Question of the Day: What are the biggest obstacles to implementing the New Urban Agenda?

25 experts weigh in on the Habitat III outcome strategy being adopted this week in Quito.


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?

Wednesday’s question: How will we know if Habitat III was a success?

Tomorrow’s question: The New Urban Agenda is supposed to guide global urbanization for the next two decades. How do you hope the world’s cities will have changed at the end of that period?

Question of the Day: What do you see as the biggest obstacles to implementation of the New Urban Agenda?

Getting everyone onboard.

— Charles Ebikeme, International Council for Science

Financing. National/sub-national politics. Sub-national (city) capacity. Complexity.

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

Vested interests that resist better urban governance and foster individual and corporate profit, not public benefit.

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

Lack of political will, lack of interest by the private sector and desire for implementation.

— Aliye Celik, NGO

The limited institutional and fiscal space cities have in many countries to plan and manage their future growth.

— Joseph D’Cruz, United Nations Development Programme

Committed political will and follow-through will be the biggest obstacle to the implementation. Also, getting away from a one-size-fits-all approach mentality.

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

If local government power and finance is perceived as a zero-sum competition with central government, the New Urban Agenda cannot be implemented.

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

The New Urban Agenda is a long document and covers a huge array of issues. It isn’t realistic for all cities to cover all of them. Hopefully the cities and towns around the world most at risk of humanitarian emergencies will prioritize preparedness and response capacity within communities and institutions, but many will not be able to do this without some external support. It’s critical that we maintain the attention of the international community on the urban crises agenda.

— Lucy Earle, Global Alliance for Urban Crises

Despite the recognition of the critical need for collaboration, there are still many silos to break on every level. We need to stop competition, build on our collective achievements and collaborate across boundaries, sectors and jurisdictions. Unless we approach implementation challenges in a truly integrated manner to lift political, financial, technological and behavioural barriers, we will fail to implement the New Urban Agenda successfully.

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

The fact that the New Urban Agenda is a non-binding agreement is clearly an obstacle to its implementation, as it only relies on the goodwill of nations to pay attention to it. The weak connection with the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the Paris Agreement is another obstacle for implementation, since those two agendas are stronger politically. Finally, the absence of any financial package associated with the commitments creates a major barrier to achieving its aims.

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

The biggest obstacle is the limited involvement of local and regional governments in the design phase of the New Urban Agenda. Certain member states object to greater involvement of local and regional governments in the implementation of the NUA. If the agenda is to be successfully implemented, local and regional governments should be in the driver’s seat of implementation, and be closely involved in the design of the follow-up mechanism and the accompanying actions as well as in the monitoring and evaluation phases. The limited or non-qualitative decentralization in many countries is a non-conducive context to achieve the New Urban Agenda, and this will need to be addressed.

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

Though the 2030 Agenda is mentioned in the preamble of the New Urban Agenda, the concrete articulation between its principles and means of action with the SDGs falls short. Indeed, we could expect that each and every item of the New Urban Agenda contributes somehow to one of the targets of the SDGs — not only Goal 11, but also others. In order to inscribe the New Urban Agenda in the global process towards sustainable development, the links, challenges and opportunities for cities to contribute to achieving the SDGs would gain by being more explicit. Using the SDGs as a framework to design urban policies would help urban issues to gain attention and benefit from the mobilization around the SDGs.

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

Given the weak outcome document, especially the absence of goals and binding commitments, implementation will be difficult. The New Urban Agenda should have aligned with the SDG framework to set concrete targets to improve living conditions, for instance, by including specific goals on reducing homelessness and forced evictions, reserving housing and land for low-income and marginalized groups, controlling market forces, and promoting the non-profit nature of housing to guarantee it as a human right. Its failure to reiterate legal commitments of states and human rights standards also weakens its capacity for implementation, as does its over-reliance on voluntary reporting. In this regard, it is important to reflect on the failure of states to implement the 1996 Habitat Agenda. Learning from that experience, implementation and follow-up mechanisms should have been much stronger and more concrete, but they are not.

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

There are three main obstacles to meaningful implementation: 1. If the implementation process is not inclusive and participatory, we will be back to square one. We need to see that sustainable urban development is carried out in a coordinated manner, bringing together all levels of government in taking concrete action. 2. The New Urban Agenda provides good general guidance and reaffirms certain important goals and approaches. However, there is no concrete process or allocation of responsibilities that can be monitored or reviewed. This makes it all the more important to establish a strong link with the review processes connected to the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement. 3. There is a fundamental discrepancy between the time frame for negotiating political solutions and the window of opportunity we have to address challenges in the real world. Increased resource consumption and inequality, coupled with the stark reality of climate change, are faster than our ability to cope with them thus far. Ambitious cities have been at the forefront of sustainable development for a long time, but we need to ensure that an increasing number of local governments can get on the fast-track to sustainability.

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

There are several challenges to implementing the New Urban Agenda. First and foremost, the agenda is still mediated by national governments and not legally binding. It is a political document, and as such, intended to provide guidance only. This is hardly surprising, and symptomatic of how power is distributed across the international system. Cities are in a sense born weak. And though a growing number of them exhibit tremendous political and economic influence within and across national borders, they are still second-tier players in a world dominated by nation states. Another obstacle relates to political will and resource mobilization. There is no doubt a growing urgency attached to turbo-urbanization — especially in the Americas, Africa and Asia. But the extent to which these preoccupations translate into changes in national legislation, new forms of resource allocation, or devolution of authority (including to tax) is not commensurate with the scale of the challenges ahead. Mayors and other municipal leaders, especially those in smaller and medium-sized cities growing at breakneck speed, may lack the support and finances to deliver on the agenda. A very serious conversation is needed, indeed.

— Robert Muggah, Igarapé Institute and SecDev Foundation

The New Urban Agenda is an agenda for national governments to implement, and national governments may find it difficult to support and cede power to cities. This situation is best illustrated in the political tensions between a national government and the seat of a country’s capital, where the capital is often ruled by an opposing party and uses the position to challenge the ruling party at the national level. In such circumstances, there may be reluctance, at the national level, to support actions set out in the NUA, because it would mean ceding power to the local level. Likewise, there is an urgent need to provide financial support for local governments to support their sustainability agendas and actions. Cities, especially in areas undergoing rapid urbanization such as in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, lack the knowhow and financial governance mechanisms to attract the investment needed to implement the NUA. This issue has been raised at the international level; for example, Ban Ki-moon’s office established the Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance (CCFLA), a coalition of investors and cities networks working in collaboration to bolster sustainable infrastructure investment in cities. However, much more is required. The New Urban Agenda is unfortunately rather weak on this issue.

— Jeet Mistry and Jennifer Lenhart, WWF

Presently, the biggest obstacles to implementation of the New Urban Agenda relate to country-level awareness and willingness to create real, progressive change to the benefit of their cities. This obstacle is exacerbated by the lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities within the U. N. and more generally as related to reporting, follow-up and implementation. Countries lack the capacity to manage yet another global implementation and reporting process. It will be essential in the coming months for decision-makers to create a clear framework for implementation and reporting closely aligned with and linked to the other related global processes already in motion, like the SDGs and the Paris Agreement on climate change, in order to lessen the burden and improve clarity for countries on how to propel the New Urban Agenda forward. Additionally, countries need to bolster inclusive stakeholder dialogue around best strategies for implementation. Government, business and civil society all need to come together to solve these challenges.

— Holger Dalkmann and Alyssa Fischer, World Resources Institute

We believe that the right to the city, as a political and programmatic agenda, offers concrete instruments to reshape human settlements as common goods and collective creation. Moving toward the implementation of the paradigm on cities and territories as rights, and not as commodities, will require fundamental changes in the conceptions, knowledge, attitudes and practices of a wide range of actors and institutions at multiple levels. Some of those will include of course the political will, democratic behaviours and skills of public servants at national, sub-national and local levels. It will also require a profound transformation of the current curricula and professional experience of the many fields related to human settlements: architects, engineers, urban planners, lawyers but also economists, policymakers and diplomats. The business schools will need to incorporate human rights and territorial and sustainability approaches if we really want to put people and nature at the centre of our concerns and actions. The U. N. system will also need to address the current urbanization patterns and challenges, making the right to the city a key issue on the international agenda and not just something that is discussed sporadically, every 20 years.

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

We are delighted that member states have committed to work hand in hand with local governments to implement the New Urban Agenda. However, what is on paper is just the first step. The text does promote cooperation, but it doesn’t specify what this cooperation will look like on the ground and how it will be supported. Let me recall that the Urban Agenda is not simply about funding cities but also about giving local governments a true role in the conception of urban development policies that will serve citizens. Another obstacle that I see is the definition of indicators. What we absolutely want to avoid is a situation where local governments have to work with a huge number of indicators they are not familiar with and that are not adequate. Therefore, we believe that it only makes sense to create indicators with local government’s input as well as that of the public sector and researchers. Moreover, taking into account the many global sustainability agendas that were defined in the past months (climate, sustainable development, disaster risk reduction, etc.), it will make sense to simply link up the implementation and follow-up of all these global sustainability agendas.

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

The biggest challenge for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda is for governments to guarantee that the commitments established will be a priority for the next 20 years, and will not simply remain a ceremonial signature on a declaration, not held to account in the coming decades. In the case of informal settlements, we must begin to define the necessary path to be taken: the identification of settlements, understanding where and what they are, generating a necessary and urgent exchange of ideas with their populations so as to define and implement the actions enabling the creation of commitments by member states, particularly those in Latin America who are taking part in the New Urban Agenda. For this reason, we believe that the New Urban Agenda should establish itself as a priority within government programmes and in the international community: It must cover life in the political world. Thus it is important that the New Urban Agenda is linked with the commitments that take place at a global level, principally with the Sustainable Development Goals. Similarly, the monitoring, evaluation and subsequent accountability will be fundamental aspects: Both government offices and civil society will be of utmost importance in order to maintain the agenda as a priority for the various actors involved. Finally, we believe that if we are able to maintain these agreements and their implementation as a priority, the New Urban Agenda will be a tool for citizens to channel initiatives that put the common good above individual interests, which are currently prioritized in cities.

— Luis Bonilla, Chief Operating Officer, TECHO International

I would reiterate that one of the biggest challenges in implementing the New Urban Agenda is the global paucity of city data. Without comparable benchmarks, the world is rapidly building cities that do not necessarily stand up to the realities of demographic change or technology shifts and the overriding challenge of inclusive prosperity. Far too often cities are being built — or redeveloped — without empirically determining what is needed for citizens to create the smart, sustainable, resilient, prosperous and inclusive cities of tomorrow. Data paucity creates challenges for the implementation and monitoring of city-level goals and objectives. Most often this is due to the lack of measurements for key goals and targets, and weak monitoring of progress towards the goals. While country-level data is gathered by international agencies and by national-level government bodies, there is a lack of information and comparable data on cities that, if standardized, could be easily aggregated for national monitoring and reporting on international commitments. To overcome this obstacle, the WCCD has created the first, global urban knowledge platform that is powered by internationally standardized and comparable city data (ISO 37120). This Open City Data portal — and the initiatives of the WCCD — are driven forward by a wide-reaching, globally collaborative series of relationships. With input from the WCCD Global City Leaders Advisory Board (comprised of 20 mayors, including those of London, Shanghai, Toronto, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires and Melbourne, among others), we have also undertaken strategic partnerships with various United Nations agencies including UNEP and UNISDR, with international city associations such as ICLEI and City Net, as well as forged major private-sector partnerships including with, for example, Siemens and Philips Lighting. Working together, we are breaking down the barriers between governments, civil society and the private sector, and prioritizing standardized city data as a means through which to improve city services and quality of life on a global scale.

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

While financial resources are important, we have seen time and again that many places are not prepared to use new resources if they were made available, and in fact do not use resources that are readily available now. Local capacity is the biggest obstacle, and it’s a threefold problem. First, there is a scarcity of human capacity. India is estimated to have some 3,000 trained planners, even though it has 5,000 places with populations exceeding 10,000 people. Even if we allocated only one planner per place — an absurd proposition, given the size of New Delhi or Mumbai — 40 percent of the places would be without a planner. Furthermore, few planners have backgrounds in public finance, and most public finance professionals do not have well-demonstrated planning skills, leaving most places with inadequate capital budgeting and difficulty maintaining existing infrastructure. Second, many local governments have inadequate or non-existent technology for planning and managing their affairs. It is almost impossible to plan and finance a city without a cadaster to track parcels of land, for example. Third, too many national policies, whether through onerous compliance burdens, inflexibility or direct interference, impede rather than assist the efforts of local governments. Moreover, there are few avenues through which local governments can appeal to national governments to improve their policies. National and sub-national governments need to align their policies with the goal of creating sustainable, inclusive and equitable cities. The good news is that thousands of institutions can provide training and technical assistance to thousands of people at the same time, both face-to-face and through new distance learning platforms; conduct research to fill knowledge gaps; and broker conversations among local governments and higher levels of government to improve and perfect policy formation.

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

The main challenge is widening levels of poverty and exclusion. For example, more than 900 million urban residents were estimated to live in slums in 2015, an increase of 11 percent over 2000. However, more recently, the upsurge in international migration has given us pause for thought about the chief challenges facing urban areas. By 2030 — the sunset of the SDGs — some 62 percent of the world’s poor could be living in fragile and conflict-affected countries, with a rising proportion concentrated in urban areas. In addition, an increasing number of urban residents are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The 650 million urban dwellers expected to be living in delta and coastal areas by 2050 face serious risks of floods, water scarcity, and ecological and economic damage. Climate change also has significant implications for future food security, migration, and the stability of both urban and rural areas alike. Addressing absorption capacity is key. With rapid urbanization in low-income cities, sometimes doubling population size in a couple of years, the ability to manage growth is a real threat. If we think of cities as entities that need all the technical capacity that is available at country level, then creating those resources for all cities — and at a very accelerated pace — is very challenging and only possible with a truly integrated, systems-based approach to sustainable urbanization. One solution is the creation of an umbrella mechanism. We propose to strengthen or create municipal development corporations at a national level, so through them central government, international organizations, development banks and private sector can work in concert with hundreds of municipalities, instead of a handful. This, of course, requires proper governance, since all institutions dealing with cities are designed to work on a sectoral basis. For example, development banks work on water, energy, transport and other areas; ministries have a mandate to govern on policy issues, education, health, social development and so on. So even if there are ministries and departments dealing with municipalities, territorial development, planning or housing, the governance to offer an integrated approach to urban development is weak. So absorption capacity and governance for cities are two of the most important issues to be discussed in order to allow for the successful implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

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

Stay up to date on all Habitat III news! Sign up here for Citiscope’s newsletters, including daily updates this week from Quito. Citiscope is a member of the Habitat III Journalism Project; read more here.

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary