How will we know if the New Urban Agenda has been successful?

The revised version of the Habitat III strategy is still vague on follow-up and review.

Radu Bercan/Shutterstock

The vision of the U. N.’s major new strategy on sustainable urban development — the New Urban Agenda — is increasingly taking shape, and in mid-June the document’s first major revision was released, following a month of negotiations. Yet that revised document continues to raise a question: Once the agenda is agreed upon at the Habitat III conference in October, how will we know if its goals are actually being achieved?

This is why strong follow-up and review processes are important. They can help local and national governments, urban practitioners and stakeholders learn more about success cases that should be supported and scaled up. Follow-up and review processes also help in identifying challenges to implementation, which allows for policy learning as well as technical and financial support to be channelled where it is most needed.

A first step toward strong follow-up and review for the New Urban Agenda is greater clarity about its targets. What, exactly, is to be reviewed?

[See: Will the New Urban Agenda define the future of UN-Habitat?]

The agenda’s current version suggests that these issues should be independent of but also contribute to a much broader process known as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This major framework, which includes the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), was agreed to by all U. N. member states last year and went into effect in January. Critically, it will now seek to guide global anti-poverty and sustainability efforts over the next 15 years.

The New Urban Agenda currently states that follow-up and review should use existing platforms and processes but also avoiding duplication. However, it does not specify what is meant by this. For example, will the New Urban Agenda contribute only to the review of SDG 11 — the urban SDG, which seeks to create safe and sustainable cities? Or, rather, will it contribute to review the urban dimensions of each of the 17 SDGs? At the moment, the answers to these questions are unclear.

[See: Cities turn to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals]

“The current draft of the New Urban Agenda envisions just a single midterm review, in 2026.”

Further, the New Urban Agenda almost certainly will contain elements that go beyond the SDGs. Clearly it will be important to clarify how these, too, can undergo strong follow-up and review.

For example, the current draft has a significant focus on the enabling conditions for effective implementation. These include, for instance, the legal, institutional and financial structures that cities need in order to implement sustainable urban development. Yet it is important that clear targets, indicators and monitoring frameworks are specified for these enabling conditions.

The process of agreeing on the global “indicator” framework for the SDGs — key metrics by which global progress on the goals will be tracked — has shown how time-intensive the development of new indicators is. While the SDGs were agreed to in September, after all, the process to refine and agree on indicators remains ongoing. Moreover, agreed-upon methodologies and sufficient country coverage are lacking for many indicators.  

[See: Cities respond: Testing the urban SDG indicators]

However, depending on the final content of the New Urban Agenda, existing indicators could also be used to monitor progress on the legal, institutional and financial frameworks for cities. Thus, the New Urban Agenda will need to outline a process by which to identify useful existing indicators to monitor these enabling conditions at the global level and, if necessary, develop additional review criteria. As yet, this has not been clarified.

Regular urban discussion

Harnessing the existing review process for the SDGs would have enormous benefits. That framework already has a mechanism for follow-up and review, called the High-Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development (HLPF), which is meeting this week and throughout much of July at U. N. Headquarters in New York.

“The New Urban Agenda almost certainly will contain elements that go beyond the SDGs. Clearly it will be important to clarify how these, too, can undergo strong follow-up and review.”

Inevitably, the HLPF will absorb much political attention over the next 15 years, and this should be harnessed for the review of the New Urban Agenda. Further, the HLPF will review SDG 11 and related issues approximately once every four years, and in this way already supports a regular review and discussion of urban issues at the global level.

[See: SDGs review offers potential preview of how to track New Urban Agenda]

The current draft of the New Urban Agenda, meanwhile, envisions just a single midterm review, in 2026. Focusing the global review of the New Urban Agenda on the HLPF instead would allow for a more regular discussion of urban issues. The current draft also proposes a continuation of the 20-year Habitat cycles, under which Habitat IV would take place in 2036. A shorter time frame would be far more appropriate to the rapid pace of urbanization.

The global follow-up and review of the New Urban Agenda should also allow for contributions from all relevant urban stakeholders. The current draft mentions the World Urban Forum as a platform for inclusive discussions and an exchange of views. The forum, which is already established and meets every two years, could indeed play a much more substantial role as the key venue for mutual learning among policymakers, local governments, stakeholders and practitioners on challenges and opportunities in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

World Urban Forum participants could present their data and initiatives, allowing others to learn about good practices. Moreover, the discussions at the forum also could be summarized for an overall report on the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, prepared by UN-Habitat as a regular input for the HLPF.

Multi-level review

Of course, the New Urban Agenda will need to go beyond elucidating the structures, responsibilities and time frame for follow-up and review at the global level. Regional, national and local processes are just as important. Yet while the current draft mentions the need to develop such mechanisms at the local level, it does not say much about these other levels.

The draft agenda calls upon local governments to develop mechanisms for local follow-up and review that are consistent with relevant processes at other levels. Considering the centrality of local actors in implementing the urban dimension of the SDGs, the New Urban Agenda should also emphasize the relevance of “localizing” the SDGs — ensuring that local-level actors understand, engage with and have the capacities to monitor the relevant SDG targets comprehensively.

[See: How will we keep track of city actions under the New Urban Agenda?]

At the national level, member states should consider using National Habitat Committees or similar platforms to support inclusive discussions on sustainable urban development. Such discussions also could form an input for national reporting to the HLPF.

At the regional level, U. N. member states will participate in peer reviews in the context of the SDGs. The urban dimension of the goals will certainly be a topic of these discussions, but the issue also should be considered during dedicated regional reviews on the New Urban Agenda itself. Such processes could be supported by the U. N. regional commissions and other regional organizations — for instance, by aggregating and comparing national data and preparing reports that summarize the conclusions of regional reviews as input to the HLPF.

As the informal negotiations on the New Urban Agenda continue, discussions should focus not just on the vision and substance of the strategy. They also need to consider the specific institutional structures, responsibilities and mandates necessary for a follow-up and review process that will support the implementation of the New Urban Agenda’s goals and aspirations.

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Eleni Dellas

Eleni Dellas is a project manager at adelphi in Berlin, where she works on projects around climate change, the global development agenda and urban governance.