I work in local government, and I find no personal call to action in the New Urban Agenda

That’s a problem. For the Habitat III strategy to work, we need each city dweller to become an activist for change.


There can be no question that we are at a critical moment in the story of the human species from an environmental, economic and social perspective.

Despite being the newest hominid on the block, there is already talk of naming a geological era after us — the Anthropocene, the idea that we have entered a new geological age defined by human activity and the resulting impact on the global Earth systems. We are also living through the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Social cohesion is breaking down at an unprecedented scale, and globally we have 20 million people experiencing life as refugees.

It is therefore not surprising that in a time of crisis, we have seen a frenzied process of international policymaking attempt to get to grips with some of these profound challenges. At the United Nations level this has birthed a plethora of new agendas, agreements, goals and frameworks. The best-known of these are the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on development finance, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement dealing with the climate change challenge.

And now, we also have a new 20-year global urbanization strategy, the New Urban Agenda, adopted at the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador.

That the new global urban agenda forms the full stop at the end of this very long global policymaking sentence is a clear acknowledgment of the capstone role that cities are playing and will play in creating a more sustainable, resilient and equitable world. But this full stop denotes merely the end of a sentence — it does not mean that we have reached the end of the urban story.

[See: How the New Urban Agenda fits — and doesn’t — with global climate and anti-poverty agreements]

These recent agreements are all substantial achievements. But my concern is that we have become so preoccupied with getting city and urban references into the various United Nations texts that we are in danger of losing sight of the reason for doing this work in the first place. That is to respond to the challenges and opportunities of local urban communities and ecosystems in a way that ensures we create cities that leave no one, no space or no natural system behind.

The point I am making is that on “a planet of cities” — to use the scholar Shlomo Angel’s terminology — we cannot afford to have only half an urban revolution. As the economist Barbara Ward herself said: “There is no human failure greater than to launch a profoundly important endeavour and then leave it half done.” As we stand now, the story of the world’s cities is only half-told, and it seems we’re seeing a growing disconnect between policy and urban realities.

Happy urban ending?

To my mind, we are in danger of chapeaus replacing communities, preambles preceding people, and the quest for agreed language overlooking the unfinished activism still required to save the world and its cities. The text of the New Urban Agenda seems to have suffered most from this policy-reality disconnect — it is in many places just a long and repetitive litany of politically correct statements. The only thing I couldn’t find listed was a commitment to achieve world peace.

“The story of the world’s cities is only half-told, and it seems we’re seeing a growing disconnect between policy and urban realities.”

And while there is no denying that all of these ideals are incredibly laudable, they alone are not going to get the job done. The real challenge lies in creating implementation pathways that are direct, concrete and resourced — particularly in small and medium-sized cities that are experiencing some of the greatest challenges. That’s where we’re going to get most bang for our buck. Sadly, though, in the New Urban Agenda there are many “wills” but no “shalls”, and many “whats” but very few “hows”.

[See: New Urban Agenda good on ‘what’ but not on ‘how’, critics warn]

So in many ways the New Urban Agenda has become a story asking us to believe in a “happily ever after” urban ending, without introducing the good wizard who is going to wield the wand of sustainability and conquer the evil sorcerer of injustice and inequity.

Getting to that happy urban ending will require us to focus on implementation. For that we are going to have to better understand not only the formal parts of the city but also the places that are unplanned, where the people are building the city from below. We’re going to have to figure out ways of getting resources to those particular communities, to increase their level of agency, to increase the sustainability of what it is they’re doing.

We have to use indigenous knowledge and science to better understand the importance of local ecosystems in ensuring long-term adaptive capacity and reimagine new systems of urban governance that bring everyone — across multiple scales — to the table as equals to discuss the past, present and the future of our city.

[See: How do we ensure broad buy-in to the New Urban Agenda?]

I must confess that as someone who has worked alongside and for local government for three decades now, I can find no personal call to action in the New Urban Agenda. This is troubling, because each city dweller needs to become an activist for change if we are to move the dial substantially on the state of the world’s cities. Activism is about direct and vigorous action, and that will require that each of the aspirational goals in the New Urban Agenda is linked to a real person and a real place in a city somewhere.

But given that so many people at the local level are disempowered and excluded from participating in the global urban project, this is going require real agency and commitment from others to help include them.

Fixing the motorcycle

I want to digress from the general city story and move to the specific, and share a bit of my own story and the story of the city in which I live and work: Durban, South Africa.

“In the New Urban Agenda there are many ‘wills’ but no ‘shalls’, and many ‘whats’ but very few ‘hows’.”

I am a biologist by training, more specifically a biogeographer, and that might easily have given rise to a very narrow worldview defined by taxonomy and species-area curves. But I was extremely fortunate to have as my PhD supervisor Professor John Poynton, who through his broad-ranging scientific interests showed me that science could be many things and play many diverse roles in the world.

He encouraged me during my research into the role and importance of nature and biodiversity in cities to explore a range of environmental philosophies in order to better understand the relationship between the built and the unbuilt aspects of the city.

[See: We’re entering a ‘new era’ for cities and science]

It was during that process that I first encountered Barbara Ward’s work in the form of her co-authored book “Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet.” That book, along with many others, highlighted for me the importance of the localization of agency and of the need to take responsibility for a particular geography. Those ideas and ideals have stayed with me throughout my career.

I rapidly became unhappy with the way academia viewed applied science and the need for activism. I realized in the same way that the narrator in Robert M. Pirsig’s delightful book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” does that while “Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle.”

And so I realized that if I wanted to help fix the “urban motorcycle”, then academia was perhaps not the place to be. So in 1994, as South Africa transitioned into democracy, I transitioned from the ivory tower into city hall, and joined local government in Durban as the city’s first environmental manager.

I must say those post-1994 days were heady times. We were caught up in the excitement of becoming the Rainbow Nation. There was so much to learn as we reconnected with one another as South Africans and with the wider world more generally. But it was also a challenging time — in our naiveté, many of us assumed that because we had been isolated for so long, that everyone from outside South Africa knew much more than we did.

[See: Finding a truly common vision for African cities]

And in many ways this seemed to be confirmed by the many well-meaning people who arrived to tell us how we should develop our country, rebuild the nation, and plan and manage our very complex cities. There was no question at the time that South Africans were the international flavour of the month, the must-have in any global project. As a result we were co-opted willy-nilly into all sorts of global processes and programmes, voluntarily and sometimes involuntarily.

In the beginning we didn’t contest any of this, because we were so excited about being back in the mainstream. But as with everything, life settles down, reality seeps in, and you begin to realize that at least some of the people who are trying to advise you know very little about South Africa — indeed, very little about Africa at all. And it created a period that I refer to the clash of civilizations, as warring ideologies try to fit into the same country.

Our own story

Under these conditions, it did not take long for me to become extremely cynical about people from outside the country requesting an audience, and offering to help us in some way — or, even worse, offering to get us involved in some sort of international programme.

It was during this period, in 1999, that I first met David Satterthwaite from IIED, the International Institute for Environment and Development. He phoned and asked to meet me to talk about our Local Agenda 21 work. As a long-suffering and polite local government official following our Batho Pele (people first) principles, I said, “Of course”. He duly arrived in my office some days later.

Most surprisingly, he was the first person in a very long while who didn’t offer me a five- or 10-step guidebook as the solution to all of our urban sustainability problems.

[See: ‘It’s through local government that you can get big shifts,’ says U. N. point person on sustainable development]

Instead, he actually wanted to hear about our work. He listened instead of speaking, and at the end of it all suggested that we should record our successes and failures so that others could learn from our experience. He offered us a small amount of funding (gratefully, without the usually onerous conditionalities and high transactional costs usually associated with international funding) to document our own work. Being authors of our own story proved to be incredibly exciting and empowering.

I also learned from David that the value of true partnerships is only revealed over time. The next time I spoke to him was in 2007, when he invited me to the Global Urban Summit that was being convened by the Rockefeller Foundation at their Bellagio Centre and asked me to talk about our new climate change work. (Citiscope receives funding from the Rockefeller Foundation.)

This networking opportunity introduced me to a whole universe of new people that I would not otherwise have interacted with as a local government official. In turn, this led to further engagement with the foundation around their Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) programme. And from that flowed some small seed funding, again unconditional, which allowed Durban to start our climate change adaptation planning work.

As a result of this, a whole series of dominoes began falling, the first of which was that Durban became one of the very few cities around the world to begin its global climate change response with local adaptation action. Generally the initial climate response of cities is mitigation.

[See: 2018 conference first to put cities at heart of climate science]

This ultimately resulted in the administration and two of Durban’s mayors becoming national and international champions for local-level adaptation as a critical part of the global climate change response. Three years later, I was nominated to be a lead author on the urban chapter of Working Group II’s contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) fifth assessment report.

From connections made during that process flowed my involvement in the global campaign for a city SDG and, because of my prior IPCC experience, my nomination and election as an IPCC co-chair for Working Group II in the sixth assessment cycle. That was the first time a local government official and non-researcher has taken up such a role.

Valuing the local cement

So how do these particulars help us reflect on the more universal story of the New Urban Agenda?

Firstly, it reminds us that it is only by people working together as equals over time that real change happens at all scales. It is not only about joined-up governance, joined-up science, joined-up funding — but joined-up people.

[See: Habitat III loses proposed Multi-Stakeholder Panel — for now]

Secondly, it demonstrates the value of providing opportunities for different and new voices to be heard and the importance of enabling such contributions. So we have to become social entrepreneurs and find ways of surfacing these voices and empowering them, as little stories will ultimately make big history.

In the context of Habitat III, I want to remind everyone that global policymakers do not lead revolutions — local people do. Policy is also only the start of the 21st-century urban story. With the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, the real challenge lies in enabling local actors to tell — and change — the story of their particular city.

I was recently at a climate change conference in Oxford, where we were talking about the challenges associated with improving the global level of ambition from well below 2 degrees Celsius agreed to in Paris to the 1.5 goal that’s potentially in the offing. There, one of the contributors observed that we need to start valuing the “cement” as much as the “bricks”.

[See: With Habitat III finished, what are cities’ next steps toward implementation?]

The SDGs, the New Urban Agenda, the Paris Agreement — these are really important policy bricks that we’re going to use to build the cities of the 21st century. But ultimately it’s going to be local people, local governments and local ecosystems that are the cement that bind them together in a lasting way.

Without localizing the global urban agenda and transforming impersonal and altruistic global policy into personal and direct local action capable of changing the local story, the theorist Antonio Gramsci’s caution will ring true in our ears: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born.”

Adapted from the 2016 Barbara Ward Lecture, sponsored by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and delivered by Roberts on 11 October 2016 in London.

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Debra Roberts

Debra Roberts is head of the Sustainable and Resilient Cities Initiatives Unit of eThekwini Municipality in Durban, South Africa. She is also co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Working Group II on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. In 2014, she was appointed Durban’s first Chief Resilience Officer. Her scientific background is in biology and ecology, and she has a PhD in urban biogeography. Previously she worked as a lecturer and researcher at the University of Natal and has written widely in the fields of urban open space planning, environmental management and urban climate protection.

Photo: Kiara Worth/IISD/ENB