Question of the Day: How and when will we know if Habitat III was a success?

25 experts weigh in on the U.N. summit on sustainable urbanization taking place this week in Quito — and the 20-year vision document it will adopt.


In early September, 193 countries agreed on a final draft of the New Urban Agenda — a global 20-year vision for how to create cities that are sustainable and equitable. This week, presidents, ministers and others are gathering in Quito, Ecuador, for the Habitat III conference, where they will formally adopt that strategy and unveil commitments on how to implement its details.

Citiscope reached out to 25 thinkers and organizations that have been keen participants in the process that created the 24-page document. Now that the dust has settled, how do they see its final text? And more importantly, when we look to the next 20 years of implementation, how do they think the New Urban Agenda can improve the lives of those who live in cities?

We asked each expert to respond to five questions. We’ll be publishing their answers, lightly edited, each day this week. We want to hear from you, too. Write your response in the comments section at the bottom of this article.

Monday’s question: Innovations in the New Urban Agenda?

Tuesday’s question: Gaps in the New Urban Agenda?

Tomorrow’s question: What do you see as the biggest obstacles to implementation of the New Urban Agenda?

Question of the day: How and when do you think we’ll best be able to rate the success of Habitat III — and how would you define that success?

Purely by how sustainable and inclusive the future growth of cities is in the coming decades.

— Joseph D’Cruz, United Nations Development Programme

Habitat III is a process as much as an outcome — its success hinges on all parties working to ensure that cities are the key to sustainable development transformations.

— Susan Parnell, African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town

Success and impact should be seen in the places we live. Are our cities more inclusive in the future? Are our urban environments healthier? The only measure of success will be seen in the way we construct and envision our urban environments from here on out.

— Charles Ebikeme, International Council for Science

Habitat III will be a success of course if the New Urban Agenda is embraced and implemented. More modestly, it will be a success if there is continuing reference to it and the commitments made, with locally owned and implemented efforts to make and to gauge progress post-Quito.

— Judith Hermanson, IHC Global (Coalition for Inclusive Housing and Sustainable Cities)

SDG targets will be a good tool. Success is when we see tangible reduction in the growth of slums and squatters, urban poverty, and an increase in the use of planning sustainable cities — when meaningful partnerships implement the recommendations of the agenda in every field.

— Aliye Celik, NGO

The New Urban Agenda will be a success if local government moves into the mainstream as a key agent for sustainable development in a multi dimensional global architecture where nation states are no longer the only international unit of decision, finance, measurement and comparison. This is a high bar, but without meeting it the New Urban Agenda risks remaining the daily bread of the existing urban actors.

— David Hugh Jackson, Director of Local Development Finance, United Nations Capital Development Fund

Habitat III is an important opportunity to raise awareness of our shared urban future and the risks and opportunities related to urbanization. We’ll see in 2017 if the major international agencies have got the message and are ensuring they are “urban ready”: if they put staff and resources in place, and begin putting existing and forthcoming urban strategies and policies into practice at the local, municipal level.

— Lucy Earle, Global Alliance for Urban Crises

The strongest sign of Habitat III’s success would be if it made a Habitat IV conference redundant — because all the commitments in the New Urban Agenda have been fully implemented, and all cities and human settlements are planned, governed and managed in ways that reduce poverty and inequalities, promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, protect the environment and support the health and well-being of all inhabitants.

— Eleni Dellas, adelphi

To achieve the goals outlined in the SDGs and the historic Paris Agreement, which will soon enter into force, we need to radically transform our food, energy and mobility systems. This requires massive investments in urban infrastructure within the next decade that will accelerate the shift towards a low-carbon, resilient, inclusive and thriving economy. Incremental change is no longer enough. The success of Habitat III will be defined by the speed with which we bring about this transformation in our cities.

— Irge Olga Aujouannet, Director, Global Policy Affairs, World Business Council for Sustainable Development

2030: This landmark is supposed to see the achievement of the SDGs. Considering current urbanization trends, it is in cities that the SDGs will be implemented. Therefore, the improvement of living conditions, estimated through SDGs indicators, will reflect the way cities have managed to contribute to sustainable development — hence indirectly, the extent to which the New Urban Agenda has served as a framework, accompanied and supported cities in doing so.

— Laure Criqui, Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI)

We will be able to rate the success of Habitat III in two years’ time, when we see the outcome of the process that will review UN-Habitat and address ways to monitor and evaluate advancement on the New Urban Agenda. We will assess the outcomes of this process based on how much it reflects our vision for sustainable cities, and a new mode of dialogue and collaboration among national and local governments. Of course, in 2030 we will know for sure whether the New Urban Agenda will have contributed to the fulfilment of the SDGs, and to what extent.

— Yunus Arikan, Head of Global Policy and Advocacy, ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability

Urbanization is a continuous, long-term trend, and the follow-up of the New Urban Agenda should therefore also happen continuously and over the longer term. The follow-up of Habitat III should go in parallel with that of the 2030 Agenda. It should not be a separated process. Capturing data on cities must happen at the city level. That can only be properly done through and with the local and regional governments. The local government associations, their regional and global organizations can assess the aggregated local data and offer part of the monitoring analysis.

— Wouter Boesman, Policy Advisor, PLATFORMA — The European Voice of Local and Regional Governments for Development

Defining success specifically will remain a challenge, but the process of getting there will largely depend of coordination with the SDGs and development of locally specific indicators of sustainability that are contextually relevant. The success of process will come before the success of outcomes, so if we can see an indication that governance structures are evolving and that the dialogues around the issues of urban sustainability including environmental changes are becoming more commonplace and the ‘norm’ in the policy circles within our cities, we are making steps forward.

— Corrie Griffith, UGEC Project, Arizona State University, USA

The success of Habitat III will be defined by how quickly governments will act on implementing the New Urban Agenda, starting with developing the required frameworks at national and international levels to ensure its implementation. Its success will also depend on how quickly Habitat III manages to support the implementation of a “paradigm shift” to sustainable urban development as set out in the New Urban Agenda, on the ground in cities — namely, amongst cities that currently do not have the resources or capacity to implement the policy recommendations included within the NUA. Once this shift occurs at the city level, especially in less-developed countries, which are largely experiencing the most rapid rates of urbanization, then one could suggest that Habitat III has had some success.

— Jeet Mistry and Jennifer Lenhart, WWF

Success will be defined by the commitment of cities and national governments to the Sustainable Development Agenda. At the WCCD, accurate baselines are already being developed according to ISO 37120. Once the city data baseline is established, this baseline will start to tell a tale within five years, and cities will be able to monitor and adjust their targets. As more cities become certified by the WCCD in conformity with ISO 37120, this will enable national governments to aggregate this city level data and to better report post-Habitat III. National governments are essential partners, as many countries are as much as 80 percent urbanized. However, I do believe that the global uptake of COP 21 sets a new precedent. The fact that countries like the United States have ratified and implemented this global agreement — despite past reticence — could very well mark a positive, global turning point in moving forward and creating additional international agreements.

— Patricia McCarney, President & CEO, World Council on City Data

Habitat III will be significant only if it helps to reinforce legal obligations of states and develops a clear blueprint for realizing the human rights of all (in urban and rural areas), with concrete targets and mechanisms for implementation, monitoring, and follow-up. While the Sustainable Development Agenda and the Paris Agreement have been highlighted, Habitat III needs to also engage and link with other U. N. human rights mechanisms (including treaty bodies, special procedures and the Universal Periodic Review) in order to integrate approaches and achieve positive results. The importance of Habitat III will probably lie more in the spaces it provides for debate, discussion, networking and dissent than in its outcome document. The levels of participation and inclusion that it enables, as well as its connection to and implementation of Habitat I and II commitments, will also be key indicators in determining its “success”.

— Shivani Chaudhry, Executive Director, Housing and Land Rights Network, India

The success of the New Urban Agenda should result in a renewed local and national partnership and further fiscal, political and administrative decentralization process to ensure positive impacts on cities: better service provision and improved democratic practice. For instance, by being able to raise local taxes, towns and regions worldwide would enjoy enough autonomy to ensure better service provision. Besides, cities must be at the global table and fully involved in global negotiations, as they are engines of growth for their nations and in charge of improving their inhabitants’ lives. To renew the relationship between local governments and the U. N. would therefore be a key element of success. That could be done, for instance, by ensuring local government representation in all member states’ delegations in Quito, as they are with the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany; or by granting a seat to local government as United Nations observers — not just sharing a seat with civil society.

— Frédéric Vallier, Secretary General of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR)

Perhaps it will be Habitat IV, in 2036, when we make that final determination. However, we need to continuously track our progress to get us to success and to help us rate success. We need to define success now, and modify and adjust that definition as we face changing circumstances and as we learn from our work. With a clear line of sight to our goals, we can find the best paths to navigate to them. We will need to know, with some precision, our starting points, our destinations and waypoints at which we can monitor progress. For example, we know our urban footprints are growing much faster than our urban populations. A reasonable goal will be to reverse this trend and find ways to grow urban populations without consuming new land. We have the tools and the technology to monitor our progress using the methodology presented in the Atlas of Urban Expansion. If we commit our political will and our technical skill to densify our urban areas, we cannot only track progress as frequently as we need, but we can test different approaches to densification to determine what works best. At every waypoint along the path, we will know if we are moving in the right direction and whether we are progressing at an adequate speed to eventually achieve success.

— George W. McCarthy, President and CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

A successful legacy for Habitat III should include countries taking action, implementing policies, and funding infrastructure and development that benefit cities and acknowledge their integral role in economic, environmental and social progress. Additionally, countries will include this development in the SDG and [nationally determined contributions to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, or NDCs] implementation and reporting over the coming decades. There are several upcoming milestones where we will be able to gauge the progress of this paradigm shift. The first will be at World Urban Forum 9, where we will see the first indications of implementation in countries. Next, in 2018, countries will take stock of progress against their NDCs and update them accordingly. We hope to see strong cities and New Urban Agenda references in the initial implementation reports, and to see increased focus on city action in the updated commitments. Likewise, the next round of reporting in 2019 against the Sustainable Development Goals will hopefully show strong connections to interventions resulting from New Urban Agenda commitments. The ultimate measure of a successful Habitat III legacy could be to have not only Habitat conferences once every 20 years, but to reconvene far more frequently. We can’t wait until 2036 for Habitat IV — the pace of urban growth is speeding up, and so should we.

— Holger Dalkmann and Alyssa Fischer, World Resources Institute

For us, Habitat III will be a success if it provokes a change in the way sustainable urban development is funded and financed. Across the world, mayors — including the 86 mayors of C40’s member cities — are working tirelessly to address global challenges like climate change and poverty in their cities. With engaged mayors and active citizens, cities have been leading the way on climate action. Cities, made their presence felt at COP 21 in 2015 and are ready to take action to meet the ambitions of the Paris Agreement. However, one of the main barriers to their ambitions is acute financing issues. To help mayors deliver even more on their sustainable agenda, we need to dramatically improve municipal infrastructure finance. This will be achieved by creating an enabling environment at global and national levels, with new public and private financing instruments, including city-responsive development banks, direct access for subnational governments to climate finance, increased powers for cities to control finance, vertical alignment policy planning among levels of governments, and support and capacity-building for transformational projects’ preparation.

— Emmanuelle Pinault, Head of City Diplomacy — Political Engagement, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group

Given the current urban, housing and land crisis, we have no time to wait to make the changes on the ground. As we see it, the “success” of the Habitat III conference should be measured by concrete policies to address inequality and spatial segregation and foster social justice, at the international, national and local levels. It will take not only inter-institutional coordination (as the New Urban Agenda now recommends) but also long-term vision and policy coherence between economic, political, social, cultural and environmental measures that today are not aligned in terms of their goals and means, and that result in contradictory and even counterproductive outcomes. We urgently need a paradigm change to understand cities, human settlements and territories as common goods — for the present and the future generations — that are co-created and should be co-managed. One key component of that paradigm change will be to truly put people at the centre, promoting, respecting and guaranteeing human rights for all, enhancing social participation at the decision-making and public policies implementation processes, to strengthen democracy, transparency and accountability. Activists, communities and grass-roots organizations are key protagonists of the current progressive transformations our human settlements are facing, and they should be recognized and supported as such.

— Lorena Zárate, President, Habitat International Coalition (HIC)

Firstly, it is important to consider the role that civil society can play in the call for ambitious, concrete and measurable goals, which are at the height of the great challenges faced by Habitat III. Among these, we highlight the need for a tangible commitment to overcome the problem of informal settlements in Latin America through broad civic participation and a strong commitment from all actors in society. At this summit, the decisions will be made in order to define the necessary actions to be implemented under this premise. From the perspective of informal settlements, it should mean the recognition of skills, ideas and experience in the “social production” of habitat of those who live there, as well as a thorough a comprehensive understanding of this reality of inequality in the region. Moreover, as social organizations we must coordinate our efforts to agree on a common agenda towards the monitoring and evaluation of the commitments of the New Urban Agenda. We should be able to agree on collective goals that enable us to deal more effectively with the civic task of demanding concrete results against established goals. These efforts should be recognized by governments and international organizations, with the necessary space to raise arguments in direct dialogue with these actors. Finally, we also believe that critical and autonomous participation from civil society on the policies, programmes and projects promoted by the New Urban Agenda will allow us to grow closer to the reality of the process to evaluate, demand and propose initiatives on the way.

— Luis Bonilla, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of TECHO International

That we are here now is already a testament to our success and the commitments of member states to recognize the critical linkage between urbanization and sustainable development. Don’t forget, Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda is produced last in the queue of the post-2015 set of development frameworks. That the global development commitment culminates with a focus on urbanization — and a formal implementation mechanism to deliver sustainable development — is not only a mark of success but of enormous progress. That said, defining success means that, incrementally, over the years, more cities are able to expand and renew, and that process generates revenues and increases productivity. Then, at two levels, sustained higher income per capita and better performances in Sustainable Development Goals, with an emphasis in Goal 11, can be used as proxy for better urbanization and prosperity. Combining economic and social indicators at city level may be challenging, but fortunately we are all working in that direction. At UN-Habitat we have the City Prosperity Initiative tracking progress at city level, and UN-Habitat, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and New York University have developed the Global Municipal Database to monitor financial performance, and the graphic and massive Atlas of Urban Expansion to visualize the direction and speed of 200 cities. Obviously, development — by its nature — is a long process. So the measure of our success will only be known at Habitat IV. However, we already know, through the many previous successes of the MDGs and the Habitat Agenda, for example, that much can be done in a short period of time when there is a commitment to do so. Our success now will be measured in how we all work more effectively together to deliver the collective commitments of the post-2015 agenda and the U. N.’s guiding principles of human rights, peace, security and development — the pathways to which are increasingly concentrated in urban areas.

— Marco Kamiya, Head of Urban Economy and Finance Branch, UN-Habitat

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