Civil society taking strategic ‘breath’ amid pause on New Urban Agenda

Delegates take part in a World Urban Campaign event in March 2016 that saw the launch of a major stakeholder report ahead of Habitat III. (World Urban Campaign)

NAIROBI — For the global urban movement, the dust is still settling from last year’s global Habitat III summit, the one time every two decades that the world’s attention turns to its cities.

The October approval of the New Urban Agenda, a 20-year vision on the future of sustainable cities, has created a wealth of opportunities for advocacy and organizing around urban issues. But it’s also a massive undertaking, and one that relies in part on the convoluted bureaucracy of the United Nations.

As such, more than seven months after the summit in Quito, Ecuador, civil society groups are continuing to work through strategy on how to move forward. Chiefly, they are seeking to determine the best way to transition from a narrow advocacy role focused on the specifics of the New Urban Agenda to a broader position pushing for the implementation of this global agreement. While the Habitat III process operated on a fixed calendar of scheduled meetings and negotiations, implementation of the new strategy is far more nebulous — ostensibly finding a place in any of the planet’s nearly 200 countries and countless cities.

Last month, however, a regularly scheduled international meeting in Nairobi created an opportunity for New Urban Agenda advocates, who are spread across the globe, to converge in one place. The biennial UN-Habitat Governing Council brought together the 58 countries who oversee the U. N.’s top agency on urbanization to debate the details of implementing the New Urban Agenda. The meeting also provided an opportunity for NGOs and networks to meet, update each other on their progress and hash out strategies for putting into action the voluntary, non-binding agenda.

For many, the week-long affair in the Kenyan capital was the first time they had gathered in person since Quito. Their meetings on the sidelines of the official negotiations came as countries, too, are continuing to sort out how the New Urban Agenda’s implementation will be monitored at the global level. With UN-Habitat currently undergoing a high-level evaluation, no significant action in this regard is expected until the end of the year.

[See: UN-Habitat reforms will hold up New Urban Agenda implementation]

But with civil society not yet fully organized to rally national and local governments to change policies for the betterment of cities, the current waiting period may be a blessing in disguise. “This pause will help us build our capacity to align with the New Urban Agenda,” said Nuno do Rosário, an architect who works with the Mozambican Association for Urban Development, an NGO. “It’s a chance to take a breath.”  

Gains and losses

First and foremost, the civil society groups that lobbied hard for specific provisions in the New Urban Agenda are still taking stock of their gains and losses. Last year’s hard-fought negotiations saw a flurry of proposed ideas in the various iterations of drafts for the New Urban Agenda.

“This pause will help us build our capacity to align with the New Urban Agenda. It’s a chance to take a breath.”

Nuno do Rosário
Mozambican Association for Urban Development

In turn, civil society responses to the agreement have been as varied as the groups espousing them. Key wins are being seen around, for instance, a new focus on urban planning, an embrace of national urban policies and a call for enabling legislation that would facilitate municipal finance, among other topics.

[See: After Habitat III, what’s next for the urban movement?]

Particularly notable has been an entirely new focus on urban rights, especially the so-called “right to the city”, which had never before been agreed upon as language in an international agreement. One of the most contentious points in the New Urban Agenda negotiations, the right to the city is an academic concept turned progressive rallying cry that nearly derailed talks multiple times on the road to Quito. A coalition called the Global Platform for the Right to the City led the lobbying efforts to insert language affirming this right with the support of the Brazilian and Ecuadorian governments.

But opposition to the proposal was skeptical. Some asked if there should be a parallel “right to the rural”, while others expressed confusion as to whether this idea represented a new right or a synthesis of existing rights. Many pointed out that the right to the city is not otherwise recognized by U. N. human rights treaties.

The final document watered down the first draft’s approach. The language in Paragraph 11 ultimately read: “We share a vision of cities for all” while noting “the efforts of some national and local governments to enshrine this vision, referred to as right to the city, in their legislations, political declarations and charters”.

This conclusion initially was viewed as a compromise that kept the right to the city in the document hanging only by a thread. But upon further reflection, the advocacy platform’s coordinator, Nelson Saule, is more bullish. “The essence [of the right to the city] is in Paragraph 13. That was our strategy. All the elements are there,” he said.

Paragraph 13 delineates what “a vision of cities for all” looks like. It hits such hot-button issues as the social function of land, right to adequate housing, gender equity and informal economies. Saule called this outcome “a major victory”. Still, Saule also noted losses, such as the eventual omission of language on “the city as a common good,” a concept that was ruled a deal-breaker by the European Union in favor of language describing cities as “competitive”.

[See: How will Mexico City pay for its new ‘right to the city’ guarantee?]

An umbrella alliance of longtime players in the human-settlements arena known as the Habitat International Coalition has a more jaundiced view of the New Urban Agenda as they wrap up their final analysis of the document to measure gains and losses.

These advocates, which comprise some 400 member organizations in 120 countries, are positive about some of the aforementioned elements. They point to the right to the city and the language on the social function of land, as well as other points that made the final cut, such as around biodiversity and value capture.

But their overall impression is more negative regarding the document’s impact. “In general, [the New Urban Agenda] has dumbed down the discussion of government commitments and state obligations under law,” said Joseph Schechla, coordinator of the Housing and Land Rights Network, one of the coalition’s members.

As an example, he pointed to the right to adequate housing. That term has already been fully fleshed out under international law, he suggested, and was not in need of additional discussion in the context of the Habitat III process. “There are a lot of sour grapes, because the tendency for any global policy instrument is to adopt a standard lower than the one before,” Schechla said.

[See: 4 things countries are doing right now to implement the New Urban Agenda]

In his opinion, the New Urban Agenda set the bar lower than the 1996 Habitat Agenda on the topic of human rights — but also that it is hardly unique among 21st-century global agreements, where rights language is increasingly watered down compared to their predecessors. (Read more on HIC’s future proposals here.)

Campuses and observatories

Ultimately, however, the New Urban Agenda now stands in a finalized form — it was formally adopted by the U. N. General Assembly in December. Now, the task is for civil society groups to figure out their next steps.

One initiative that will see continuity from the run-up to Habitat III into the implementation phase are so-called Urban Thinkers Campuses. These daylong or multi-day events were organized by universities, activists, think tanks, research institutes and grass-roots organizations to generate inputs for the New Urban Agenda. Those inputs were included in a final report called “The City We Need 2.0”; organizers will be launching a new global campaign for the next several years on measuring, designing, financing and managing “The City We Need.”

[See: Unified stakeholder vision on sustainable urbanization lauded, critiqued ahead of Habitat III]

“The City We Need 2.0” was the result of dozens of Urban Thinkers Campuses ahead of Habitat III. The report was submitted as official input to the New Urban Agenda. (World Urban Campaign)

The campuses were coordinated by the World Urban Campaign (WUC), an advocacy platform on behalf of urban issues housed at UN-Habitat. Nearly 80 more such campuses are planned for this year, suggesting strong interest in the format.

For example, the urban research arm of the Federal University of Pernambuco, known as INCITI, hosted a raucous campus in Recife, Brazil, in November that coincided with a heated protest movement against a downtown redevelopment project. With the imprimatur of a U. N.-backed campaign, said INCITI’s Circe Gama Monteiro, “The stakeholders felt like they were in the centre of the world — it had an enormous impact.”

INCITI will host three more campuses throughout Pernambuco, a state in northeastern Brazil, taking the concept to more secondary cities and rural areas in addition to the cosmopolitan state capital.

But while these campuses had a concrete purpose in the Habitat III process, their role is vaguer post-Quito. “The Urban Thinkers Campuses have been ending in a desert — there is no follow-up,” lamented Didier Vancutsem, secretary-general of the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP).

For that reason, he is spearheading a new initiative called World Urban Campaign Academies, which he hopes will “capitalize on the knowledge” being generated by the WUC’s outreach activities. Through webinars, summer academies and training sessions at major events, Vancutsem said he hopes that “the academy can be the engine, the multiplier of all the campuses.”

[See: Six months after Habitat III, is the New Urban Agenda gaining political traction?]

The Habitat International Coalition also plans to harness the wealth of research and analysis it prepared during the life cycle of the Habitat III process, funnelling that into what it is calling the Human Rights Habitat Observatory. The project, aimed to start this year, would focus on monitoring the suite of new global agreements — not just the New Urban Agenda but also the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate agreement — against the human rights obligations to which nations are bound under international law.

The new observatory will coincide with next year’s planned revamping of the U. N. system of human rights protections. As such, Schechla believes the time is ripe for a renewed focus on the role of human rights in global policy. “We are the ones that are going to be monitoring these constant and standing obligations that were not upheld in the New Urban Agenda,” he said.

Advocacy in action

Finally, the transition from the negotiation to the implementation of the New Urban Agenda has prompted some existential questions, especially for an advocacy group that formed specifically for the occasion of Habitat III.

For example, the Habitat III Civil Society Working Group, a collection of stakeholders loosely based in the New York City-area, met monthly in the run-up to Habitat III in order to report back from preparatory meetings and even organized an Urban Thinkers Campus. Post-Quito, they continue to meet, albeit while strategizing about where to move next.

[See: New Urban Agenda discussions ‘must translate into useful action’, New York event told]

“There needs to be a strong space in the New York area, particularly because UN-Habitat is in Nairobi,” said Jan Peterson, a gender activist who brought the group together. But, she added, the group is “still exploring where we are going” in the wake of the conference, for example by attempting to localize the New Urban Agenda in New York City, one of the world’s largest urban areas.

From left, GAP President Eugénie Birch, UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos and GAP Vice-President Shipra Narang Suri discuss the stakeholder group’s future in Nairobi last month. (Gregory Scruggs)

Two years ago, the General of Assembly of Partners, or GAP, was created by a handful of civil society individuals and organizations as an umbrella for lobbying in the Habitat III process. They quickly established themselves as the de facto voice for stakeholders, earning regular opportunities to address diplomats at the United Nations and garnering private audiences with key negotiators. They were even granted some face time with then-U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during Habitat III itself and were acknowledged by name in the New Urban Agenda, a signal that the GAP took as a blessing from member states to continue their advocacy post-Quito.

More than most, however, the post-Quito era required a pivot to something else entirely for the GAP. That decision came last month in Nairobi, when the network’s members approved a new constitution that formally shifts the organization’s purpose to implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

Whether to accept an offer from UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos of funding and staffing from within the agency, however, remains undecided. Such a move would make the GAP somewhat similar, at least in terms of institutional support, to the World Urban Campaign.

But one civil society member who has been active in both groups, World Vision International’s Joyati Das, sees the value in distinct advocacy bodies. “As a civil society partner we believe we need both community- or segment-based engagement and thematic- or issue-based engagement,” she told Citiscope via e-mail.

[See: Habitat III struggled to deliver — but nonetheless, a new global urban agenda is upon us]

This new approach also requires new strategies. “GAP has moved beyond the traditional forms of advocacy (lobbying for the recognition of partners’ interests in the New Urban Agenda) to a form that one might call ‘advocacy in action,’” GAP President Eugénie Birch wrote in an e-mail. “GAP will localize the New Urban Agenda by bringing it to regions, nations and subnational jurisdictions. In this way, GAP will begin the important effort of contextualizing the broad aspirations, goals and commitments of the New Urban Agenda. This is what we mean by ‘advocacy in action.’”

To that end, each of the GAP’s 16 constituency groups has begun to develop a five-year action plan carrying through the 2022 report on the New Urban Agenda, as outlined in the document’s section on follow-up and review. (Countries will be expected to report on their progress toward the agenda every four years, starting in 2018.)

[See: 2018 reporting period will prove critical for New Urban Agenda, advocates say]

Birch even envisions strategizing as far ahead as a possible “Quito+10” mid-term review in 2026. The World Urban Campaign has gone one further, with a road map that takes its advocacy efforts all the way to a potential Habitat IV in 2036.

But with so much up in the air as the United Nations continues sorting out which direction that the New Urban Agenda will take, it’s difficult to plan so far ahead. For now, most eyes are on February’s World Urban Forum 9 in Kuala Lumpur.

That’s where Do Rosário, the Mozambican architect, is focused. “I have faith that after World Urban Forum 9,” he said, “everything will come together for us to move forward.”

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary

Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.