Nations adopt global strategy on sustainable cities, capping two-year process

Finalization of New Urban Agenda by 167 countries comes as discussion has turned to implementation.

Habitat III participants cheer outside of the conference's main venue in Quito, 20 October (Habitat III Secretariat)

QUITO, Ecuador —  Nearly 170 countries on Thursday unanimously adopted the New Urban Agenda, the United Nations’ 20-year strategy on sustainable urbanization, at the closing of this week’s Habitat III summit on cities.

The document, which was negotiated over four months and finalized in September, was not altered in Quito, lending this week’s events an air of light-hearted celebration rather than hard-nosed political drama. The agenda is a non-binding but global framework, which last month was agreed to by all 193 member states of the United Nations.

[See: So, what’s new in the final draft New Urban Agenda?]

This was only the third time in history that global leaders and urbanists have gathered to discuss the world’s cities. The conference’s official host, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, drew particular emphasis to the fact that of Habitat III’s strong engagement from developing countries, suggesting that the New Urban Agenda is “for the first time calling on the voice of the south.” In a reference to his country’s location on the Equator, he said, “Change was born in the heart of the world.”

Earlier Thursday, Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos reminded journalists that the New Urban Agenda is not a treaty but rather a set of guidelines, which are thus the responsibility of governments to implement.

After national governments formally signed on to the agreement, Clos called on the world’s cities to adopt the New Urban Agenda at the local level via their municipal councils. Clos — himself a former mayor of Barcelona — said it was important for cities “to diffuse the principles of the New Urban Agenda”.

[Read: A Clos-up view on urbanization]

Referring to the need to implement the agreement at all levels of government, he said, “Neither central nor local government alone can address all the problems of urbanization.”

Quito Mayor Mauricio Rodas used his final bully pulpit to make a last case for the role of local authorities, whose call for special status at the U. N. on the eve of Habitat III was not addressed by member states during this week’s conference. Sessions were confined to plenary speeches rather than open debate.

“We must strengthen the local autonomy and decentralization process with full respect for democracy,” Rodas said. “We need instruments of public policy and financing to do this adequately. It is fundamental that we overcome the obstacles in place today in order to access national and international development funds.”

Mixed reaction

The New Urban Agenda received mixed reaction here in Quito. The 24-page document has been lauded for its focus on a strengthened role for local governments in spearheading urban development, on a progressive view of equity and rights, and on the prospects of strong urban planning principles to create cities that are socially, environmentally and financially sustainable.

In particular, the run-up to Habitat III has been notable in its attempt to reorient national and international views of the processes of urbanization as a positive tool in achieving those goals. The two-year preparations for this week’s conference also have been seen as notably open, bringing in a “historic” range of stakeholder input, according to organizers, while also creating a substantial amount of new research and thought on current and future patterns of urbanization — as well as substantive recommendations on potential response.

[See: Question of the Day: What is the most innovative, transformational idea in the New Urban Agenda?]

At the same time, the New Urban Agenda’s final text has been strongly criticized for failing to include specific actions in addition to its broad guidelines, as well as for its complete lack of metrics or mechanisms for monitoring progress on implementing its far-reaching vision. One of the key issues left undecided in the Habitat III process was on those review mechanisms, a complex and highly contentious issue that will now be taken up by the U. N. General Assembly in the coming year.

Perhaps most importantly, there was broad concern here this week that the agenda is only weakly interlinked with other key development agreements reached late last year — particularly the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change. While the opportunity of the New Urban Agenda was seen in its ability to provide a clear roadmap for implementing those two accords in cities, many see the end result in that regard as uneven, at least at this early stage.

[See: Question of the Day: What key issue is missing from the New Urban Agenda?]

That has prompted concerns over the political momentum that the New Urban Agenda has been able to create. The SDGs and Paris Agreement both received significant buy-in from national governments and the private sector, and it is unclear how the failure to directly link this week’s agreement with those other frameworks will affect its implementation. Ultimately relatively few high-level political figures showed up in Quito for this week’s events, although the political discussions on urbanization during the course of Habitat III were indisputably rich.

Harnessing momentum

Certainly there was no lack of energy on the ground in Quito this week, and there is an important distinction between the text of the New Urban agenda and the public discussion and mobilization that has been core to the Habitat III process.

An estimated 30,000 people attended the four-day summit, among them 10,000 who traveled from outside Ecuador, according to organizers. Tens of thousands more wandered through the streets of Quito to check out demonstrations of urban innovation from bamboo houses to painted streets that were installed in city streets and parks near the conference venue.

[See: The Quito Papers: An intellectual counterpoint to the New Urban Agenda]

Eugénie Birch, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who led a stakeholder advocacy umbrella known as the General Assembly of Partners, sought to harness this momentum.

“The name of the game now is to build on the exuberance ever-present here at the conference,” she said. “To begin the hard work of implementation, we the stakeholders know … that we must act now. We cannot wait.”

She continued: “We will go back to our homes armed with the message from [U. N. Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon that the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities.”

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Gregory Scruggs

Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope.

Carey L. Biron

Carey is news editor for Citiscope.