Next month, a key opportunity to re-imagine the global response to an urban world

A high-level U.N. meeting on 5-6 September may sound arcane, but the decisions made there could decide how sustainable our cities are for generations. Here’s what needs to happen.
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In these contested times, a slow realization is taking hold in national capitals, regions and cities across the world of the potential for sustainable urbanization to accelerate the implementation of sustainable development. Simultaneously, the United Nations is shifting from a fragmented 20th-century orientation to a more integrated 21st-century response to urbanization.

This month, a panel of experts appointed by U. N. Secretary General António Guterres released a series of recommendations that help to clarify and consolidate this process. The panel’s report, made public on 3 August, is now set to be discussed in a special session of the U. N. General Assembly on 5-6 September — a critical event that should be marked on the calendars of all urbanists. If followed, the panel’s recommendations could provide the United Nations with a low-risk test case for institutional reform, starting with one of its weakest and least credible institutions: UN-Habitat, the lead agency on urbanization.

Why does urbanization provide such an important opportunity for global development efforts? Urban areas constitute over three-fourths of the current global economy, house more than half of the global population and an increasing proportion of the poor and vulnerable, and concentrate over 75 percent of the world’s climate and economic risks. They also provide the economic, institutional and innovation basis for much of the incremental national employment, savings, investment and growth potential of the next few decades.

Together, this spectrum of issues provides a notable prospect: a foundation upon which the U. N.’s development framework as a whole — known as the 2030 Development Agenda, built around the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — could be successfully implemented.

In particular, sustainable cities could provide an opportunity for the Global South to “leapfrog” over the unsustainable routes by which richer countries developed. This would be enabled by modes of urbanization that are based on highly productive, resource-conserving, low-carbon economies. Further, these also would have at their core equitable economic growth and livelihood creation, social and institutional innovation, and processes led by communities and the informal sector.

[See: Proposed ‘UN Urban’ would coordinate global approach to urbanization]

Sustainable territorial and metropolitan development can also enable the world’s poorest countries, many of which are largely rural, to balance rural and urban development opportunities without compromising their national development priorities. This is especially important in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where over a billion people will traverse the rural-urban continuum this century.

Finally, we continue to deal with the long overhang of the 2008 economic crisis, especially in terms of employment, governance and financing challenges. To deal decisively with this ongoing situation over the next decade, the world needs a concerted effort around sustainable infrastructure, building and housing — all of which are key priorities under the SDGs, which came into effect last year. This could provide new direction for many multilateral development banks to deliver local (sustainable cities) and global (climate and environmental conservation) public goods, under a converging U. N. mandate.

[See: With Local 2030, the U. N. seeks to turbocharge its engagement with cities]

Hence, institutional responses to the SDGs by the United Nations and other multilateral institutions will need to be both bold and adaptive. This will signal a strong United Nations and multilateral commitment to an urban world in which no person, no place and no ecosystem is left behind. It also will speak to a millennial shift in the context of where people live, where prosperity is created and where a new compact to protect the planet is forged.

Seven core principles

Successfully implementing the full spectrum of SDGs will hinge on succeeding around the urban components of the goals, what we can call the “urban SDGs”. And that will only happen through the integrated delivery of multiple SDGs by cities and other local governments.

“The 5-6 September meeting can either extend the 20th-century status quo or choose to help re-imagine the U. N. response to a 21st-century urban world.”

Ultimately, implementation will be led by tens of thousands of local and regional governments and local partnerships, with the support, financing and facilitation of national governments. Nonetheless, many countries today are yet to discover the full power of those local partnerships — between cities and other local governments, enterprises, civil society, universities, philanthropies and communities — in delivering on these goals.

“Localizing” the SDGs — or acting on them in locally relevant ways — will require a new paradigm in intergovernmental relations based on the principle of multi-level governance. Institutional capacity to deliver this integrated urban SDGs agenda is limited in many national governments and weak in most local and regional governments across much of the world. This will need to be addressed as both a national and international priority.

[See: Is there any hope of aligning the many efforts working on the SDGs?]

It will also require major funding. According to some estimates, the scale and pace of resourcing required for sustainable infrastructure, buildings and housing is two-thirds of all projected SDGs-related investment budgets. Though apparently “affordable” in terms of share of gross world product, this trillion-dollar portfolio cannot be delivered via traditional development assistance. Instead, it will require re-engineering of the intergovernmental and fiscal systems in many countries, and will force long-delayed action on building a new aid and financing architecture for the 21st century.

Needless to say, these are enormous tasks. How do we start building the necessary institutional scaffolding that brings together global, national and local development processes within a territorial development frame? An important first step needs to be taken early next month, when the special session of the U. N. General Assembly will meet to discuss the new panel of experts’ report.

At that meeting, the Assembly will need to start moving toward agreement on a set of core principles on implementation of the urban SDGs. Here are seven key recommendations. During the 5-6 September meeting, the U. N. General Assembly will need to agree that:

  • The United Nations system has a pivotal role and responsibility to use the opportunity of sustainable urbanization to enhance peace, security and sustainable development for all citizens of its member states and local governments.
  • Sustainable urbanization and addressing the “local to global” urban agenda are necessary conditions to enable this, to accelerate the successful implementation of the SDGs and to ensure that no person or place is left behind.
  • Gaps in commitment, capabilities and resources to enable this need to be closed within the next half-decade from the local to the global scale to enable a clear “line of sight” for implementation of the SDGs by 2030.
  • Building on the U. N. General Assembly’s mandate, the urban SDGs will take precedence over, but draw upon last year’s New Urban Agenda to guide national and local implementation.

[See: Where does the ‘UN Urban’ proposal leave the New Urban Agenda?]

  • The integrated delivery of the urban SDGs by local governments is the bedrock on which successful national implementation will rest.
  • This will require a new set of domestic and international partnerships, financial and institutional arrangements between national and local governments and other stakeholders built on trust, appropriate representation, and sharing of responsibility, authority and resources.
  • To enable this, local governments and other urban stakeholders will be provided with appropriate voice, representation and agency, within the U. N. system.

Mechanisms for implementation

So, how would we move beyond principles? Having endorsed a set of core ideas, next month’s special session could build on the scaffolding provided by earlier U. N. processes to define mechanisms necessary to successful urban SDGs implementation. Importantly, several of these mechanisms have now been fleshed out through the expert panel’s recommendations.

“The panel of experts’ recommendations provide the United Nations with a low-risk test case for institutional reform, starting with one of its weakest and least credible institutions: UN-Habitat, the lead agency on urbanization.”

First, establish by next year a universal “Urban Assembly”, under the president of the U. N. General Assembly. The aim here would be to enable all U. N. member states and representatives of constituent local governments to participate in the benefits of sustainable urbanization and to define a new set of institutional, financial and citizen mobilization arrangements to enable this. The suggestions for such an Urban Assembly is included in the panel’s new report.

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

Second, reform and empower a new UN-Habitat. This strengthened agency could provide the scaffolding to help member states fill the missing link between their global commitments and local implementation. The newly created Urban Assembly would in turn provide for a clear mandate for the new agency, details on governance and representation of key stakeholders (especially local governments), financing arrangements and more.

Third, enable full participation and coordination of all U. N. agencies in implementing the urban SDGs via UN Urban”, a pan-U. N. coordination mechanism operating under the U. N. deputy secretary-general, by 2019. The idea for a UN Urban is also included in the panel’s new report.

Fourth, also by 2019, establish an appropriate multilateral financing institution or mechanism to support national and local financing to implement the urban SDGs. This would be done in consultation with central banks, multilateral development banks, long-term capital and member states. This is a key new initiative that will need to be led by the U. N. deputy secretary-general, the World Bank president and the new U. N. Development Programme administrator.

[See: Three ways to ‘localize’ financing for sustainable urban development]

Fifth, build on the World Urban Forum to create a global platform for citizen engagement and participation in implementing the Urban SDGs. The time frame here would again be by 2019.

Together, these five mechanisms would provide the scaffolding for a powerful new global-to-local response to the urban SDGs.

Broader U. N. reforms

But the U. N. system more broadly would need to undergo changes in the coming years, to respond most effectively to the urban SDGs.

It will need, for instance, a strong and clear mandate to bring together and facilitate a spectrum of key actors. That includes both national and local governments, as well as U. N. agencies and other stakeholders. Together, this coalition will need to focus on implementation of the urban SDGs by 2030 based on localization of the global urban agenda.

[See: Where is the local voice in the SDGs review process?]

Assuming that reforms included in the new panel of experts’ report go forward, it will be important to work toward greater synergy and accountability between four institutional platforms. In addition to the new “Urban Assembly”, these will need to include UN-Habitat providing normative support worldwide, and UN Urban providing coordination and convergence between U. N. agencies on delivering the urban SDGs. The fourth capstone component will need to be a new global financing arrangement for local and national implementation.

UN-Habitat itself will need to undergo governance changes. A simple, accountable and efficient three-body governance structure could be the answer: a universal Urban Assembly, an inclusive Governing Board and a world-class secretariat. This is a call that must be taken on 5-6 September, as the panel of experts’ governance recommendations are overly complicated and could paralyze both reform and delivery.

Of course, stable and diversified financing will be needed for both UN-Habitat and a UN Urban. Building on enhanced donor support, this could include contributions from the agency’s enhanced universal membership. But it could also take into account funding streams from local governments, philanthropy, the private sector and other stakeholder contributions, all funnelled through a revamped “Global Urban Trust Fund”.

To make all of this work will require strengthened institutional capacity at both UN-Habitat and UN Urban, in Nairobi and New York. This would include regional and country representation across the world via U. N. regional commissions and country resident coordinators, all with an eye to supporting national and local governments and other stakeholders.

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

Likewise, credible leadership for both UN-Habitat and UN Urban would be extremely important. The responsibilities, after all, will be vast: bringing together stakeholders, raising the required resources, building institutional capacity and global monitoring systems, and helping national and local governments deliver the SDG outcomes they committed to by the end of the next decade.

Finally, it will be critical to start figuring out a mechanism that can enhance citizen and local stakeholder participation and learning to support implementation of the urban SDGs.

Together, these steps would constitute new, consolidated global action toward sustainable urbanization. Putting all of this in motion now comes down to the 5-6 September meeting. Those talks can either extend the 20th-century status quo or choose to help re-imagine the U. N. response to a 21st-century urban world — in the process, changing for the better the lives of billions of people across the world.

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Aromar Revi

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