Localizing the Habitat III agenda

The time is ripe for the U.N. system to recognize the special status of contributions from local and regional authorities — coming, as they do, from a sphere of government.

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If you ask the mayor or councillor of a rapidly urbanizing intermediary city in the Global South what Habitat III is, she might not be able — or have time! — to tell you.

That’s ironic, because in her daily work she deals with all of the issues of concern to Habitat III, the major cities-focused conference being held next year in Quito. In fact, while the United Nations holds a Habitat conference just once every 20 years, the work of local leaders on urban planning, economic development, balancing the local budget and providing basic services never stops. Indeed, the work of local governments will be essential to the achievement of sustainable development in an urbanizing world.

That’s where the members of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG, of which I’m currently secretary general) come in. As the largest international network of local and regional governments, we are working to bridge the disconnect between the local and global development agendas in two ways.

First, we are harnessing our network to develop our own global agenda from the bottom up, opening up the conversation to our own members as well as to civil society and other partners. In this way, we’ll be able to represent the knowledge, experiences and concerns of local leaders in a variety of international forums — including this year’s attempts to define a new global development agenda and to arrive at a new international climate accord, as well as next year’s Habitat III conference. In the process, we’ll also be able to build alliances with others who share these priorities.

Second, we are pushing for the international community to engage with local governments in new, more effective ways, in particular by recognizing their status as a sphere of government. In order to make this process as inclusive as possible, we have come together with sister global networks of local governments to form a Global Taskforce to coordinate our work on the post-2015 and Habitat III agendas.

These steps are allowing local and regional authorities to speak with an increasingly powerful joint voice at the international level.

From urbanization to localization

So, what agenda will local and regional governments bring to Habitat III?

On the one hand, the importance of urbanization to sustainable development is finally being given the acknowledgement it deserves. This is thanks, in large part, to the persistent advocacy work of city leaders and their allies over recent months and years. On the other hand, while this is a significant and necessary victory, for UCLG it is only part of the puzzle.

“Sub-national governments still have the same status as civil society in the U. N. system, and have too often been seen as mere ‘implementers’ of policies made by member states. This must change.”

The world may be urbanizing, but its urban settlements vary enormously — from megacities with populations larger than some countries to national capitals and large metropolises, peripheral areas, regional capitals, intermediary cities and small or even shrinking towns. And that’s before we get to the differences between cities in industrialized versus developing countries!

While all cities share similar goals in terms of becoming more inclusive and sustainable, each type of city government faces unique challenges and opportunities in achieving these goals.

For example, consultations among our members and partners from intermediary cities, where most of the growth in the world’s urban population will be concentrated over the coming decades, reveal that they often feel overlooked by national governments and international institutions.

Because of their scale, the leaders of these cities tend to understand the resources and needs of their communities well. However, they often lack the resources and capacities to harness this ‘proximity advantage’ to target policies and investment as effectively as they could. By contrast, large metropolitan areas tend to be given high priority on national agendas, but they also have to deal with hugely complex planning and management challenges.

The Habitat III agenda, and the national urban policies that follow, will have to be flexible enough to respond to these differing urban realities. That’s why we prefer to think in terms of “localization” rather than “urbanization”, and why legal and fiscal decentralization continue to be some of our main objectives.

Another advantage of adopting a “localizing” perspective is that it allows us to consider cities in their broader territorial context. A local government may have to consider the “functional” metropolitan area that spills out of its administrative boundaries, or how its city relates to the neighbours in the region.

As our rural members often highlight, the importance of the linkages between urban areas and their rural surroundings is in danger of being overlooked in the rush to be part of the fast-growing focus on urban zones. Regional planning, particularly of transport infrastructure, environmental management and food supply chains, is an essential tool to make cities greener, more inclusive and more resilient.

However, this is not a task that a city can carry out alone. The support of regional and national governments, as well as strong horizontal coordination mechanisms, are also necessary.

Meanwhile, achieving sustainable urban development cannot be reduced to a mere technical exercise. While the Habitat III process has sought, and should seek, contributions from academic experts and practitioners, the sustainability of any top-down solution will be limited. Local democracy and local culture have vital roles to play in generating local ownership of global agendas.

Democratically elected local governments are in a unique position in multiple ways. They are particularly well placed, for instance, to identify challenges and opportunities in their localities, to bring together and lead local partnerships with civil society and the private sector, and to harness the potential of local culture for development.

In order to accomplish any of this, however, local authorities need the legal, institutional and, above all, financial resources to do so effectively.

A seat at the global table

Given the importance of local and regional governments in making sustainable development happen on the ground, it’s just common sense to give local leaders a say in the decisions that affect them.

The last Habitat conference, held in Istanbul in 1996, represented a significant step forward in this regard. In Istanbul, for example, local and regional governments were recognized as “key partners” in the implementation of the Habitat II agenda.

However, sub-national governments still have the same status as civil society in the U. N. system, and have too often been seen as mere “implementers” of policies made by member states, rather than active protagonists in policy development. This must change.

At Habitat III, UCLG will convene the second World Assembly of Local Authorities in order to make a joint declaration on the New Urban Agenda, the intended outcome document from the Quito conference. The time is ripe for the U. N. system to recognize the special status of the contributions of our constituency — coming, as they do, from a sphere of government.

Such steps can ensure not only that mayors and local councillors across the world know what Habitat III is, but also that they are inspired to become protagonists in its success.

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Josep Roig

Editor’s note: As secretary general of United Cities and Local Governments — UCLG — Josep Roig leads the world’s pre-eminent organization of local authorities. Formed in 2004, UCLG brought together a range of globally active city groups ranging from the World Federation of United Cities to the Metropolis organization of major cities (which Roig himself previously led as executive director). In Barcelona, his home city, he filled many academic and then government roles, including secretary of the Barcelona Quality Network and quality coordinator of the Barcelona 2000 Strategic Plan. UCLG is actively championing the position of cities in the run-up to the 2016 Habitat III conference, including the recent publication of a 36-page pamphlet — Shaping the New Urban Agenda — which provides, with broad background and numerous quotes from urban leaders, a leading resource for cities and their allies in the current debates.