Since Habitat III, an uptick in interest around national urban policies

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In the next decade, could half of the world’s countries have a national policy that guides urban development? They could, if a coalition of international organizations has anything to say about it.

Getting “national urban policies” on the books is a major priority in the aftermath of last year’s United Nations Habitat III conference on urbanization. This year, it will prove pivotal in the effort to create momentum around a government framework that, despite its name, doesn’t always mean a single law written down on paper. As such, these policies can’t easily be copied and pasted from one country to the next.

Indeed, part of the complexity of creating a national urban policy is figuring out exactly what one is — and isn’t.

UN-Habitat defines the concept as “a coherent set of decisions derived through a deliberate government-led process of coordinating and rallying various actors for a common vision and goal that will promote more transformative, productive, inclusive and resilient urban development for the long term.” Since 2015, the agency has offered a general framework for any country thinking of going down the national urban policy road.

Now, UN-Habitat is working with Cities Alliance and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to build up focus on and understanding of national urban policies around the world. They’re hoping half of all countries will adopt national urban policies by 2025.

The trio sees this approach as essential to delivering on the promises of the New Urban Agenda, which was adopted at Habitat III, and the U. N.’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which went into effect last year.

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

But advocates offer flexible ways of thinking about how to proceed. That’s because, as UN-Habitat’s Jane Reid explains, “Developing a national urban policy is certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

‘Getting cities right’

Legal systems vary from country to country, and the ways in which relations between national governments and local authorities are governed can differ dramatically. In Canada and the United States, for example, strong federal systems would typically preclude any formal policy that dictates from Ottawa or Washington how cities should develop.

OECD has definitely observed an increase in momentum and interest in both developing and also reviewing national urban policies.”

Rudiger Ahrend

National policies also will differ because countries can have remarkably different urban profiles. Slovakia, for example, has only two cities of more 100,000 people. Australia has five cities of more than 1 million people, spread across a continent-sized territory. But both are starting to formulate national urban policies.

Part of this comes from a recognition that countries without national urban policies are starting to lag behind their peers, at least among those in the OECD. Currently 15 out of the 35 OECD countries have what could be considered a national urban policy, and 90 percent have at least elements of such a policy.

“National urban policy provides a framework so governments and other stakeholders can get cities right,” OECD Secretary-General Ángel Gurria said in October, speaking at Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador.

[See: Nordic region will be first to implement New Urban Agenda, declaration states]

Gurria noted that the trend toward such policies constituted a sea change among government officials — and one that stands to significantly strengthen the efficacy of policymaking.

“Although a wide range of national policies affect urban development, they are rarely looked at through an urban lens,” he said. “Sectoral policies may — and often do — achieve results that are diametrically opposed to stated aims for cities.”

For example, a transportation ministry might plan a new highway that improves logistics for trucking traffic from a port city to the interior without considering whether that highway might induce suburban sprawl. When operating under a national urban policy, the ministry would think twice and consult with colleagues about the highway’s implications for the country’s cities.

Increasing momentum

Since Habitat III, there has been an uptick in interest in national urban policies, according to the OECD and others.

“The interest in national urban policies post-Habitat III is strongly linked to the understanding of them as a tool for the implementation and the localization of the New Urban Agenda and other global agendas.”

Jane Reid

OECD has definitely observed an increase in momentum and interest in both developing and also reviewing national urban policies,” said Rudiger Ahrend, a point person on the issue for the Paris-based group. Last year, ahead of Habitat III, the OECD published a report on the state of national urban policies that scans existing policies and programmes to determine how countries measure up.

In addition to Australia and Slovakia, OECD members Hungary, New Zealand and the Netherlands are currently formulating national urban policies. UN-Habitat also reports new policies at various stages of development in 30 countries, from Argentina to Zambia. The majority are in Africa and the Middle East.

[See: Want sustainable urban development? It’s time for Local Agenda 2030]

According to South African economist Ivan Turok, 1 in 3 African countries has a national urban policy. This trend defies the “conventional wisdom” that African countries are unprepared and unwilling to embrace their urbanizing future, he has written. In particular, Turok points to Ethiopia for its “far-sighted commitment to urbanization”, Morocco for its “progressive human settlements policy” and Ghana for taking a “pragmatic” approach to urban policy.

The conversation will come to a head in a couple of months. In May, the OECD is set to host a major conference on national urban policies in Paris, where UN-Habitat will release a global report on the topic.

While the conference will take place seven months after Habitat III, it will also come just two months before the annual review of the SDGs. Indeed, the 2018 session of this review process is slated to focus in particular on cities.

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

In addition to drumming up further interest among policymakers, backers hope the May conference will assess how national urban policies can deliver on the two agreements. Over the past year, particular focus has been placed on how to “localize” these global accords — meaning, how to implement them at the local level using locally relevant strategies — and some are pushing national urban policies as one key to that puzzle.

“The interest in national urban policies post-Habitat III is strongly linked to the understanding of them as a tool for the implementation and the localization of the New Urban Agenda and other global agendas,” said UN-Habitat’s Reid. In this regard, she pointed not only to the New Urban Agenda and the SDGs but also to recent global agreements on climate and disaster risk management.

Implementing the vision

As the effort toward national urban policies progresses, however, there are some hurdles to overcome. One is around data and related capacity.

“There is a need to solve the problem of lack of data, knowledge and tools on national urban policies,” said the OECD’s Ahrend. “Comparable data among countries is one of the key points to monitor the advance to achieve the goal.”

[See: How ISO standards for city data are starting to make an impact]

OECD and UN-Habitat already are offering technical assistance to countries as they develop national urban policies. Currently the groups are reviewing Vietnam’s policy, which was jump-started by support from Cities Alliance during the early 2000s and thus offers a fairly robust time frame for analysis.

“A common finding in many other countries has been a lack of coordination both among sectoral policies that affect cities (and the responsible ministries), as well as difficulties to coordinate between the national and sub-national levels,” said Ahrend.

Technical assistance may focus on, for instance, mapping a country’s current spectrum of urban policies. It also includes ensuring that the process to come up with a national vision on urbanization takes into account broad stakeholder input. Capacity-building also plays a key role, including at the sub-national level.

In this, in-person meetings between national government officials, city officials, academics, NGOs and other stakeholders also are valuable, experts say. Billed as national urban forums, such meetings provide an opportunity to hash out ideas on what a policy should and should not contain.

[See: How will we monitor the New Urban Agenda? This U. N. process will decide]

Finally, technical assistance seeks to ensure that any new urban policies are quickly translated into projects on the ground, taking the evolving vision out of the realm of the theoretical. In Cameroon, for instance, a UN-Habitat team sought to pair the process of creating a national urban policy with a demonstration around upgrading public spaces.

On the road to their 2025 goal, the trio of institutions hopes to learn some valuable lessons about urbanization. In Ahrend’s telling, the effort’s biggest achievement will be “a foundation of urban knowledge through the provision of a forum for knowledge creation, knowledge exchange and knowledge management.”

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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