UN-Habitat’s vision of sustainable urbanization is good — but not enough

The agency has formed a strong knowledge platform to support SDG 11 and the New Urban Agenda, but more needs to be done to develop, disseminate and monitor this new vision. How about an Intergovernmental Panel on Sustainable Urbanization?

Anastasiia Ivanova/Shutterstock

If you were watching United Nations Web TV on 2 August, you would have seen the exciting finale of the drafting of the document that will be submitted to the U. N. General Assembly for approval in the coming days — “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”.

That document carries an important paragraph (#33) on urban development that states, in part, “We look forward to the upcoming United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in Quito, Ecuador,” a reference to next year’s Habitat III summit on urbanization. It also includes Goal 11 — “Make cities and human settlements safe, inclusive, resilient and sustainable” — among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that form the heart of the new agenda.

Around the same time as “Transforming Our World” was being finalized, the Habitat III Secretariat announced that it was notifying 200 experts selected to work on the 10 “policy units”. These groups will be meeting through the end of this year, tasked with offering recommendations for the drafting and implementation of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year strategy that will come out of next year’s Habitat III conference.

Take a look at the Habitat III website to see the Habitat III Issue Paper and Policy Matrix, which lays out six overarching “knowledge areas” that the process will cover, as well as 22 thematic “issue papers” and the 10 policy units.

Strong alignment exists between these Habitat III knowledge areas and the SDGs. Notably, each of the seven targets for Goal 11 — the landmark urban SDG — can be matched with one or more Habitat III issue paper, which were written by agencies across the multilateral system. In turn, these, papers deepen the understanding of the contemporary global situation, identify drivers for change and offer recommendations for improvements.

[Habitat III ‘issue papers’ provide backbone for New Urban Agenda]

For example, let’s look at SDG Target 11.1, on housing, and the Habitat III knowledge area on urban housing and basic service. These subjects are explored in depth in several of the issue papers: “Inclusive Cities” (#1), “Urban and Spatial Planning and Design” (8), “Urban Land” (9) and “Informal Settlements” (22).

Further, as UN-Habitat had a hand in producing these papers, the result should reflect the ongoing work of the agency as expressed in its own publications. And indeed, the precursor to the Habitat III issue papers is a steady stream of publications that have poured out of UN-Habitat.

As seen in the discussion below, this recent work is really good. But is it enough to support the development and monitoring of the strategies to be articulated in the New Urban Agenda?

New definition

Together, these publications argue for a new definition for sustainable urbanization, one that defines its components spatially, provides a tidy framework for its development and details tools for its implementation.

UN-Habitat is rich with partners, and the agency might to turn to them for assistance in an organized fashion.”

Most important, underlying these publications is a clear and precise vision: Due to their social, economic and environmental dominance, cities are the transformative agents in the pursuit of sustainable development — but only if their spatial arrangements provide for the prosperity and safety of all their residents.

[See: Landmark Governing Council session debates UN-Habitat’s role in the development agenda]

Developed in several publications issued over the past three years, this vision is almost imperceptible. However, a review of the publications reveals a strong package that quietly lays it out a ready foundation for the New Urban Agenda.

(Note that the New Urban Agenda will represent a global consensus about future directions for public and private decision-makers negotiated by the 193 U. N. member states. The agenda is, in effect, a roadmap or set of guidelines to be interpreted by each nation within the context of its own conditions.)

This new vision for sustainable urbanization is found in an argument premised on three assumptions. First, the increase in the world’s urban population is a phenomenon that, if handled effectively, will have positive effects on achieving sustainable development globally.

[See: Sustainable cities, key to future development and governance]

Second, economic growth occurs through agglomeration (the spatial clustering of complementary activities within a well-serviced area) and social interchange (usually, face-to-face exchanges). If provided for equitably and with environmental sensitivity, these processes will have positive effects on achieving sustainable development globally.

Third, achieving sustainable urbanization calls for the alignment of public and private decision-making through transparent and participatory processes. These start with the articulation of national urban policies related to governance, laws and finance. In turn, these will translate downward to regions, cities and neighbourhoods into spatial guidance for planning and development.

So how is UN-Habitat making this argument, and what support is it offering for this new vision?

Making the argument: Reporting and guiding

In the past three years, UN-Habitat has published nearly 50 documents and reports that articulate this new vision on sustainable urbanization. These publications range from basic research statements to how-to handbooks. The review that follows deals primarily with the evidence-based material.

“Underlying these publications is a clear and precise vision: Due to their social, economic and environmental dominance, cities are the transformative agents in the pursuit of sustainable development — but only if their spatial arrangements provide for the prosperity and safety of all their residents.”

Start with the agency’s State of the Cities report for 2012, “Prosperity in Cities”. It portrays a strong relationship between prosperity and urban life (building on a concept presented by the World Bank in 2009), to argue that urban prosperity calls for the promotion of quality-of-life features, adequate infrastructure, equity and environmental sustainability. In a related publication, “State of the Women in Cities” (2013), the agency underlines that urban women enjoy greater prosperity than their rural counterparts.

Cognizant that national and regional differences might be overshadowed by the general overview of world cities, UN-Habitat has added national and regional state-of-cities studies for Asia, Africa, China, Latin America, the Arab countries and Europe.

While launching the 2012 State of the Cities report, UN-Habitat also began to issue volumes aiming to guide urbanization processes that would contribute to prosperity in cities. One line is a richly illustrated, well-written four-volume collection: Urban Patterns for a Green Economy, which focuses on the economic and environmental benefits of compact development. The series includes excellent discussions of the synergies among density, infrastructure and compact development.

A year later, new monographs on public space appeared, including “Streets as Public Spaces and Drivers of Urban Prosperity” and “The Relevance of Street Patterns and Public Spaces in Urban Areas”. Also in 2013, UN-Habitat researchers released “Planning and Design for Sustainable Urban Mobility”, showing the importance of urban form and transportation investments in improving people’s access to their homes, livelihoods and recreation.

In 2014, UN-Habitat convened a 35-member expert group to distil this work into a holistic framework on spatial development for cities and human settlements. This resulted in “International Guidelines on Urban and Territorial Planning” (2015), which recognizes that planning around the world will be based on common themes adapted for regional contexts.

[See: Global guidelines provide participatory tool for urban planners]

The guidelines (actually two publications) identify 12 guiding principles and their expression in 26 global case studies. In general, these cases share the following attributes: integrated policy formulation and implementation, transformative renewal strategies, environment planning and management, planning compact and connected cities and regions, and inclusive and participatory planning.

In line with thinking about how to promote prosperity in cities within today’s environment of rapid urban growth, UN-Habitat looked at local and national responses in two recent publications. “The Evolution of National Urban Policies: A Global View” (2014), issued with Cities Alliance, argued for aligning city-based approaches with national imperatives. It offered ideas from 21 countries, including South Korea, Colombia and Ghana.

The following year, “Planned City Extensions: Analysis of Historical Examples” demonstrated the importance of local governments laying out spaces for basic infrastructure and community services in advance of settlement. This study offered examples from the usual places (the United States and Spain) but also outlined work in cities in Ethiopia, Peru, Israel, Burkina Faso and India.

Making the argument: Equity and climate

Promoting equity and gender sensitivity as well as responding to climate change in cities are continued themes in UN-Habitat’s work. Indeed, several of the agency’s publications in these areas are foundational.

These include the seven-volume Gender Responsive Series, with monographs on “Gender Sensitive Planning and Design” (2012), “Gender Responsive Urban Research and Capacity Development” (2014) and “Gender Responsive Risk Reduction and Rehabilitation” (2015). In partnership with CAF, the Latin American development bank, UN-Habitat tackled urban development in that region in “Construction of More Equitable Cities” (2014).

“While the UN-Habitat work is robust in the areas of planning and design, and also well acknowledges the need to understand local context, gaps do exist in this coverage. Few publications, for instance, deal with needed financing and legislative efforts.”

[See: Habitat III is a critical opportunity or grass-roots women]

On climate issues, “Planning for Climate Change” (2014) builds on earlier works such as “Developing Local Climate Change Plans” (2012) and “Making Carbon Markets Work for Your City” (2012). UN-Habitat also pays attention to critical areas affected by global warming in “Urbanization and Climate Change in Small Island States” (2014) and “Pro-poor Urban Climate Resilience in Asia and the Pacific” (2014).

Changing demography will influence the delivery of public goods in cities in the next decades, with burgeoning groups having special needs and interests. For example, the growth of the elderly will call for new kinds of housing, while youths will experience cities in new ways.

UN-Habitat is thinking about how these groups will relate to new means of living in and managing urban areas. It has undertaken preliminary work in this area with two volumes: “Accessibility in Housing: Handbook on Inclusive Housing Solutions for Persons with Disabilities and Older Persons” (2014) and “ICT: Urban Governance and Youth” (2015).

“The Role of Cities in Productive Transformation: Six City Case Studies from Africa, Asia and Latin America” (2015) is another strong volume. It defines productive transformation as “public programs and instruments designed to create jobs and achieve sustainable growth through higher productivity and promotion of competitive sectors.” This study focuses on tracking agglomeration economies and the complexity that underlies them in Cape Town, Nairobi, Lima, Quito, Dili and Ho Chi Minh City.

Inadequate alignment

While the UN-Habitat work is robust in the areas of planning and design, and also well acknowledges the need to understand local context, gaps do exist in this coverage. Few publications, for instance, deal with needed financing and legislative efforts.

Nonetheless, against the backdrop of this rich evidence-based output, can UN-Habitat make the argument for this new vision alone? Or should we be thinking of other ways to develop and disseminate this knowledge base for sustainable urbanization?

[See: U. N. opens Urban Dialogues summaries to public comment]

While this review does not cover all of UN-Habitat’s recent publications, it does reveal the strong argument the agency is developing. To wit: While cities are sources of prosperity due to their ability to bring together people and ideas, they will do so successfully only if they can provide a physical framework that will allow all urbanites to take advantage of these opportunities in a sustainable, resilient and fiscally responsible fashion.

In cities around the world, regardless of their level of development, this will require a number of common actions. It means, for instance, setting aside sufficient land to accommodate a mix of housing, work and recreation, with space for streets and public and community places in areas free from the threat of natural disasters.

It also means reducing pollution — both air and solid waste — and protecting natural and cultural heritage. And it means developing partnerships among the public, private and non-government sectors to achieve a productive transformation of national, regional and local economies.

All of this will require the careful integration of national, regional and local urban policies that focus on governance, legislation and financing. But is this work sufficient to accomplish the goals?

To answer this question, let’s return to the Habitat III issue papers. In general, the papers capture a range of forces and systems that shape cities and human settlements and their effects on the well-being and prosperity of their populations.

Further, the papers have stimulated extensive commentary from both member states and stakeholders. As of mid July, well before the deadline for input, more than 4,000 comments on the issue papers had appeared on the Habitat III website.

[See: 6 great ideas from the Habitat III Urban Dialogues]

Nonetheless, as a whole, the quality of the presentations and argumentation in the Habitat III issue papers varies. Further, their alignment with any (much less the new) vision for sustainable urbanization is weak.

A suggestion

This weakness is perhaps understandable. The issue papers constitute the first time such an exercise has been carried out, and it was done within a short time span. In the end, the outcomes are not perfect.

[See: Graphic highlights ‘overlooked links’ between Habitat III issue papers]

“The agency could oversee a collective effort — an Intergovernmental Panel on Sustainable Urbanization, with the aim of improving the overall management and governance of cities and human settlements.”

Nevertheless, it has been an important experiment. The issue papers suggest a way forward to inform member states about sustainable urbanization and, ultimately, to improve the overall management and governance of cities and human settlements in the future.

However, such an approach needs to be much more ambitious, far-reaching and comprehensive. It requires further development — namely, the production of a mechanism for assembling expertise on the subject on a regular basis for the member states.

Here is a suggestion. UN-Habitat is rich with partners, and the agency might to turn to them for assistance in an organized fashion. The agency could oversee a collective effort, a member-state-referencing Intergovernmental Panel on Sustainable Urbanization. Such a body could provide longitudinal assessments and meta-analyses of current research with the aim of improving the overall management and governance of cities and human settlements.

For Habitat III, such a panel would be critical to supporting the evidence-based implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

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Eugénie L. Birch

Eugénie L. Birch is co-director Penn Institute for Urban Research and president of the General Assembly of Partners. Here’s her full bio.