How Orlando Is Building a Model City Around the SDGs

Residents walk the path at Carl Langford Park in Orlando, Florida. Photo: Greg Kahn/ UN Foundation

By embedding sustainability and equity across its operations, the vacation destination in Florida is thinking beyond tourism to build a 21st-century city.

It’s a humid day in downtown Orlando, and high school senior Anthony Williams is earning money at an unlikely after-school job. He’s one of nearly a dozen local students responsible for maintaining the city’s 10 beehives.

It’s part of an initiative called Black Bee Honey, which teaches students like Anthony about entrepreneurship and agriculture while offering a way to earn money harvesting and selling honey derived from the nectar of native plants like saw palmetto and orange blossom.

“It started out just me wanting to get a job in general,” Anthony says. “And then I heard about the different programs and somebody asked, ‘Would you be interested in Black Bee Honey?’ And I was like, ‘Sure,’ because I needed a job anyways. I can’t be picky,” he recalled with a laugh.

“But then, once I got to be a part of the program, it was eye-opening. The bees actually play a big role in our community. Without bees, none of us would exist — they’re that important.”

Orlando high school student Anthony Williams tends one of the city’s 10 beehives; this one is located on the rooftop of the downtown fire station, which is also solar-powered and LEED-certified. Photo: Greg Kahn/ UN Foundation

Part of the genius of Orlando’s Black Bee Honey program is how many social issues it addresses: This youth-run, city-owned apiary sits atop Orlando’s Fire Station 1, next to a garden of native grasses and a row of solar panels installed by a local, woman-owned energy company. The program provides employment and education opportunities for young people from Orlando’s Parramore and Holden Heights neighborhoods, which have historically been under-resourced, while connecting community residents with nature and supporting local food production and native wildlife — especially endangered pollinators like butterflies and bees, which make 1 in every 3 bites of food possible.

Black Bee Honey reflects an intersectional approach to city services that perfectly captures the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the group of 17 interconnected, universal ambitions that include eliminating poverty (Goal 1), ending hunger (Goal 2), and addressing climate change (Goal 13). The SDG Agenda was adopted by all countries at the United Nations and is being embraced by communities across the United States and the world as a blueprint for a better future.

And Orlando’s Black Bee Honey program is just one example of how the city is reimagining the way it does business by harnessing the power of the SDGs.

“Farming can take many different forms, and this is an example right here in the heart of our beautiful city,” Daniel Friedline, Sustainability Project Manager for Orlando, says of the 10 beehives owned and operated by the city. Photo: Greg Kahn/ UN Foundation

Transforming a Tourism Hub

From the sky, Orlando’s sprawling neighborhoods and vast patchwork of over 100 lakes, ponds, and wetlands looks like a “reverse Atlantis,” Chris Castro likes to say, referring to the fictional island that sank into the ocean.

As Orlando’s Director of Sustainability and Resilience, Chris is helping to transform how the city operates while raising the standard of living for locals and accommodating an enormous number of visitors — 75 million each year before the pandemic.

“So many people think of us and they think Disney, or Universal, or SeaWorld, and they forget about the amazing cultural renaissance and sustainability movement that’s going on here,” Chris says. “Because the rest of the city has been in the shadows of these large institutions, there’s this galvanizing force and momentum for collaboration and partnership to really define the future of our city.”

"It's definitely a melting pot. We are a global city, no doubt about that,” Orlando’s Director of Sustainability and Resilience Chris Castro, himself a second-generation Cuban American, says of the fact that 1 in 5 Orlandoans was born outside of the U.S. Photo: Greg Kahn/ UN Foundation

Given the sheer volume of tourists drawn to the city’s doorstep, Orlando offers a particularly compelling laboratory for sustainable living. It is among the most-visited cities in the U.S., despite having a fraction of the population of other top tourist destinations like New York City and Los Angeles.

“Our ability to influence the rest of the world is probably greater than any other because of the amount of tourism happening here,” Chris told the U.S. Green Building Council. “It’s a unique opportunity. We want to understand how to leverage those 75 million visitors to learn about sustainability, resilience, and inclusiveness so they can take that knowledge back to their own communities and make it a part of their culture.”

It’s a vision that recalls the original idea for Epcot, which Walt Disney had pitched to the city of Orlando in 1966 as an “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” where people would actually live and work. Led by Orlando’s Mayor Buddy Dyer, the city is reviving this concept as a way to reimagine itself. “We’re really trying to be at the bleeding edge of what it means to be a future-ready city,” Chris says.

For local officials, that means turning to the SDGs to make this unrealized dream a reality. As a set of measurable targets to achieve by 2030, the SDGs offer a way for the city to approach its problems and opportunities through an intersectional lens and to connect efforts across the community. By examining air quality, affordable housing, public transportation, and other issues through this framework, Orlando is building solutions that tackle a host of complex challenges at the same time.

Consider, for instance, the number of toilet flushes that come from 75 million visitors each year and how much energy, water, and resources that requires. Or the fact that many of Orlando’s hospitality workers are immigrants new to the language and culture and earning a minimum hourly wage. It’s a vulnerable demographic that can too easily slip through societal cracks.

Orlando is one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. — and also one of the youngest. The median age in Orlando is 34, and nearly half a million college students live within a 100-mile radius. It’s a massive talent pool that city officials are eager to retain. Photo: Greg Kahn/ UN Foundation

This transformation began some 15 years ago, when Orlando unveiled its Green Works initiative to become “one of the most environmentally friendly, socially equitable, and economically vibrant cities in America.” In 2018, city leaders released an updated version that aligned with the SDGs as a way to connect Orlando’s local plans and priorities with communities across the globe, using the common language of the SDGs to collaborate and share insights. A city council resolution soon followed to officially recognize their importance, helping kick-start SDG efforts within organizations across Orlando.

As part of this movement toward sustainability, Orlando has recently emerged as a hub for the electric vehicle industry by landing several major manufacturers of EV batteries and energy storage. It’s also working to become an EV-ready destination for tourists by expanding charging infrastructure at theme parks, hotels, and other locations throughout central Florida.

“Imagine getting all of our tourists to try an electric vehicle for the first time,” Chris says, “And then they return home and maybe change their purchasing habits. That is our goal.”

One example of the city’s investment in the SDGs is sustainable transportation, including introducing a free electric bus in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and installing EV charging stations in theme parks, hotels, and other tourism hot spots. Photo: Greg Kahn/ UN Foundation

Orlando’s investment in sustainable innovations like EVs isn’t just for tourists. The city recently introduced a fleet of free, electric buses that connect residents in the Parramore neighborhood to other parts of the sprawling metropolis, making it easier to reach schools, jobs, and hospitals while also improving air quality.

It’s a new service that helps right an old wrong; the historically segregated neighborhood was even further isolated after city leaders bulldozed through Parramore to construct the first interstate highway, I-4, in the 1960s.

Leaving No One Behind

Running through all of the social problems facing the city of Orlando are inequities of class, race, and gender — and how to reach those furthest behind first.

In Parramore, for example, promises to revitalize the neighborhood have fallen short in the past. As a result, residents often meet city officials and community organizers with skepticism.

It’s why Raymond Warthen of Infinite Zion Farms hosts Taco Tuesdays at his community garden, complete with jazz and R&B as the soundtrack. Through music and food, he has forged a connection to the local residents in Parramore, where he and his wife, Cherette, have planted their unlikely oasis. From the rooftop of Orlando’s downtown fire station — yes, the same one with the bees — you can almost spot Ray’s community garden, South Street Urban Farm.

Thanks in part to Orlando’s Grow-A-Lot program, Ray and Cherette are turning a once-vacant lot into a thriving community garden. The project is part of the city’s larger plans to make progress on the SDGs, including seeing that every Orlandoan lives within a half-mile of affordable, healthy food options while supporting local, sustainable agriculture.

Raymond Warthen of Infinite Zion Farms, along with his wife, Cherette, is transforming a once-vacant lot in Orlando’s Parramore neighborhood into a thriving community garden. Photo: Greg Kahn/ UN Foundation

For Ray, whose ancestors farmed the land as enslaved laborers, it’s also an important reckoning for a new generation: to understand how they connect to their roots, the earth beneath their feet, and the food that grows from it.

“I wanted to build a space that could be an emerald in the city and show local kids not just how to succeed as a Black farmer, but as an engineer, as an architect. These kids come out here now and they learn about solar power, soil mechanics, and more!” Ray says. “You’re not only changing these kids’ minds. You’re changing the whole image of what a Black farmer looks like.”

Energizing the Sunshine State

Building a model city requires equal parts innovation and adaptation. In other words, some of the plans are glamorous (flying cars!) and others less so (improving energy efficiency).

Right now, city officials are focusing on decarbonizing the power supply, increasing renewable energy, promoting transportation alternatives to cars, and electrifying everything. Orlando’s downtown fire station, for example, was built to be LEED-certified, complete with solar panels installed by a woman-owned company called 15 lightyears.

“I think there is this sense of pride now to be from Orlando,” says Lisa Pearcy, the founder and CEO of 15 lightyears, which has installed solar panels at the city’s community centers, Universal Studio’s theme park, and even nearby NASA’s Kennedy Space Station at Cape Canaveral.

Founder and CEO of the solar energy company 15 lightyears, Lisa Pearcy has installed solar panels in buildings across Orlando, including its downtown fire station and several community centers. Florida is the nation’s second-largest producer of electricity after Texas, mainly from natural gas. Photo: Greg Kahn/ UN Foundation

Raised in Orlando, she holds a unique sense of hometown pride. “It’s not just the theme parks and the tourists, it’s also our schools and our residents, our arts and culture, and all of the sustainability goals.”

She says much of what has impressed her is the city’s willingness to take risks, to be transparent, and to actively work across sectors, both public and private.

Right now solar customers represent less than 1% of all energy consumers in the Sunshine State, but that is rapidly changing with Orlando leading the charge. This means using the area’s many retention ponds, which are dug by the city to help manage stormwater runoff, to install floating solar arrays, and helping companies connect to the massive OUC solar farm nearby. It also includes working with Disney on the rollout of photovoltaic panels, which convert thermal energy into electricity (whereas solar panels convert sunlight).

Bringing the SDGs Home

If the city’s sprawling ambitions for sustainability seem wide-ranging and far-reaching, that’s by design. Orlando wants to imprint the SDGs into its planning process and make them part of the city’s DNA, so to speak, by expanding efforts far beyond city hall.

Program Director for the local nonprofit Fleet Farming organization, Caroline Chomanics, is helping Orlando residents turn their front yards into miniature farms and edible lawns. Photo: Greg Kahn/ UN Foundation

“There’s something for everyone with the SDGs, and that’s what I really love about it — no matter your passion,” says Caroline Chomanics, Program Director for Fleet Farming, a nonprofit urban agriculture program in Orlando that is reclaiming the city’s front yards to grow food and nurture natural habitats. It’s part of a national movement among homeowners to trade their lawn mowers and Miracle-Gro for native grasses and vertical agriculture. And thanks to Orlando’s year-round growing climate, these so-called micro farms are harvesting enough produce to stock local farmers markets, CSA baskets, and food banks.

Caroline likens the last and arguably most important of the 17 SDGs — Partnerships for the Goals — to the interconnected and symbiotic ecosystem that draws people to Florida in the first place.

“You have so many different types of flowers, trees, mosses, mushrooms, and animals working together to create this ecosystem,” Caroline says. “Just like with our ecosystems, we need people within our communities to be diverse — different ages, sexes, experiences, interests, backgrounds, and approaches — all working together.”

At the South Street Urban Farm in Orlando, residents are rediscovering their roots through food and urban agriculture — an especially important issue for the surrounding Parramore neighborhood, a historically segregated part of the city that is classified as a food desert. Photo: Greg Kahn/ UN Foundation

What began as a strategy within the Mayor’s office has since expanded beyond Orlando’s borders to become a regional effort to coordinate sustainability measures. City officials are now working alongside local philanthropic organizations, the University of Central Florida, and neighboring city and county governments to make the SDGs a goal post and a yardstick. Last year, Orlando became only the fourth city in the U.S. to publish its own Voluntary Local Review, an official report tracking progress toward the SDGs.

At the core of these efforts — whether reducing the city’s carbon footprint or reaching the most vulnerable — is creating a sense of community.

It’s how Caroline got involved in Fleet Farming’s monthly “swarm rides,” which invite Orlandoans to bike en masse to its front-yard farms.

It’s why Lisa has made part of her solar company’s mission to teach children — especially girls — about different career opportunities in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

It’s why Ray invites his neighbors to enjoy homegrown meals at his urban farm every week.

It’s how Anthony learned to love bees on the rooftop of a downtown fire station.

For sustainability to take root, you have to nurture the community in your own backyard. And Orlando is doing just that by embracing the SDGs as a blueprint for progress.

This story is part of a larger project launched by the UN Foundation and the Brookings Institution to build and support American Leadership on the SDGs.