed thematic focus or different process structure. There are also a number of cities, particularly in Asia, that perform very well in terms of environmental, economic, and to a lesser extent, social indicators but their activities are far from the original LA21 approach, as defined by ICLEI in the previous reports and quoted above. Should these “eco-towns”, as they are sometimes referred to, perhaps particularly relevant for global discussions on green economy, be included in a debate on local sustainability?

This leads us to the most important question, namely, how can we evaluate local sustainability processes today? Should we look at outcomes, actors or rather the process, closer to the original LA21 approach? For the purpose of this study, we have decided to keep it as open as possible and have adopted a very broad definition of a local sustainability process, highlighting simply the multi-sectoral character of a process, its long-term perspective and local focus:

A multi-sectoral purposeful activity over a longer period of time with the aim to influence the development of a locality and local policies towards sustainability.

This definition is also open in the sense that it doesn’t define what we mean by “sustainability”. This was a purposeful choice, since one of the aims was to find out how local leaders and communities understand sustainability, what kind of issues or activities are associated with this concept and how it evolves over time.

As much as it would be interesting to find out how many local sustainability processes are currently underway, what proportion of local governments have developed an action plan or started its evaluation and how many of them were involving stakeholders in these processes, we believe that this type of analysis is not only very difficult but perhaps even no longer useful, considering divergent paths that cities worldwide are taking.

6 - Collecting the information for this study

The study aims to present the “story” of local sustainability, as told by the people who were personally involved in implementing and supporting cities in their sustainability efforts throughout the last 20 years. Taking into account current discussions on the international governance framework for sustainable development, one of the key themes of the Rio+20 Conference, the main focus is on placing local sustainability initiatives within a broader national and international context, in order to identify opportunities and barriers to scaling up local action. With this in mind, the following questions will be addressed: What are the main driving forces behind local sustainability processes? How do different driving forces influence the development of local sustainability processes? (addressed in chapter 3)

What are thekey reference frameworks that influence the scope and ambition of local action? How are these frameworks developed and what is their impact on the local level? (addressed in chapter 4)

Looking at two decades of local sustainability processes, what changes have they brought about? How has the role of local governments changed, on the local, national and international level? (addressed in chapter 5)

The study is based on in-depth, qualitative interviewsvii with local sustainability experts and draws upon knowledge accumulated by ICLEI, UN-HABITAT and other partners throughout twenty years of supporting the local sustainability movement worldwide. The experts were asked to focus on key trends and developments over time within their country or region, as well as on recommendations that could later be fed into the international preparatory process for the Rio+20 Conference. The interviews consisted of the following ten sections:

In addition, the experts were asked to provide a short list of relevant documents and contacts, to aid in understanding the experience of local sustainability within their country or region. The experts were recruited on the basis of ICLEI’s international network, working directly with cities in over 70 countries worldwide. This network comprises of the following regional and country offices: Europe (based in Freiburg, Germany), Africa (based in Cape Town, South Africa), Japan (based in Tokyo), Korea (based in Jeju), South Asia (based in Delhi, India), Southeast Asia (based in Manila, Philippines), Mexico (based in Mexico City), Canada (based in Toronto), USA (based in Oakland), Oceania (based in Melbourne, Australia), as well as the World Secretariat (based in Bonn, Germany).

In order to improve the geographical coverage of the study and strengthen its conclusions, the results coming from the ICLEI network were coupled with the contributions provided by selected UN-HABITAT offices. UN-HABITAT, with its pivotal role in supporting local sustainability through programmes such as “Localizing Agenda 21” and “Sustainable Cities” (implemented together with UNEP), brings in the development perspective on local sustainability and offers first-hand knowledge of the situation in countries that only recently gained recognition for their actions on sustainability.

The contributions from UN-HABITAT focus mainly on the following regions and countries: Arab Region, Burkina Faso, Central America, China, Indonesia and Pacific Island countries, Latin America and Caribbean Region, Sri Lanka, Western Balkans.

To complement the practitioners’ perspective, ICLEI has invited a number of research and civil society organizations to provide an overview of the state of local sustainability in their respective regions. This additional input, as well as desk research conducted by the authors, ensured that the study, albeit not strictly academic, is linked to ongoing work in this field. The process of collecting information for the study has been a challenging experience for a number of reasons. Some of them will be elaborated on further in this study but, put shortly, the main obstacles were the following:

The timeframe and budget of this study did not allow for employing participatory and interactive methods, such as regional workshops or expert seminars, neither for field research, which both could help to paint a more complete picture of local sustainability processes worldwide. More in-depth studies are needed to capture the experience of various actors active on a local level, including community organizations, businesses and other stakeholders, as well as to further explore the diversity of local processes and their impacts, both at the local level and beyond. However, it is the intention of the authors to open the space for such discussions ahead of, during and after the Rio+20 Conference, hoping that they contribute to a yet better understanding of local sustainability processes.


Published by:

In Partnership with:

  • Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind

  • United Nations Human Settlements Program UN-HABITAT

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This study would not have been possible without the contributions made by a number of experts from all around the globe who shared their knowledge with the authors in the form of both written and oral answers to a set of guiding questions. We extend our gratitude to the staff of the following organizations and individuals:

  • ICLEI Offices: Africa Secretariat, European Secretariat Japan Office, Canada Office, Korea Office, Mexico Office, Oceania Secretariat, South Asia Secretariat, Southeast Asia Secretariat, USA Office, World Secretariat.

  • Regional and Country Offices of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme UN-HABITAT: Arab States Region, Burkina Faso, Central America, China, Indonesia and Pacific Island countries, Latin America and Caribbean Region, Sri Lanka, Western Balkans.

  • Further: Africa: Johan Nel (North-West University, South Africa), France: Ministry for Sustainable Development, Association 4D, Japan: Katsutaka Shiraishi (Ryukoku University), Hidefumi Imura (Yokohama City University), Korea: Korean Institute Center for Sustainable Development, Latin America: Francisco Alarcon (Finland).

The study was financed by the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind, Lausanne (Switzerland), the German Ministry for the Environment, Nature Protection and Nuclear Safety, and Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt DBU. Its publication was supported financially by UN-HABITAT.

To dowload the complete study : local2012.iclei.org/local-sustainability-study/