UW–Madison student researchers support five cities by connecting local plans to UN Sustainable Development Goals

With research support from University of Wisconsin–Madison students over the summer, five cities from across the nation aligned their local strategic plans with global sustainability goals to advance wellbeing in their communities. 

The cities of Fitchburg, Wisconsin; Tigard, Oregon; Cleveland, Ohio; Maplewood, Missouri; and Jonesboro, Georgia partnered with the School of Human Ecology’s Civil Society and Community Studies class taught by Distinguished Teaching Faculty Lori DiPrete Brown to analyze city plans in the context of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Photo of Lori DiPrete Brown
Lori DiPrete Brown

“Cities are critical actors in sustainable development, resilience and innovation,” DiPrete Brown said. “When they compare their plans with the SDGs, they can see the alignments that already exist. Using the SDGs for planning and implementation in local communities can accelerate progress.”

The global goals offer a strategic framework that integrates economic, social, and environmental factors. When cities integrate them into their plans and policies, they are taking active steps to address sustainability in their communities while also contributing to a sustainable global future.

“The SDGs help cities to build on their existing work and gain clarity on how their communities are advancing sustainability,” said DiPrete Brown, who is also a co-chair of UW–Madison’s UniverCity Alliance (UCA) Advisory Board.

DiPrete Brown will be giving a lecture on Oct. 11 at 5 p.m. in Nancy Nicholas Hall’s Wisconsin Idea Room (1199) on how local governments can use the SDGs to address complex and interconnected challenges such as poverty, inequality, and climate change. 

The links to cities were facilitated by the Mayors Innovation Project (MIP), which is a peer learning network for mayors committed to shared prosperity, environmental sustainability, and efficient democratic government. MIP is a project of the COWS High Road Strategy Center, which provides support to UCA.

“We are so grateful for the work that these students produced for the cities in our network,” MIP Managing Director Katya Spear said. 

Katya Spear

Several of the local leaders, including Mayors Julia Arata-Fratta (Fitchburg), Heidi Lueb (Tigard), and Donya Sartor (Jonesboro), are part of MIP’s 2023 New Mayors Cohort. Mayor Nikylan Knapper (Maplewood) was part of a previous cohort in 2021 and is participating in 2023 as a “mentor mayor” speaker. 

“Framing municipal planning processes in relation to the SDGs offers a way to demonstrate the co-benefits of different actions to support equity and sustainability, and to help local governments weigh the impact of different actions,” Spear said. “It also gives cities of all sizes a way to highlight what is going well and flag areas for improvement.” 


During the summer term class, students majoring in community and nonprofit studies alongside students majoring in global health made the local to global connection. They conducted an SDG 360 Thinking analysis of city plans, designed social media posts and flyers about local challenges and opportunities, and researched solutions and best practices from similar places in the country on priority topics. 

They also used a new web-based app created by UW–Madison’s American Family Insurance Data Science Institute to generate visualizations using the SDG 360 tool.  

The resulting presentations and reports shared complex information in visual and written formats that each community will be able to use, and the recommendations kept each city’s priorities in focus. 

“Our strategic plan was your springboard, and I really appreciate you all for using that as a precursor to your research,” said Knapper, the mayor of Maplewood. 

Students analyzed comprehensive plans and other strategic efforts related to agriculture, houselessness, and neighborhoods. Priority issues included transportation and public spaces, zoning and equitable services, affordable housing, land use, and equity, among others. 

When the students use the SDG 360 analysis, they create a matrix that illustrates how well local efforts align with the global goals.

“The SDG analysis, especially the gaps, makes me think about how we work with our partners,” said Tigard’s Senior Management Analyst Nicole Hendrix. “We don’t have to do it alone.”

An image of a colorful matrix that compares a city's goals to SDGs.
This circular matrix aligns Maplewood’s parks and public spaces with SDGs.


Action plan

While working with SDGs was new for some of the students, they shared during their final presentations how working with the framework affected their mindset on sustainability. 

“I’ve really come to love the Sustainable Development Goals,” Melissa Palmer, a fourth-year student majoring in Biology with certificates in Global Health and Biocore, said. 

Growing up, Palmer said she often was encouraged to take action to mitigate climate change and improve education. But it wasn’t until this summer course that she felt like she had a plan to achieve them. 

“The SDGs really go into depth. There are so many linkages to other cities, and it’s really cool to see all the ways people are working to accomplish these goals,” Palmer said. 

Kali Froncek, a fourth-year student majoring in Anthropology with certificates in Global Health and Indigenous Studies, said she appreciated feeling connected to a new city. 

“I am someone who loves being able to compare and contrast different cities and communities, so it was really special to – without even visiting the city – feel like I have this place there or just know it in a way that I wouldn’t have before,” Froncek said. 

—Abigail Becker