Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs) and sustainability transitions during the Covid-19 pandemic: challenges and opportunities

Event: Regions in Recovery Second Edition 2022: Re-imagining Regions
Date: March 21, 2022 - April 1, 2022 (online)
Conference Paper

A Voluntary Local Review (VLR) is an instrument to review and follow-up progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), thus accelerating their localisation. Since 2018, a growing number of local governments worldwide are turning to the VLR process to articulate their sustainable development policies, highlighting the growing acceptance of the SDGs as a framework to guide sustainable transitions at the local level. However, key issues remain on the path to a fair and sustainable future for cities and regions, including lack of resources and capacity at the local level, limited coordination between different stakeholders, or inadequate policy integration at the local and national level. This paper investigates challenges and opportunities provided by VLRs to sustainable transitions in the context of the disruption brought by the Covid-19 pandemic to city planning and policymaking. Findings from the analysis of interviews with staff responsible for the VLR process in 12 cities that have conducted a VLR between 2019 and 2020 (i.e., Barcelona, Bonn, Bristol, Buenos Aires, Espoo, Ghent, La Paz, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Sao Paulo, Taoyuan, and Turku) suggest that the Covid-19 pandemic had a significant impact on VLRs and the planning capacity of local governments. In particular, the pandemic exacerbated longstanding challenges existing at the local level such as lack of data and resources, or the limited efficacy of traditional policies and planning instruments—which, in turn negatively impacted the ability of some local governments to deliver their VLRs. Remote working and the new online tools created to cope with the pandemic, on the other hand, opened up more opportunities for work on SDGs and engagement with stakeholders. Most importantly, VLRs were identified almost unanimously as a positive instrument to rethink priorities for the future, transform outdated and vulnerable development models, and facilitate sustainable transitions. As the world is still bracing with the economic and social shocks caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, this paper argues that lessons learnt through the VLR process by frontrunner cities around the world are key to shaping the next stage for cities and regions in recovery.