What diplomats can learn from urbanists — and vice versa

Notes from a Habitat III negotiating chair.
Participants take part in a high-level roundtable on resilient cities at the Habitat III conference in Quito, 18 October. (Habitat III Secretariat)

No matter where you sat — in a negotiating chair, as a representative of civil society, as a member of the media — the process that led up to the recent Habitat III conference on sustainable cities presented a trilemma.

The summit took place in Quito, Ecuador, in October, preceded by four months of formal political negotiations at the United Nations. However, to understand fully those talks, their subject matter and the potential impact of their outcome document, the New Urban Agenda, diplomats and participants needed at least three forms of well-developed knowledge.

First, given the issues in play, diplomats — of which I was one — and participants needed an understanding of urban dynamics. Second, given the setting, they also needed an understanding of United Nations politics, precedent and negotiating practices. And third, the well-informed negotiator or observer required a sense of contemporary geopolitical issues, from climate change to migration.

How many experts in modality negotiations, multi-modal transportation and multipolar geopolitics do you know? To find the practitioner-cum-academic who possessed two of these was difficult; three, a significant challenge. These are global, national and local geographic spaces that do not spend lots of time in practical dialogue with each other.

This intellectual and practical challenge does not mean, however, that multilateral institutions can simply ignore the challenges and opportunities presented by urbanization — that the global can simply ignore the local, or vice versa. As such, and with an eye to future multilateral negotiations in New York, Nairobi and elsewhere, it is worthwhile to reflect on the solutions that were found to this challenge in the Habitat III context, and to consider future work that will be needed.

[See all of Citiscope’s coverage from the Habitat III conference]

Diplomats are not urbanists, so as the Habitat III process kicked off last year, there was catching up to be done. (Quickly — check out Edward Glaeser and Saskia Sassen from the library; email Genie Birch; and add Citiscope, NextCity and CityLab to your Internet bookmarks!) But given that there were so many issues that fell under the Habitat III umbrella — urban land, urban-rural linkages, the informal sector, urban culture and heritage, and so on — and that the negotiating teams were for the most part small, it became more realistic for negotiators to work at accessing expertise than to develop it themselves.

Accessing expertise

A series of approaches — some institutional, some informal, some hybrid — furthered this access. In advance of the negotiations, which got underway in May 2016, the conference managers released 10 technical “policy unit” papers and 22 “issue papers” focused on critical urban issues and written by international experts.

“Just as diplomats need to bolster their urbanist chops, urbanists would do well to develop a better understanding of the multilateral landscape.”

The admirable ambition was to provide diplomats and the wider international community with accessible expertise. And some of the better papers, such as Policy Unit Paper 4 on “Urban Governance, Capacity and Institutional Development” and Issue Paper 11 on “Public Space”, did just that.

The papers most helpful to negotiators linked the urban issue at hand — for example, public space — with questions of national and global governance. And they did so in a concise fashion, with the most useful papers more closely resembling traditional foreign-policy briefing papers than urban academic tracts.

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

Even with the policy and issue papers and supporting events at organizations such as the Ford Foundation, however, there were simply too many issues for a single diplomat or small negotiating team to absorb. (Citiscope receives support from the Ford Foundation.) As such, negotiators had to rely on and in certain instances trust experts or advocates.

In certain instances, the wider room of negotiators relied on the topical expertise that particular member states or negotiating party possessed. For instance, the European Union’s deep experience with regional urban development and South Korea’s keen interest in smart cities ensured that their interventions on those issues were well-received.

Another source of expertise was found in the civil society experts in the negotiating room. While the role and presence of civil society is a hotly contested political issue at the United Nations, the expertise added by the perspectives of practitioners, grass-roots advocates, academics and many others undoubtedly helped overcome knowledge gaps.

This channel of knowledge-sharing required a number of commitments. The United States and other like-minded member states had to negotiate for civil society to be included as observers in the negotiations’ modalities. They also had to stand up for that presence when challenged in the negotiating room, which happened on several occasions.

[See: Gay community sees New Urban Agenda as opportunity for historic acknowledgement]

Meanwhile, civil-society representatives required the support of their respective organizations to spend the long hours in New York and elsewhere required to track developments in the negotiations.

And finally, negotiators and civil-society experts needed to develop relationships through which ideas and feedback could be shared. These relationships often were built on repeated informal interactions. The U. S. negotiating team, for instance, benefited from repeated exchanges with the International Committee of the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity and other organizations.

In the absence of a new generation of diplomats with backgrounds in urban planning, some of these practices should be considered in the future. Policy and issue papers are helpful, for instance, but linking the substantive issue with foreign-policy concerns and practices dramatically improves the effectiveness of such documents.

And with an eye toward solving knowledge gaps, member states must recognize that civil-society participation is not only a question of the politics of “who’s at the table” but also one of accessing expertise to produce better results.

Negotiating lessons

But educating and informing diplomats on urban issues, of course, is only one side of the coin.

“Diplomacy and urbanism are sexy — in concept. In practice, they are crafts of discipline, duration, detail and charisma.”

Urbanists are not multilateral diplomats. While the subject of the New Urban Agenda was urbanization, many of the forces that shaped it were diplomatic. Just as diplomats need to bolster their urbanist chops, urbanists would do well to develop a better understanding of the multilateral landscape.

With that goal in mind, I’ve attempted to provide answers to three questions we received from many at the Habitat III conference, with the hopes of developing a more rounded set of lessons to be carried forward.

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

First, why did we spend so much time arguing about previous U. N. negotiations? The answer here is simple if discomfiting: Every new international agenda, agreement or accord affords the opportunity to reinterpret, if not renegotiate, those that preceded it.

In the 18 months leading up to Quito, the international community for the first time set out to develop a universal framework for development, an approach that raised the stakes for the Quito negotiations. This new framework included the Addis Ababa Action Agenda of the third International Conference on Financing for Development, finalized in July 2015, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted two months later.

U. N. negotiations place great importance on precedent. But a shared recognition of the importance of precedent does not guarantee a shared interpretation of its appropriate use. To the contrary, it can encourage liberal interpretations, misrepresentations and cherry-picking.

In Paragraph 6 of the New Urban Agenda, the member states agreed that the previous outcomes mattered. But the fraught negotiations over numerous subsequent paragraphs, including many of which are no longer in the document, showed disagreement over the spirit and authority of those documents.

[See: 12 takeaways from government-suggested edits of the draft New Urban Agenda]

As negotiators from the U. S. Department of State, for example, we had to ensure that references to the Addis Ababa Action Agenda were consistent with the spirit of that document as understood by the U. S. Treasury Department, which participated in its adoption. In other words, negotiators are never going to be free to focus only on the issue at hand — rather, to effectively operate in the present, they also must keep an eye on the minutia and context of their negotiated pasts.

Geopolitics vs. urban concerns

Second, why does the New Urban Agenda mention “as appropriate” so often? In a 24-page document, the phrase appears 17 times.

“If local issues are to have their hearing at the United Nations, we all have to develop a familiarity with both discourses, and ensure the ongoing connection of experts and practitioners from both disciplines.”

Perhaps more than any other U. N. outcome document, the New Urban Agenda makes clear the importance of local governments and actors. In this regard, Paragraph 87 of the New Urban Agenda is particularly noteworthy: “We will foster stronger coordination and cooperation among national, subnational and local governments, including through multilevel consultation mechanisms and by clearly defining the respective competences, tools and resources for each level of government.”

This was an accomplishment. But such language that helps establish a precedent for the importance of local governments and authorities came with a cost: “as appropriate”. In the end, Habitat III was not a communal constitutional convention. Member states did not enter into the negotiations with the authority or goal to reconsider their respective political or legal orders. In an age of populism and nationalism, the question of national prerogative will continue to be a challenge for related U. N. negotiations going forward.

[See: How U. S. foreign policy came to embrace urban issues — and may change under Trump]

Third, what’s with the obsession over “red lines”? These are policy issues that if left unresolved can prompt a member state, or perhaps many, to break consensus on an agreement or outcome document. Any misrepresentations of the Paris Agreement on climate change, for example, were red lines for a number of member states, and could have potentially prompted the United States to break consensus.

Yet such issues are rarely the concern of mayors, so what why did these take up so  much time in an urban-focused debate? It is true that very few of the red lines identified by member-state negotiators pertained to traditionally urban issues. Instead, they were often matters of geopolitics and the business of international relations, including sanctions and internationally recognized rights. At its worst, this could be interpreted to mean that negotiators prioritized geopolitical issues over urban ones — but that would be to draw, as many urbanists now recognize, a false dichotomy between the local and the global.

The issue of migrants in the New Urban Agenda provides a useful example. The Syrian refugee crisis has brought a regional and geopolitical issue to bear on the social fabric and budgets of cities. As such, the question of guaranteed access to services for migrants “regardless of their migration status” was not simply an abstract question of rights but also a pressing, crisis-driven issue that proved fraught because of the convergence of the global and the local.

[See: More than half the world’s refugees live in urban areas. Here’s what that means for cities.]

Moving forward, “red line” issues increasingly will be issues playing out in cities around the world. Urbanists and civil-society advocates could strengthen their voices in multilateral settings if they understand the geopolitical dimensions of the challenges they face in their cities every day.

Learn your modalities

Diplomacy and urbanism are sexy — in concept. In practice, they are crafts of discipline, duration, detail and charisma.

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

In Quito, I saw a number of riveting presentations on subjects ranging from urban compaction in London and Berlin to the networking of South African cities. Among the most important offered by U. S. officials, in my opinion, was a presentation to civil-society members from U. S. State Department experts on modality negotiations — hardly riveting stuff, to be sure, and less conducive to flashy slides, but important all the same in building bridges and ensuring the presence of experts and advocates.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m more excited to learn about multi-modal than about modalities, about ride-sharing than red lines. But if local issues are to have their hearing at the United Nations, we all have to develop a familiarity with both discourses, and ensure the ongoing connection of experts and practitioners from both disciplines.

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Ian Klaus

Ian Klaus is a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House and a non-resident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He was previously senior adviser for global cities at the U. S. Department of State and deputy U. S. negotiator for Habitat III.