Six months after Habitat III, is the New Urban Agenda gaining political traction?

Leaders of the U.N.'s Habitat III conference after the closing plenary last October in Quito, Ecuador. (Habitat III Secretariat)

In October, tens of thousands gathered in Quito, Ecuador, for the United Nations Habitat III summit, a once-every-two-decades gathering on the future of cities. At a time of rapid global urbanization straining existing cities and requiring planning of new ones, the conference sought worldwide solutions from national and local governments alike.

Six months have passed since the four-day meeting in Quito, where 167 countries formally approved the New Urban Agenda. That’s a 20-year urbanization strategy that outlines the need for legislative and financial tools to plan and manage cities that can meet the needs of all their residents. (The U. N. General Assembly adopted it in December.) A half-year later, many experts are tepid about the agreement’s current trajectory.

“If people were expecting one giant, coordinated, across-the-world, impactful, results-oriented series of actions, that hasn’t happened,” Aniruddha Dasgupta, global director of the World Resources Institute’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, said this month in Washington at a roundtable on the New Urban Agenda. “There are quite a few initiatives that have promise, but I don’t think we have crossed the threshold of momentum.”

Still, Joan Clos, the agreement’s chief architect, remains bullish about its prospects. “We receive every day news about different activities in relation to the implementation of the New Urban Agenda,” Clos, the U. N. official who presided over Habitat III, told Citiscope last week from his Nairobi office. (See the full interview here.)

“In general, we are perceiving that the framework and the set of ideas that were expressed in the New Urban Agenda in Quito are now trickling down and appearing in the work of many U. N. programmes,” Clos said.

April 2017 is very early in the lifetime of an agreement designed to guide urban development through 2036. As the Inter-American Development Bank’s Michael G. Donovan cautioned, “We expect to see new administrations anchoring their arguments in the New Urban Agenda, but it would be premature at this point to make that analysis.”

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

Nevertheless, the half-year mark comes amid important milestones that will shape the political impact and long-term success of the New Urban Agenda. This month, U. N. Secretary-General António Guterres announced the makeup of a panel of mayors, diplomats, activists and urbanists who will evaluate UN-Habitat, the international body’s lead agency on urbanization, which Clos also heads. The panel was authorized as part of the negotiations on the New Urban Agenda, which nearly reached diplomatic deadlock last year over the issue of UN-Habitat’s future.

In June, that panel is slated to present a report that will inform a subsequent meeting of housing and urban development ministers in early September at U. N. Headquarters in New York. There, U. N. member states are expected to debate the ultimate future of the agency and make recommendations that are likely to be agreed upon by the end of the year.

[See: Panel’s formation marks turning point in confusion over New Urban Agenda monitoring]

The panel will meet for the first time next month during the biennial meeting of UN-Habitat’s Governing Council, the collection of countries that operate as the agency’s board. The weeklong diplomatic session at UN-Habitat’s headquarters in Nairobi also will represent the first formal gathering of the New Urban Agenda’s key stakeholders — national governments, local governments and civil society — since Quito.

Afterthought agenda

Any analysis of the New Urban Agenda’s traction needs to start within the United Nations itself, where the agreement fits into a constellation of global accords with different standing in the international pecking order.

The New Urban Agenda came at a busy time for the U. N., roughly a year after the passage of two landmark agreements — the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Together, those 15-year accords have focused much of the international body’s attention when it comes to key global challenges such as ending poverty, improving standards of living worldwide and halting climate change.

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

But the effort required to get the SDGs and Paris Agreement over the finish line meant there was little diplomatic energy left for the New Urban Agenda. While the first two frameworks have quickly cemented their place in the U. N. system, with agencies realigning their work and national governments forging new policies under those mandates, the New Urban Agenda has been slower to achieve such political traction.

For example, only three heads of state attended the Habitat III summit, a figure much lower than in other global U. N. conferences of recent years. The conference’s platform for voluntary commitments, known as the Quito Implementation Plan, garnered just 61 pledges, with only five from the national governments who signed on to the New Urban Agenda. Since then, that number has barely ticked up.

After the conference, former U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon mentioned the New Urban Agenda just twice publicly, once on World Cities Day in late October and again in early December while marking the anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Notably, he did not publicly invoke the agenda even when discussing the issue of cities directly — for example, at November’s Global Sustainable Transport Conference.

Neither former U. N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon (left) or new Secretary-General António Guterres has had much to say about the New Urban Agenda. (UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)

By contrast, Ban gave countless speeches on the importance of the SDGs and the new climate accord. Further, in bilateral meetings with world leaders on the margins of major conferences, he consistently urged them to take the necessary steps to implement these twin pillars of the U. N.’s social and economic agenda. But while Ban did attend Habitat III, the New Urban Agenda did not become a third pillar of his agenda before he left office at the end of last year.

Guterres, who took over in January, likewise was conspicuously quiet on the New Urban Agenda in his first few months while dealing with a host of pressing issues — the ramifications of Donald Trump’s election as U. S. president, the worsening situation in Syria, the increasing belligerence of North Korea, and the U. N.’s own peacekeeping scandals in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He made no pronouncements on the agreement until revealing the details of the UN-Habitat assessment panel in mid-April. At that point, after declining to comment during his transition phase and early in his tenure, Guterres responded via a spokesperson.

[See: What should be new U. N. Secretary-General Guterres’s urban priorities?]

“Secretary-General Guterres views the New Urban Agenda as a key component of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda [a reference to the SDGs], given that urbanisation is a significant influencer in the pattern of development of a country,” U. N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told Citiscope. “The world is at a critical juncture for implementing the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” Echoing language used by Ban, the statement continued, “It is in cities, states and provinces where the battle against climate change and for sustainable development will be lost or won.”

Without going into specifics, Dujarric spoke to Guterres’s record on urbanization. “The Secretary-General takes urbanization and the need for effective U. N. system action in cities seriously,” he said. “He will certainly be engaged in ongoing strategies to devise ambitious urban action and will ensure that the U. N. development system is ready and nimble to stem the risks of urbanization and fit to purpose in all cities.”

Karachi Mayor Waseem Akhtar sees value in the New Urban Agenda and says he hopes Karachi will pass an ordinance reflecting it. (City of Karachi)

This last point, however, is at odds with one of the core tenets of the New Urban Agenda. If urbanization in the past has been seen as a source of human ills to be contained, the New Urban Agenda positions city growth as an opportunity to improve development outcomes.

Isabel Cavelier, a former Colombian diplomat who was a key dealmaker in the Habitat III negotiations, called the New Urban Agenda “less well-known by the wider public” and asserted that “its traction is less visible.” Ultimately, she told Citiscope, the New Urban Agenda “will most probably not have a similar political impact to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development or the Paris Agreement”.

Yet in explaining this gap, Cavelier didn’t point to the agenda’s technical substance, broad scope or timing on the diplomatic calendar. Rather, she fingered the current review of UN-Habitat as the main culprit for the New Urban Agenda’s relative absence from the U. N.’s priority list.

UN-Habitat is currently under evaluation with a view to make it a more efficient organization, delivering better development support to developing countries,” she said. “This sheds some light into the political reality that the New Urban Agenda is going through within the U. N. system.”

[See: UN-Habitat facing ‘considerable decline’ in core funding, assessment warns]

Development experts who watched the Habitat III process closely have cautioned against big expectations that the New Urban Agenda will achieve the same level of coordinated support and implementation as the SDGs and Paris Agreement. According to WRI’s Dasgupta, “It’s unlikely there will be one giant master plan of implementing” the New Urban Agenda.

National, local energy

Rather, responsibility for implementation will shift outside of the United Nations, many suggest. “If [the New Urban Agenda] is going to work at the local level, countries and cities need to drive it,” said the World Bank’s Ellen Hamilton.

Some countries already have taken early action. For example, Mexico’s Ministry of Urban Development is preparing workshops, guidebooks and action plans to help cities implement the tenets of the agreement. In his interview with Citiscope, Clos cited nearly a dozen countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America that have shown an early commitment to the New Urban Agenda.

At the country level, one desired outcome of Habitat III is the adoption of national urban policies, whereby national governments actively plan around urbanization and explicitly take into account the impact on cities of public policy decisions. Next month, a major conference will meet in Paris to discuss the strategy toward an eventual goal of half of all countries in the world adopting national urban policies by 2025.

[See: Since Habitat III, an uptick in interest around national urban policies]

Raf Tuts, a high-ranking UN-Habitat official, called these “encouraging signs”. He also cited several specific examples, including Togo revamping urban land regulations and Timor-Leste formulating a social housing programme that complies with the agreement.

The German government made the largest New Urban Agenda-linked pledge of any national government, earmarking €1 billion for urban mobility projects in the developing world. A representative of the German government indicated that this commitment is moving forward, with pilot projects to be selected next month.

Such implementation activity is “not happening in the [167] countries who signed, but it’s happening in some places,” Dasgupta said.

Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb calls the discussion at Habitat III ‘obsolete’ in the context of his city.  (Wouter Engler/Wikimedia Commons/cc)

Municipal governments, meanwhile, are another vital actor in the eventual success of the New Urban Agenda, as the agreement’s ultimate goal is to see significant change in the form and function of the world’s cities. At the conclusion of Habitat III, Clos called on the cities of the world to adopt the New Urban Agenda in their municipal councils.

Clos told Citiscope, ”We know that several cities have done so.” However, at press time, UN-Habitat could not provide examples of cities that have taken this step. Nor could three key global cities networks — United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, and Metropolis.

“Local governments have not adopted the Quito agenda as such but its principles,” said UCLG’s Emilia Sáiz. “Our networks of local and regional governments are working on the implementation of those areas that are our responsibilities. We are further organizing global monitoring from local perspective that will allow us to hold national governments accountable.”

[See: I work in local government, and I find no personal call to action in the New Urban Agenda]

Still, some anecdotal evidence of the spectrum of city responses has been bubbling up. In December, Citiscope spoke with several mayors on the sidelines of the C40 Mayors Summit in Mexico City and found mixed opinions, neatly divided between the developed and developing world. By and large, mayors in the former did not feel that the New Urban Agenda applied to them.

“The New Urban Agenda is very consistent with the city’s existing policies, so we at this point don’t anticipate [adopting it],” said Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb, who did not attend Habitat III, was more blunt. “The content of the debate and discussion is to me really obsolete. It’s existing policy in our city for many years,” he said. “The agenda in Quito was for a lot of countries a substantial, important one, but not for my city.”

By contrast, Karachi Mayor Waseem Akhtar hoped to pass an ordinance in his city reflecting the New Urban Agenda. He saw value in the document and the broader efforts of the United Nations to support urban development. “They are all working for global betterment, which is needed, and we all have to feel our responsibilities and support those who are working so that they are beneficial for this group, particularly the underdeveloped countries,” he said.

[See: How do we ensure broad buy-in to the New Urban Agenda?]

Part of the reluctance on the part of many local authorities might stem from the overlapping international mandates for cities. After all, as the global profile of cities as actors in their own right rises, so too do their responsibilities, including under the SDGs and Paris Agreement. “Given the number of metrics out there, cities are struggling to figure out which are most important politically,” said the Inter-American Development Bank’s Donovan.

Awaiting action

Whatever action they take, countries and cities will not be acting alone on the New Urban Agenda. Rather, they will be prodded and advised by a constellation of actors, including multilateral development banks, professional organizations and civil society. In this non-governmental arena, there are also signs of commitment to implementing the New Urban Agenda — and questions on when real action will come.

Next week, Melbourne will host a two-day session on how to implement the New Urban Agenda in Australia, one of dozens of such events scheduled this year. This month, the Commonwealth Association of Planners met in Fiji and called on Commonwealth governments to act on the agenda. In January, Cities Alliance hosted a workshop on its way to a New Urban Agenda action plan. Late last year, the Nordic region held the first implementation conference post-Habitat III.

[See: WEF: Private sector ‘extremely interested in the New Urban Agenda — but have some concerns’]

Organizers of such meetings of the minds hope to advance the question of how to translate a 24-page document into actionable information for policymakers. “What is missing for the New Urban Agenda is the implementation plan,” Rodrigo Perpétuo, executive secretary of ICLEI-South America, told Citiscope. “In order for this political appropriation to take place, the guidelines are not enough. It is necessary to raise awareness, accompanied by technical and financial support instruments.”

Many of the New Urban Agenda’s strongest backers would support this assessment. UN-Habitat is spearheading a process, using many of the experts that created the agenda’s substantive skeleton in the first place, to create an implementation road map called the Action Framework for the Implementation of the New Urban Agenda. According to Clos, that framework will be put before the Governing Council for approval next month.

Less than one month after the New Urban Agenda’s adoption, forced evictions in Lagos sounded alarms in a country that hosted one of Habitat III’s preparatory meetings. (Nigeria Slum/Informal Settlement Federation)

The framework intends to provide the foundational elements for implementation, such as new policies that reflect the key ingredients of the New Urban Agenda. While it does not provide tailor-made solutions for specific jurisdictions, the framework does suggest the types of legislation and instruments that many experts feel most cities will need.

The World Bank also is moving to assist countries with the New Urban Agenda. With the bank’s support, Bangladesh, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Pakistan, Senegal and Sri Lanka are carrying out urbanization reviews. “We continue to see the urban development agenda gain more traction in developing countries, especially in Africa and South Asia, where urbanization is at its fastest pace,” said Sameh Wahba, the bank’s director of urban and territorial development.

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

Such high-level action is being watched with a mix of energy and scepticism by advocates and civil society groups working in cities around the globe. The run-up to Habitat III re-invigorated many organizations working on issues of particular interest to the urban poor, even if the text of the New Urban Agenda left some of them cold in what it overlooked. Now, however, they’re ready to see what impact this 20-year strategy will have in their neighbourhoods.

Last month, the City of Buenos Aires evicted over 1,100 people from La Boca, a neighbourhood whose colourful ramshackle houses bedeck postcards but also are home to grinding poverty. And less than one month after the New Urban Agenda’s adoption, forced evictions in Lagos sounded alarms among activists in a country that hosted one of Habitat III’s preparatory meetings. Such actions have prompted some activists to wonder if the New Urban Agenda has changed anything at all.

“Barely has the dust from Habitat III settled, and we have already seen the mass persecution of slum dwellers,” lamented University of Sussex scholar Jaideep Gupte. “Violence from the State directed towards those who already face marginalisation goes against the very grain of the New Urban Agenda, and it must stop.”

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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