Commentary

Cities must be part of defining the New Urban Agenda

In May, nearly 140 metropolises around the world urged the United Nations to formally include cities in the Habitat III negotiations.

A view of the City Hall in Berlin. A new declaration is calling for a greater role for cities in the run-up to next year's Habitat III conference; it also urges city authorities to engage more strongly in that process. (Daniel Karmann/dpa/Landov)

The United Nations has a contradictory relationship with cities. This became clear to me last year, when I was asked to represent Metropolis, the global association of major urban areas, at the preliminary meetings for Habitat III, next year’s major summit on urbanization.

The United Nations knows, of course, that the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cannot be achieved without help from the world’s cities, since half of the global population now lives in urban areas. However, subnational entities are not mentioned in the United Nations Charter, and therefore several countries are finding it difficult simply to grant observer status to the metropolises and other cities. As a result, the expertise of the cities and their mayors are being ignored. This is not good.

I represented Metropolis at the preliminary Habitat III conference in 2014 and again in Nairobi this year. As governing mayor of Berlin, I was invited to speak in front of the plenary on the opening day as the only non-governmental representative. The talk was a success, but the path that we must tread to help shape the New Urban Agenda — the 20-year strategy that will come out of Habitat III — is as rocky as ever. The contribution of the cities remains uncertain, and this makes it difficult to optimally prepare cities, governments and organizers for this process.

“Countries are largely agreeing on the preparatory work [for Habitat III] without the contribution of cities, even though it is the future of our cities that is in question. This is absurd.”

Meanwhile, the U. N. member states linked the success of the Habitat III preliminary conference to the question of our participation. This proved that our contribution is important — otherwise, we could simply have been ignored.

For our part, we must recognize that we still need to act strategically if we are to make our voices heard in the Habitat process. The aim of Habitat III is to create a New Urban Agenda, and Metropolis supports this aim. However, we are critical of the fact that countries are largely agreeing on the preparatory work without the contribution of cities, even though it is the future of our cities that is in question.

This is absurd. The metropolises are rarely informed, and as a result they scarcely discuss the matter. Without a change in strategy, there may be little chance for them to influence Habitat III.

PrepCity

Until now, the cities have only been represented in this process indirectly by their governments. But because national governments undertake different work and are not close enough to urban problems or their solutions, they do not have the wealth of experience that comes naturally to the local authorities.

If we, as cities, want to balance this deficit and exert more influence, we must begin at home by making use of our experience and getting involved in discussions.

To inspire and guide this process, Metropolis set up the PrepCity Taskforce in Buenos Aires in May. The aim is to collect the local experiences and suggestions of individual metropolises as well as the results of local work processes so that we can incorporate them into the Habitat III process in a focused way.

Mayors and city administrators need to specify how the implementation of the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda in their cities should look from a practical standpoint — for instance, which general conditions have already been met and which are yet to be achieved. Of course, what the cities ultimately choose to implement is up to them and the creativity and resources available to them.

The results of PrepCity will be distributed to relevant national delegations and the members of expert panels, such as the Habitat III “policy units”, before the Habitat III conference in October 2016. In the end, we want to work together to formulate opinions that are ambitious but still viable because they are based on the cities’ practical, local experience.

Common voice

At the Buenos Aires meeting in May, 139 metropolises across the world formally requested that cities be included in the international negotiations for the New Urban Agenda. The declaration also appeals to the cities of the world to discuss and contribute to Habitat III and the preparations for it.

“The metropolises are rarely informed, and as a result they scarcely discuss the matter. Without a change in strategy, there may be little chance for them to influence Habitat III.”

In highlighting the challenges facing cities across the world, we have laid down five key principles for the work toward the New Urban Agenda. First, we are convinced that the United Nations should bring together the various parallel processes that affect city issues as well as all of the goals that are relevant to cities into a single New Urban Agenda.

Second, the metropolises explicitly support the — sometimes ambitious — goals of the United Nations, such as the eradication of poverty by 2030. But we expect that the New Urban Agenda will provide clear information on the tasks of the cities as well as the resources and delivery mechanisms required to achieve these.

Third, metropolises are dealing with a number of problems, but they also have huge potential. Therefore, these areas offer a significant opportunity for sustainable urban development.

Fourth and fifth, partnerships and “subsidiarity” — the idea that issues should be dealt with by the lowest competent authority — are of fundamental importance. This includes partnerships between the metropolises and the United Nations as well as between the cities. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that these higher levels should take on decision-making responsibilities only if no solution can be found at the lower levels, as decisions should be made as close as possible to the citizens.

The Buenos Aires declaration is a milestone, forming one common voice from the many voices of the cities. With this common voice, we will contribute to a visionary yet viable New Urban Agenda.

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Michael Müller

Michael Müller is the governing mayor of Berlin and co-president of Metropolis.

Photo credit: Marco Urban/Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment