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

The Habitat III strategy was meant to provide a roadmap for implementing recent global accords in cities. But analysis is mixed on how it stacks up.

Habitat III participants look at displays of the text of the New Urban Agenda at the U.N. Pavilion in Quito, 16 October. (Carey L. Biron)

QUITO, Ecuador — From inside the United Nations Pavilion at this week’s Habitat III summit, you might think that the New Urban Agenda sits at the very heart of global policy.

The white walls inside the pavilion are plastered with passages of text from the document — a global 20-year strategy for sustainable urbanization. Key phrases such as “sustainable economic growth” or “integrated urban and territorial development” are bolded and highlighted in yellow and blue.

The New Urban Agenda undoubtedly claims centre stage in global policy circles this week — nations are expected to adopt it by consensus on Thursday. But in the big picture, it’s a smaller part of a much broader international framework, major pieces of which have more political clout behind them than the New Urban Agenda does.

In particular, two other milestone agreements from 2015 occupy a much higher profile at the U. N. The first is the agreement that created a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, which seek to provide a roadmap to ending poverty and improving livelihoods around the world. The second is the Paris Agreement on climate change, which aims to contain global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

[See: Where does the New Urban Agenda point on localizing climate action?]

Together, those two agreements are the twin pillars of U. N. efforts to promote social and economic change for decades to come. Boosters of the New Urban Agenda now must struggle to find political headroom for governments to implement a third major agreement in a little over a year’s time.

“Given that not all countries have so many delegates to follow all these processes, it has been a challenge to bring [Habitat III] to the attention of governments to the same extent as the SDGs and climate change,” said Holger Dalkmann of the World Resources Institute. There is, he said, “a certain negotiation fatigue”.

At the same time, the New Urban Agenda connects with the other two agreements in important ways.

One of the SDGs — Goal 11 — pledges “to make cities inclusive, safe resilient and sustainable” and includes 10 targets and a number of indicators by which cities can measure their progress toward meeting the goal. But in one way or another, all of the goals relate to work that happens in cities. According to a report from United Cities and Local Governments, 90 of the 169 targets associated with the SDGs are relevant to local authorities.

[Read: Here’s the list of Sustainable Development Goal targets that have a role for cities]

Likewise, cities are key to accomplishing the mission of the climate agreement. Cities are both the source of most of the world’s carbon-dioxide emissions and the place where the most impactful interventions can occur — to reduce automobile driving, improve energy-efficiency in buildings and switch to renewable energy sources, among other opportunities. Hundreds of mayors from around the world went to Paris in December not only to argue in favor of ambitious emissions reductions but to volunteer to play a big role in achieving them.

In Quito on Sunday, U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged this, telling a roomful of mayors that “your role is growing by the year.” Ban went on to say, “Mayors, governors and councilors are at the forefront of the battle for sustainable development.”

Little attention from Ban

However, Ban has not been much of a cheerleader for Habitat III or the multi-year process that led to Quito. Before this week, he had mentioned Habitat III only a handful of times in public. During the 13 September procedural opening of the U. N. General Assembly’s 71st session, he referenced Habitat III only as “a further opportunity” to enhance efforts toward the SDGs and Paris Agreement.

“Now that we’ve got a very broad, holistic and universal agenda, we need to find ways of breaking out of those silos. Over the last decades, we’ve developed these parallel processes. Now we’ve got to retrofit those processes and institutions — like Habitat, for example — into this agenda.”

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah
Secretary-General, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation

With Ban’s decade in office coming to a close at the end of this year, he has staked his legacy on the future success of the SDGs and the Paris Agreement. In his valedictory address to the General Assembly, he called the SDGs “a manifesto for a better future” and said that with the Paris Agreement, “we are tackling the defining challenge of our time.” He made no mention of Habitat III or urbanization in the speech.

[See: With Paris Agreement signed, can cities become climate solution at Habitat III?]

The same sentiment can be found among government and civil society leaders, for whom the imperative for a New Urban Agenda is not a given. Indeed, the document is not widely known or understood.

“Do we need that?” wondered Lilianne Ploumen, Dutch minister of foreign trade and development cooperation, on the sidelines of the U. N. General Assembly last month when asked whether the New Urban Agenda is the roadmap to local-level implementation of the SDGs. “At a local level, people themselves are very capable of defining what their agenda should be,” she said.

Still, Ploumen did acknowledge that the rapid growth taking place in cities could make an urban lens useful in the SDGs cause. “Looking at how many people are living in cities, we do need a roadmap,” she said. “And if the Habitat conference can provide that, that would be good.”

Kristalina Georgieva, European Union budget chief and recent candidate for U. N. secretary-general, was more insistent. “Half of the population of the world is in cities, and this percentage is going to go up,” she said. “If the cities develop well and provide opportunities and jobs, then we are up on the ladder leaving no one behind. If they degrade into slums with environmental pollution killing kids for no good reason just because water is polluted, then we are not doing a very good job.”

But while the general importance of cities’ role is recognized, there is less clarity on whether the New Urban Agenda is the way to achieve progress. Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is secretary-general of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, a network of NGOs that lobbied heavily in the run-up to the SDGs. Sriskandarajah said the Habitat conference’s singular focus on urbanization renders it poorly fit to the more integrated approach of the SDGs.

“Now that we’ve got a very broad, holistic and universal agenda, we need to find ways of breaking out of those silos,” Sriskandarajah told Citiscope. “Over the last decades, we’ve developed these parallel processes. Now we’ve got to retrofit those processes and institutions —  like Habitat, for example — into this agenda.”

[See: After Habitat III, we need to institutionalize our urban policy dialogues]

He cited existing U. N. advocacy efforts around nutrition and gender equality that had to be “forced” and “cajoled” into drawing broader links with the SDGs rather than focusing on a specific issue. He suggested that urbanization advocates do the same, given that civil society’s attention is focused almost exclusively on sustainable development and climate change.

“There are issues that come and go. Climate has definitely captured the popular imagination, and we’re seeing this now with refugee and migration issues,” Sriskandarajah said. “It may well be that urbanization comes back.”

Missed opportunities

Close observers believe that the Habitat III leadership missed the mark by not tying the New Urban Agenda more explicitly to the SDGs and the climate agreement — although both are mentioned by name in the document.

“By not linking the New Urban Agenda to the SDGs and climate-change outcomes in a more meaningful way, the relevant ministries won’t be paying attention it,” argued Felix Dodds, a close observer of the U. N.

Dodds puts the responsibility on Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos. “He thought the New Urban Agenda should stand on equal footing with the other agendas,” he said. “That was never going to be the case. He misunderstood the politics.”

[Read: A Clos-up view on urbanization]

As a result, Dodds said, “The only relevance that the New Urban Agenda will have an impact  on is the delivery of Goal 11 and the localization of the relevant targets of the other goals.”

Ultimately, he is pessimistic about future outcomes for urbanization at the multilateral level. “If you look at the outcome document for the SDGs and [the Paris Agreement], you can see massive change going on in business, local authorities — that’s not going to happen after Habitat III,” he said. “I would not be surprised if the coordinating money for urban development in the context of an international agenda reduces after Habitat III.”

Others struck a brighter note. Dalkmann called Habitat III “a turning point”. “The New Urban Agenda is a great opportunity to say we’re very strongly linking Habitat III with the SDGs and [the Paris climate conference], and not making things more complicated for countries.”

Still, Dalkmann criticizes the document for lacking metrics, functioning solely as a framework. “There needs to be a report from countries,” he said. “The details are still to be defined.” Ideas on how to monitor the New Urban Agenda are expected to emerge during this week’s Habitat III summit, but the document itself indicates that the U. N. General Assembly should decide on that issue next year.

[See: Can we actually agree on indicators to measure urban development?]

However, Dalkmann cautioned, any reporting mechanism must feed into existing structures so as to avoid duplicate effort that would bog down national and local engagement in such voluntary measures. “The link to reporting on the SDGs and climate change is important,” he said. “Cities already committed in Paris to measure, set a target and report. We can leverage that worldwide from cities to really be aware of their carbon footprint.”

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