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

Eights trends binding together the Sustainable Development Goals, New Urban Agenda and Paris climate agreement — and pointing toward a future of sustainable cities.
(ESZAdesign/Shutterstock)

Urbanization is a millennial trend that is altering humanity’s relationship with both itself and the planet that created us. It brings with it the most profound set of systemic economic, social, political and ecological changes we have seen since the “agricultural revolution”, moving both spatially across the globe and irreversibly across time.

We know the drum roll by now: The urban economy makes up two-thirds of the current global economy and in a few decades will cross three-fourths, dwarfing in value in about a century all of what many millennia of agrarian economic activity and cultures have created. Demographically, the world will be two-thirds urban rather soon, as urbanization sweeps across Asia and Africa. Ecologically, urban consumption pre-empts the bulk of the net primary production of the biosphere, putting most countries in ecological deficit since the 1980s.

Yet the deep contradiction is that even though we are squarely within the urbanization process, we are still unsure how to think about it. We understand very little about cities as systems of systems — their functioning, ability to self-regulate, develop, decay, die and sometimes evolve. In fact, even though most of humankind lives in or around cities, we are largely unaware that it is cities that arguably have been our most complex and conflicted creations, concentrating much of the best and worst in human history, politics, technology and culture.

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

Today, their sustenance over the longue durée is a core civilizational concern. We don’t yet know how to sustain urban civilizations for long periods of time. There is little precedent to draw on. In very few places in the world today, and across recorded history, have cultures created and maintained over several centuries moderate-sized cities (with a mean population size of 500,000 or more) that are truly safe, inclusive, resilient and sustainable for all their citizens. This is the opportunity and the challenge of sustainable urbanization.

The SDGs and Habitat III

Yet despite the enormity and complexity of this challenge, the 193 member-states of the United Nations pledged to address this very issue over the next decade and a half. Meeting at the New York Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015, national governments acting in exceptional solidarity created a universal development framework of goals, targets and indicators for sustainable development — the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include a stand-alone goal of sustainable cities.

“For the first time, the future of humanity is truly in the hands of urbanists.”

Even though sustainable cities (SDG 11) is only one of 17 SDGs, the global discussion around the New Urban Agenda — the 20-year vision document that came out of last year’s Habitat III summit — has made it moderately clear that most of the other SDGs will never be achieved without sustainable urbanization, and vice-versa.

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

A framework — perhaps more than one — is clearly needed. Sustainable urbanization could do with a clearer, flexible and integrated paradigm that can deliver across dimensions: peace and security, poverty and inequality reduction, livelihood creation, food security, universal education, health, education and basic services, sustainable production and consumption, environmental protection and climate change.

The challenge is that this has never been done before, except in small territories and often well-endowed parts of the world. The implementation of the 2030 sustainable development agenda (which encompasses the SDGs) thus will require a fundamental rearrangement of not only “business as usual” but also the relationships between citizens, cities and nation-states; between nation-states and cities; between these groups, firms, enterprises and civil society; and finally, between human societies and the environment, in a time when humanity is almost irretrievably set to tear through most planetary boundaries.

The fact of the SDGs is itself worth nothing. The puzzle for ultra-realists and cynics is that national governments agreed to what can easily be seen as audacious and unattainable goals, including that of sustainable cities. One explanation is that the voice of cities and of local and regional governments that represent and govern cities was very weak in nearly three years of SDGs negotiations at the United Nations. Hence, the operational implications of a political commitment to sustainable urbanization were probably unclear.

[See: Are cities on track to achieve the SDGs by 2030?]

It is this that shifted in October at Habitat III, held in Ecuador’s capital city. As the full import of the commitments made in Quito have revealed themselves to country governments, the result has been a messy contest, a surfeit of words and paucity of instruments that mark the Habitat III outcome declaration.

The Habitat III process attempted to build on the momentum of the urban SDG and the increasingly important role of cities in implementing the Paris climate agreement. The Habitat process’s most important achievement over the past few years was mobilizing a range of urban interest groups at the city and national levels to embrace the all-encompassing New Urban Agenda. Building on the experience of UN-Habitat’s signature World Urban Forum, it created strong local and country expectations that rapid progress on implementation will follow. This, however, may be too high a bar.

The New Urban Agenda, like many similar U. N. documents before it, embraces a plethora of commitments and processes suggested by dozens of past declarations, conferences and summits. In that sense, it has become master wish list of what is interesting and may be useful in the urban space.

The challenge is the New Urban Agenda fails to prioritize among over 150 clauses. Likewise, it fails to define a clear set of goals, targets and follow-up actions to link with the time-bound SDGs that U. N. member states have committed to at the highest levels of government. And the agenda presents few tangible instruments, no financing mechanisms and no responsibilities for implementation.

“As the full import of the commitments made in Quito have revealed themselves to country governments, the result has been a messy contest, a surfeit of words and paucity of instruments that mark the Habitat III outcome declaration.”

It is no wonder, therefore, that summit-level political representation at Quito was markedly thin, especially from critical Group of 20 (G20) members — even though these members had just underlined the importance of the SDGs at their 2016 summit in Hangzhou, where the United States and China made a historic commitment to the Paris climate accord.

[See: Joan Clos: New Urban Agenda ideas ‘are now trickling down’]

Could Quito have done more? Perhaps our expectations were too high. The Habitat conferences are a legacy mechanism from the 1970s, when urbanization was a largely peripheral concern concentrated in middle- and high-income countries. A 20-year cycle of engagement and review was quaint and probably suited for the times. Yet given the massive economic and demographic explosion of urbanization in the Global South — where some urban populations are doubling every decade — a two-decadal process of engagement can be only marginal to real economic and geostrategic processes on the ground.

Unlike the climate change agenda that has gone from the periphery to the centre of national and global political attention, the New Urban Agenda has drawn little interest from key sectoral stakeholders in finance, infrastructure, industry, energy, education and health — all central to the process of sustainable urbanization.

In that sense, it is possible that after the Quito celebrations, many stakeholders including cities and regional governments could be seriously disappointed, especially as negotiations restart in New York this year around who has a seat at the global policymaking table, as indicated by the UN-Habitat review panel recently established by Secretary General António Gutteres. The scale and sheer momentum of implementation mobilization needed to deliver on the New Urban Agenda and urban SDG commitments, combined with the lack of committed finances and institutional capacity to deliver, is slowly sinking in.

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

The question therefore becomes of how to hold these different global accords together: a commitment to the SDGs, a New Urban Agenda and the Paris climate agreement, where cities seem peripheral and central at the same time. What may be happening here? Let’s look at eight key trends characterizing today’s movement toward sustainable urbanization — and what more needs to be done to enable its operationalization.

8 trends onward

First, the global urban community is starting to find both identity and voice in national and global processes, as local and regional governments slowly “take” and national governments “adjust” to a new normal of sharing space. This is a messy, patchy and turbulent process, as multiple contesting urban networks and groups start building collective but differentiated identities, a network-based governance scaffolding and collective political positions — all in a rather different imagination than that of national governments.

“The global urban community is starting to find both identity and voice in national and global processes, as local and regional governments slowly ‘take’ and national governments ‘adjust’ to a new normal of sharing space.”

Second, holistic multi-scalar (local-to-global) urban governance and implementation frameworks are emerging across the world, building on the experience of local governments, people’s movements, and more. Here again, progress is intermittent but distinguished by multi-stakeholder engagement and many forms of co-creation between formerly unlikely partners: informal worker’s networks and law-enforcement agencies, for instance, or academia, local enterprise and government. Despite weak local capacities, financing and political mandates, learning across cities, regions and stakeholder groups is accelerating — catalysed via the Internet and a few hundred emerging urban networks.

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

Third, the most audacious commitment of the SDGs — to leave “no one” and “no place” behind — is a challenge that some national governments and many other stakeholders have taken seriously. Part of this may be coming from an understanding that the SDGs effectively make all U. N. member states into “developing” countries on one or more of the 17 goals. For the first time, citizens and cities must address urbanization’s greatest historical malaise: the concentration of poverty, inequality, exclusion and risk in urban areas.

Fourth, in response to these challenges, the convergence of a new “urban science” and sustainability or “Earth systems” science is happening at a dizzying pace. Disciplinary fractures in the scientific community between the natural, environmental and social sciences and the humanities have begun to heal; artificial hierarchies between theory building, application and practice are dissolving. More interesting, the engagement between scientists and their institutions at the leading edge of problem solving with new urban movements and processes (including the SDGs, climate change and the New Urban Agenda) is enabling reflexivity and innovation at a pace unimaginable a few decades ago.

Fifth, clusters of innovation ecosystems and technological systems are emerging from unexpected locations across the world. Even in poor and institutionally challenged environments, these could make progress on several of the SDGs possible — around energy, food, water, production and waste, mobility, health, education, information and communication technological systems. For the first time, the future of humanity is truly in the hands of urbanists.

Sixth, a serious discussion on new financing arrangements for sustainable urbanization has started. For the first-time, a cross-continental discussion is linking global financial systems reform with a spectrum of issues — local and regional fiscal, expenditure planning and management; national urban policies and intergovernmental transfers and frameworks; city and project finance portfolios and ratings; green and climate finance for infrastructure and housing; and macroeconomic management and market regulation for land, infrastructure and housing markets.

[See: Coalition seeks to combine business know-how with priorities of the urban poor]

This is a multi-trillion-dollar agenda that could be either a significant constraint or an accelerator of urban sustainability. A shift in the interest of long-term capital; the creation of new infrastructure banks, green and climate financing facilities; and rapidly expanding partnerships between cities and regions are all big steps forward. But the chasm is wide, and bridging it may be a task too big for many countries and thousands of cities, unless global and international support becomes available.

Seventh, we know that outside about 300 metropolitan cities, institutional capacities to address even day-to-day service delivery, let alone larger economic and infrastructure development processes, is weak across much of the world. Delivering on an integrated SDG agenda is a moonshot-type innovation situated out of tens of thousands of local governments. Constraints include huge understaffing, inadequate education, skills and training, poor compensation and career mobility and hence low morale, misaligned systems and processes and even IT deployment.

This needs to be corrected immediately, and it will require massive strengthening and radical reform of the higher-education system that addresses the urban professions and practice, in terms of sheer quantity, quality and inclusion. The quality of municipal and public services is closely tied to the quality, skills and commitment of service providers and managers, which is strongly influenced by their status and compensation, which in turn is tied to the fiscal health of local governments that they are working in. We need to cut through this Gordian knot and enable a virtuous cycle to build in this space.

[See: Developing countries face a catastrophic lack of urban planning capacity]

Eighth, none of this is going to become remotely possible and contribute toward necessary livelihood generation unless it involves the mobilization of young people at an unprecedented scale. While some parts of the OECD ranging from Japan to sections of Europe have serious demographic challenges, in most areas of the rapidly expanding urban world, hundreds of millions of young people not only need new jobs but also adequate citizenship education and the opportunity to participate in urban governance, planning and service delivery. The expansion of digital inclusion across much of the world provides some of the basis for this.

These reflections mark both the arrival of a global urban agenda — reaching far beyond Habitat III — as well as its joint constraints and opportunities. As the planet moves forward, managing this agenda as both utopia and action plan is the world’s challenge. But recognizing its importance is the first collective step that must be taken by us today.

A slightly modified version of this article has been published as: Revi, A. (2016). Afterwards: Habitat III and the Sustainable Development Goals. Urbanisation, 1(2), x-xlv. DOI: 10.1177/2455747116682899

Urbanisation is a peer-reviewed international journal that aims to publish comparative as well as collaborative scholarship that will illuminate the global urban condition beginning with a firm footprint in the Global South. A platform that brings together inter-disciplinary scholarship on the urban, it is equally interested in critical and reflexive discussions on diverse forms and sectors of urban practice. It seeks to do so not just to inform urban theory, policy and practice but also to enable the construction of diverse forms of knowledge and knowledge production needed to enable us to understand contemporary urban life. The journal is available at: journals. sagepub.com/home/urb.

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Aromar Revi

Aromar Revi is the director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS).