Question of the Day: What key issue is missing from 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.

Yesterday’s question: What is the most innovative or transformational idea in the New Urban Agenda?

Tomorrow’s question: 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?

Question of the day: Is there a key issue that you think is missing from the New Urban Agenda, or one that is seriously under-defined? If so, what is it?

How the many different types of stakeholders can prepare for and respond to the influx of refugees and forcibly displaced people into urban areas is a critical and very timely issue, but one that isn’t given due regard in the New Urban Agenda.

— Lucy Earle, Global Alliance for Urban Crises

No formal structures have been envisaged for either local government or for science — effective implementation and policy reform hinges on finding a place for both these constituencies over the next 20 years.

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

Resilience, risk and social cohesion. The fabric of cities can be fragile, and shocks, crises or social unrest can have consequences for decades. Cities need to recognize the importance of this fabric and weave stronger risk and resilience thinking into their plans and systems.

— Joseph D’Cruz, United Nations Development Programme

The involvement of local governments in the U. N. system, particularly in these U. N. agencies (like UN Habitat) that engage with local authorities — or at least work on their terrain — remains unaddressed. This is contradictory to the popular discourse on localization of global agendas, which shows a widespread recognition that most global challenges of today impact the local and need to be tackled at the local level. Local and regional governments need to get a seat at the global table. As such, localization can start from the design phase, where it is now only perceived as an implementation challenge.

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

Two things: 1. A cohering vision. The New Urban AGenda comes across still as a laundry list. The “why” of the agenda seems oddly absent. Consequently, there is insufficient inspiration to action — even with the understanding of the nature of the document as an inter-governmental vehicle — to sustain continuing effort to carry out. Little sense of urgency. 2. Financing strategies. Although I realize that this was in part a “political” decision, there is nonetheless inadequate attention given to how resources will and can be mobilized, and insufficient attention given to other than public resources and their ability to leverage private resources and investment (private sector and individuals).

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

Circular economy lies at the heart of urban sustainability. By transforming waste streams into value, it implies a radical shift from the economic approach where we take, make and dispose, which has resulted in the depletion of natural resources, destruction of ecosystems and massive pollution. The scale of the plastic pollution in our oceans is alarming. A vast majority of this pollution is due to poor waste management practices on land mostly originating from our cities. The reference to circular economy in the New Urban Agenda could have been significantly strengthened to reflect the scale of the collaborative effort required to realize this economic transition.

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

Rather than an issue, as the New Urban Agenda is comprehensive in that regard, the deficiency lies in the engagement of and scientific community’s role in the development of this agenda. This community was under-utilized. The document provides a normative basis for moving forward, but many of the statements have yet to be analyzed. The importance of scientifically sound, evidence-based research that better understands the complexity of globally connected urban systems cannot be emphasized enough as we move forward with implementation.

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

What do we do now? We have this document that is broad, going beyond SDG 11, the Paris Agreement etc., and designed to be a catch-all for everything to do with sustainable urbanization at the local scale. But how do we do it? We need a roadmap. We need leadership — an unprecedented collaborative effort from everyone involved to bring together all that we know and don’t know on sustainable urbanization in some sort of structured way beyond Quito.

— Charles Ebikeme, International Council for Science

Many parts of the New Urban Agenda still need to be operationalized in the coming months. For example, various issues still need to be elucidated with respect to the section on follow-up and review. How will the quadrennial report (Paragraph 166) on the implementation of the New Urban Agenda be structured, and what topics will be covered? How can the inputs of various actors and existing platforms such as the World Urban Forum be incorporated into the report (Paragraph 167)? Will the report only be submitted to the High-Level Political Forum under the auspices of the General Assembly (Paragraph 168), or could effective linkages with the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda (Paragraph 164) also lead to a contribution for the High-Level Political Forum in those years when it reviews progress on SDG 11? Are linkages between the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda and the New Urban Agenda only envisioned at the global level or also at the regional, national and local levels?

— Eleni Dellas, adelphi

1. Examples from the 10 policy unit papers could have being used as means of implementation, but this would have required a longer timeframe for the policy unit work, in addition to much more time for the negotiation, or it would have been even impossible to negotiate an agenda at this level of detail. 2. The right to the city concept was better defined in other declarations during the Habitat III process, although this was certainly one of the most debated topics during negotiations and conferences, and its essence is spread throughout the declaration. 3. Dissemination: Outside the urban and international development community, this process is not known at all. Also, within countries certainly the reach among the grass roots and communities worked only to a certain limit; even worst is the general acquaintance by the society in general, as it has received very limited [interest] by the media.

— Anaclaudia Rossbach, Cities Alliance

Basic services are key both for sustainable development and urban development. The way they are not only expanded in newly urbanized areas but also retrofitted on existing urban systems — and even more the way they participate in structuring, consolidating and making cities work — is understated. In particular, the role of utility providers, who actually intervene in settlements informal or not, as pivotal stakeholders in urban governance is ignored. To provide basic services is not only to supply water or electricity to urban dwellers, it also has decisive political, social and spatial impacts in and for cities. To consider basic services as pure planning-dependent technical objects and subjects is a missed opportunity to use them as leverage in improving the urban environment, living conditions and territorial inclusiveness.

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

One of the most glaring omissions from the New Urban Agenda is a strong connection to the Paris Agreement on climate change and associated commitments to climate-friendly development, aside from one reference to the 1.5 degree goal. Post-Quito, the governing body would be wise to align reporting frameworks and targets with the Lima-Paris Action Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals to ensure that New Urban Agenda implementation and reporting builds on the momentum of those successful processes. Countries will not be able to make significant progress on either their climate [pledges] or their SDG commitments without significant implementation effort in cities, and developing a strong tracking framework, policy guidance for countries, and clearly defined roles and responsibilities for the New Urban Agenda that link to those commitments are a must. The New Urban Agenda provides the perfect opportunity to translate the global and national commitments made for climate and sustainable development down to the city level.

— Holger Dalkmann and Alyssa Fischer, World Resources Institute

There are certainly many key issues that were left outside — despite the fact that most of them were included in previous versions of the New Urban Agenda’s “zero draft” and that many strong arguments in favour were presented by local governments and civil society organizations, and defended even by some national diplomatic representatives during the long and difficult negotiations. Just to mention a few of the most critical ones, all of them related with our vision of the right to the city: the city, the human settlements and the territory as common goods; the reference to the need to strengthen democracy and democratic institutions; the respect for sexual and gender diversity and rights of LGBT people and movements. The social and solidarity economy is only mentioned once, and its great contributions to society are not recognized in the text. Perhaps the most shocking fact is the complete lack of a critical approach on the mantra of “sustained economic growth” that results in clear contradictions with the commitments to put people at the centre, promote sustainability and respect planetary boundaries.

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

I was surprised that the role of towns and regions in the design and review of the Urban Agenda was a sticking point during the negotiations. However, we eventually managed to get it in the final document, and that is great news! Now, what is still missing is to know to what extent this recognition will make a real difference on how central and local governments’ cooperation will work on the ground. U. N. member states should not only take into account the role of local governments but also specify how they are going to integrate them when designing their national strategies. Another missing aspect is the one related to funding. The text does make a great commitment on the access of cities to international funds. But we want the international community to go a step further and create new global financing instruments for sustainable investments at local level — including global fund for infrastructures, basic services and housing. Access to climate finance needs to be improved, too. Moreover, it is crucial to provide local government with the necessary mechanism to organize their own fiscal resources, to ensure their own economic development.

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

The New Urban Agenda is actually the perfect sustainable development “essay”. It touches on all the key topics and issues that have come to the surface over the long lifespan of the process and packages them all together quite nicely. Nevertheless, the question that remains in the back of so many minds is whether this perfect essay, this laundry list of lofty goals, is actionable. The lack of strong mechanisms for follow-up and review put the New Urban Agenda in danger, similar to what occurred after the adoption of the Habitat II outcome 20 years ago. It is quite well understood that the world stands at the precipice in terms of humanity’s future. It is now more urgent than ever to make sure that policies are put in place to guide cities and human settlements towards a sustainable, people-centred and planet-sensitive future, policies that operationalize critical notions like planetary boundaries and respect the biological support systems of the Earth. Therefore, as wonderful as the New Urban Agenda sounds, political will is sorely needed to ensure that this framework is not simply fancy words on fancy paper distributed in fancy conference venues.

— Christopher Dekki and Maruxa Cardama, Communitas Coalition

The New Urban Agenda contains important language pertaining to sustainable urban development, but it falls short of clearly indicating how nations will implement these concepts, nor does it include time-bound commitments on the process of such implementations. We expected the New Urban Agenda to become the bedrock for holistic, territorial, integrated urban development by creating a strong framework for urban sustainability for the next 15 years. We also expected that the New Urban Agenda would more strongly connect existing international processes and translate them into action at the local level. Unfortunately, these processes entered the debate far too late. Had there been an explicit reference to the Sustainable Development Goals early on, then nations may have already come to the table with concrete plans of action. Instead, we are only now entering a two-year process to bring these frameworks together. However, we are not going to wait for nations to agree on their plans. ICLEI is fully committed to implement and advance the New Urban Agenda. We will work with national governments, we will develop our own global roadmap, and we will act as accelerators of local sustainability.

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

The key thing that is missing from the New Urban Agenda is detail. This, of course, is unavoidable. The document is high-level and aspirational. If it were to provide the needed detail it would be 250 pages long, instead of 25. And it is unlikely that we would have attained agreement among the member states, given the challenges involved in drafting the current document. However, this leaves it to the rest of us to design more-detailed approaches and to cajole, entreat or conscript the appropriate stakeholders to oversee implementation. If we are serious about realizing the New Urban Agenda over the next two decades, we will need to divide and conquer the dozens of tasks outlined to build the urban governance structure, to plan and manage urban spatial development, and to monitor implementation. Quito offers us our first opportunity to organize ourselves around these tasks, but hopefully it will be only the first of many, many times that we get together to discuss progress, share innovations, or to hold each other accountable to deliver on the commitments we make.

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

The New Urban Agenda does a good job in extensively detailing urban aspects of social inclusion, prosperity, and ecological and resilient cities, but it almost completely fails in integrating those three dimensions of sustainable development. The linkages between urban prosperity and environmental sustainability are more or less addressed — likely thanks to years of advocacy on the economic benefits of climate action by respected institutions like the New Climate Economy Global Commission, among others — but the linkages between social inclusion and environmental sustainability are totally absent in the NUA. Further, it does not address questions around how to act both on equity and environment, or the social aspects of climate adaptation and mitigation in cities. These are considerations the intergovernmental process clearly misses, and this is where cities come on stage: Many mayors have been implementing for years urban policies that can reduce both poverty and carbon emissions in their cities, what C40 calls “inclusive climate action”. Great examples are the “corridors of freedom” project in Johannesburg or the urban food policy in Milan.

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

We have seen the positive inclusion of the concept of “right to the city” as a focus for the construction of cities for all. We recognize this as an achievement from the efforts of civil society organizations at a global level, as well as in Latin America in particular. This concept plays a key role in addressing and prioritizing informal settlements, as these settlements are a response to the model of society that we integrate and a manifestation of the type of cities we build. Although we recognize that the preparatory process has been broad, it seems that a process open to more extensive civic participation would have enabled a stronger emphasis on the need for a new paradigm of urbanization. For this reason, we also believe that the way in which the right to the city has been incorporated in the New Urban Agenda requires greater in-depth consideration, so as to effectively address the global need to construct a new paradigm of urbanization, a challenge which has been recognized in the preparatory process for Habitat III. In spite of these weaknesses, we take as a commitment of governments the recognition to the right to the city, and we will work to deepen the concept, in a way which enables us to progress closer and closer towards the construction of cities for citizens, based on equality and the common good.

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

The New Urban Agenda should inspire us to urgent action. Instead it does not grab the reader by the throat, and segues into a litany of familiar urban concerns expressed with the advocacy tone of a fringe issue. In fact, this is a New Urban Imperative. “Agenda” implies discussion, and we are running out of time for talking. Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber tells us that radical measures at scale are required to keep global temperature rise within 1.5 degrees C: No more concrete or steel in construction; turn the Sahara into a rainforest. The New Urban Agenda acknowledges rapid urbanization in the parts of Africa and Asia that have yet to reach the 80 percent urban populations achieved elsewhere; it acknowledges the need for much higher levels of urban investment everywhere. Yet is this (inevitable) urbanization, the last straw that breaks the camel’s back and ends our sustainable existence on the planet? Or is it the golden opportunity to transform the paradigm of how we live together? The New Urban Imperative means ending the local vs. central government dichotomy and instead reconfiguring the global financial architecture to drive sustainable local investment models that irrevocably tie additional finance to the form of urbanization.

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

The role that cities can play to transition to a low-carbon future remains rather undefined in the NUA’s current form. Momentum is already building amongst cities, in the North and the South, to act on climate change, namely to develop baselines of climate impacts and to implement low-carbon strategies (e. g. reduce fossil-fuel dependence, increase renewable energy). Initiatives, such as WWF’s City Challenge and the Global Compact of Mayors, recognize and reflect this, placing bottom-up pressure on national governments to urgently act on climate change, and support cities to do so. Unfortunately, the New Urban Agenda is rather underwhelming on this issue, with few references to the role that cities can play to address climate change, and more importantly, how parties to the New Urban Agenda could support cities to transition to a low-carbon future. The New Urban Agenda should be strengthened by explicitly mentioning the need to support cities by bolstering their capacity to report and monitor greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions data. While cities’ low-carbon agenda falls under the jurisdiction of the Paris Agreement on climate change, with up to 70 percent of global GHG emissions occurring in cities, it is surprising that there is no direct commitment to support cities in this endeavour.

— Jeet Mistry and Jennifer Lenhart, WWF

Although the New Urban Agenda briefly mentions strengthening the data and statistical capacity of sub-national and local governments, it does not directly address the critical importance of data in achieving viable development goals or how a lack of reliable, comparative data has been a stumbling block for cities in the past. Worldwide, city governments are making efforts to address the complex challenges of inequality, climate change and infrastructure deficits, while attempting to chart a course to a sustainable, smart, resilient, prosperous and inclusive future for their citizens. However, without high-quality, standardized, city data to guide problem solving and decision making, these risks cannot be fully addressed. The World Council on City Data firmly believes that ISO 37120 can address this critical data deficit. Data is absolutely fundamental for citizens and governments to create transformative change. While statistics are gathered by national governments and international agencies, there are enormous gaps in comparable city-level data. Where urban indicators do exist, they are not standardized, consistent or comparable over time or across cities. Too often, municipal officials lack the capacity to implement local data strategies, and data is not accessible or usable by citizens seeking to participate in city building or to hold their leaders to account.

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

While the New Urban Agenda appears to have a wide scope, some key issues have been omitted. The most conspicuous is the absence of a human rights approach and a focus on social justice. Though it speaks about human rights principles of gender equality, non-discrimination and accountability, it does not mention existing legal commitments of states or stress the indivisibility of human rights. Though the New Urban Agenda echoes the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda to “leave no one behind”, in practice it ignores rural peoples (including in its title) who are paying a heavy price for rampant urbanization. It also “leaves behind” LGBTQI and victims of forced evictions, displacement, conflict/war and protracted crises by failing to discuss reparation/restitution. The issue of inequality in access to and ownership of land is a fundamental cause of inadequate living conditions and persistent poverty, but it is missing, as is the issue of redress in the form of land/agrarian reform. Food security is linked to land and agriculture in rural areas but is not adequately addressed. The disconnect of the New Urban Agenda from the 1996 Habitat Agenda is alarming, especially its commitments to ending homelessness and forced evictions, and to view urban and rural as two ends of the same spectrum within a common ecosystem. Finally, the New Urban Agenda remains an aspirational document, which while attempting to paint a wide canvas, fails to set binding commitments and targets.

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

The private-sector role in the New Urban Agenda is highlighted between the lines but almost absent. I have to say that the New Urban Agenda is a document that comes from consensus between member states, and there are thus many considerations involved. But this is a generational opportunity for both the public and private sectors to put forward concrete cooperative partnerships that genuinely advance social and economic development and capture the benefits of planned urbanization, sustainable city expansion and growth, energy efficiency, and legal frameworks that enable and encourage private investments and joint ventures. This also includes thinking on smart cities, and all the technologies and knowledge the private sector can deliver in partnership with public officials and communities. In UN-Habitat’s field projects, we see that one major task is to create an appropriate environment for private investment by deploying proper legislation and allow firms to invest and enter into long-term arrangements with local governments and communities. Shorter-terms gains often compete with longer-term benefits, across both the public and private sectors. In the latter, it may be the very important matter of delivering quarterly dividends, for example; for the former, it can often come down to terms limits and wider political cycles that don’t provide for a stable business environment. This is especially evident in many low-income countries. At the same time, more enduring solutions can be put in place that are resilient to changing corporate and political landscapes. Empowering local governments to have the legislative authority to work more effectively with business, cost recover investments and leverage resources for longer-term benefits, especially to the most vulnerable communities, are just a few areas in which we are determined to focus as part of the implementation strategy for the New Urban Agenda.

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

One of the strengths of the New Urban Agenda is its emphasis on sustainable development and the mutually reinforcing dynamics of urbanization. To this end, the agenda makes reference to so-called “enablers” that should drive more effective urban policy, legislation, governance and economics. The agenda offers a powerful roadmap for strengthening and implementing urban governance and spatial planning. But there are two areas where the agenda could be strengthened: global urban governance and public security. First, the agenda does not forcefully advocate for more collective action on the part of cities. Yet large and medium-sized cities — especially in North America and Western Europe — are forging networks between and within national boundaries. Linked together by exchanges of ideas, capital and people, and facing common challenges like climate change, inequality, migration and terrorism, intercity networks are a kind of new normal. One way to help cities of all kind benefit from the urban revolution is to build new avenues of intercity and cross-border collaboration. Second, the agenda is still comparatively light on the question of urban safety and security. Where “security” is mentioned, it is most often in relation to food, tenure and income — all exceedingly important priorities. While not going far enough, it should be stressed that the agenda does make some important references. Sections on principles and commitment highlight the importance of “promoting safety and eliminating all forms of violence” and creating “safe, healthy, inclusive and secure environment in cities” (in Paragraphs 14, 26, 31 and 36). Likewise, themes related to safety and security are also signalled in the planning and management section (Paragraphs 99, 100 and 103).

— Robert Muggah, Igarapé Institute and SecDev Foundation

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