How will we monitor the New Urban Agenda? This U.N. process will decide

Marching orders came as the General Assembly formally adopted the Habitat III strategy.

Habitat III participants pass by text of the New Urban Agenda during the Quito summit, October 2016. (Carey L. Biron)

Capping a year in which the United Nations debated and agreed upon a 20-year urbanization strategy, in late December the U. N. General Assembly formally adopted that document, known as the New Urban Agenda. The body also initiated a process that aims to answer lingering questions on how to monitor progress on the new strategy.

In October, delegates from 167 countries gathered in Quito, Ecuador, at the Habitat III conference to hash out a vision for how to plan, build and manage sustainable cities. The four-day summit, which takes place every two decades, resulted in the final text of the New Urban Agenda — a voluntary, non-binding agreement. The subject of intense negotiations from May to September, the New Urban Agenda was adopted unanimously in Quito.

[See here for all of Citiscope’s coverage from the Quito summit]

The final step for the 24-page document to become an official strategy was to receive a formal thumbs-up from the U. N.’s main legislative body, the General Assembly. That came on 21 December, when member states adopted a resolution by consensus that “welcomes the adoption” of the New Urban Agenda.

It is customary for the General Assembly to adopt an annual resolution on the implementation of the strategy that came out of Habitat II. That summit, held in 1996, was the last time that governments had gotten together to discuss human settlements; its outcome document was known as the Habitat Agenda.

The new resolution suggests that the New Urban Agenda has formally supplanted the Habitat Agenda as the U. N.’s main strategy for dealing with urbanization. Notably, the new resolution does not “reaffirm” the Habitat Agenda, as previous annual resolutions have done.

[See: How quickly will governments respond to the New Urban Agenda?]

In turn, the resolution encourages countries to act on the new strategy. Specifically, the resolution “recognizes the importance of promoting and taking concrete action for the full, effective and timely implementation of the New Urban Agenda at the global, regional, national, subnational and local levels.”

Follow-up and review

As countries turn toward the New Urban Agenda’s implementation phase, the new resolution also sets in motion a key procedural process. Last year’s Habitat III negotiations were hung up for many months on what was known as “follow-up and review” — namely, whether UN-Habitat, the agency that focuses on urbanization, will be responsible for overseeing implementation of the New Urban Agenda at the U. N. level.

The result of that debate was a provision in the concluding section of the New Urban Agenda calling for an independent assessment of the agency itself, in part with an eye toward the question of how to ensure the New Urban Agenda is implemented.

[See: UN-Cities? Rumoured proposal gains steam]

The General Assembly resolution adopted last month now makes this provision official. It calls on the U. N. secretary-general “to take all appropriate measures to ensure that the evidence-based and independent assessment of UN-Habitat is carried out in a fair, objective, impartial and representative manner.”

At deadline, Citiscope could not confirm whether any specific steps to begin this assessment process have yet been taken by Secretary-General António Guterres. The former head of the U. N.’s refugee agency took office at the beginning of the month, and his transition team declined to comment in December.

[See: Proposal would kick Habitat III’s main sticking point to U. N. General Assembly]

A key question on monitoring of the New Urban Agenda has been how any eventual review framework will mesh with the robust oversight mechanisms already in place with regard to the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Countries began implementing that 15-year accord last year; among its 17 goals, the SDGs includes a landmark urban focus — Goal 11.

The new resolution now confirms that the secretary-general’s office will report on the implementation of the New Urban Agenda every four years, beginning in 2018. That timing is likely meant to coincide with next year’s anticipated review of Goal 11, during an annual review of the SDGs.

[See: Cities poised to play a bigger role in SDGs review process]

Finally, a separate resolution was adopted on 23 December that addressed the budgetary implications of adopting the New Urban Agenda. The resolution, adopted by consensus, indicated that such a move would cost nearly USD 800,000 from various U. N. funds.

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