Commentary

How will we keep track of city actions under the New Urban Agenda?

The Paris climate accord is notable for its robust framework on monitoring and evaluation. Habitat III will need something similar — and the groundwork already exists for an exciting conversation on this issue.

During the final days of the Paris climate summit, the Eiffel Tower reminded delegates to look forward to the Habitat III process. (Alecia McKenzie)

The precedent-shattering agreement of 196 nation states in Paris to slow global climate change to an average rise of 2 degrees Celsius, or even less, carries immense positive promise for humankind.

But for urbanists, the accord also raises a critical question: Can — and will — the Habitat III conference scheduled for Quito, Ecuador, next October, deliver a comparable vision and set of targets for the world’s cities in the decades ahead? And, perhaps as importantly, will there be a way to keep score on these?

The Paris climate agreement sets a high standard on the accountability front: regular reviews of countries’ climate performance. Beyond that, the national representatives will be required to come together every five years to engage in a public reckoning of their climate claims. They’ll be asked whether their pledges can and should be ratcheted up.

[See: Cities welcome Paris climate accord, seek to maintain COP 21 momentum]

But proving progress on Habitat III’s diverse goals will surely be tougher than straightforward reporting and analysis of temperature rise. Indeed, Habitat III has a much greater challenge to set measurable goals in the range of fields that will be touched upon by the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year strategy that’s expected to emerge from the Quito sessions.

How can cities’ actual progress and performance be measured in such areas as housing, social services, the rights of cities’ women and minorities, or limiting sprawl as populations of city regions escalate to accommodate another two billion or more people?

But the reporting challenge is central. Without specific and measurable goals, tracked and reported publicly, it will be difficult to engage mayors, city councils, business and civic organizations worldwide to meet the goals the conference sets for the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Can the New Urban Agenda spark the local action needed?]

Rising expectations

Yet there is good news: The world is bubbling with new ideas and aspirations to make cities the centre of a vibrant, successful 21st century. Never before in human history — except, perhaps, the city-states of the Mediterranean and the Hanseatic League — have we seen a comparable level of action and determination on this issue.

“The reporting challenge is central. Without specific and measurable goals, tracked and reported publicly, it will be difficult to engage mayors, city councils, business and civic organizations worldwide to meet the goals the conference sets for the New Urban Agenda.”

Through the eras of ancient emperors, feudal lords, the rise of nation states and into the 21st century of massive country coalitions, cities have traditionally taken a back seat at the global table — if, indeed, a seat existed for them at all. Yet today, in a dramatic departure, the world’s mayors are engaged in energetic debate on climate, their trade opportunities and other issues.

[See: All of Citiscope’s coverage of the COP 21 talks from a cities angle]

Further, the expectations of cities are rising. There is a strengthening sense that city leaders must go beyond the delivery of basic services to ensure such values as inclusively, safety, liveability, resilience, sustainability and the quality of public space.

In turn, these new priorities lead directly to the growing question of how cities can measure, keep track of and compare these actions. Increasingly in this global era, mayors and other public officials are wondering: “Where do we stand? Are we doing better or worse compared to other cities? What breakthrough ideas are we missing?”

Having seen the rousing energy of the Paris summit these past few weeks, this discussion appears to be particularly advanced around city actions on adaptation and mitigation efforts related to climate change. We can also assume that similar curiosities are rising around the New Urban Agenda. Will it validate strong city efforts, then stimulate more innovation worldwide? And will it have an effective monitoring and review process to track progress?

At the international level, there’s also concern that Habitat III not repeat the experience of the 1996 Habitat II conference in Istanbul. That event saw grand aspirations that were all too soon forgotten because no monitoring system was put in place.

[See: Fractured continuity: Moving from Habitat II to Habitat III]

Tracking the transformation

That’s why urbanists are likely to focus seriously on the presence or absence, the strength or weakness, of monitoring mechanisms when the New Urban Agenda’s “zero draft” is released in April. So far, formulas for constructing clear, measurable, standard-form measures for cities worldwide, comparable to the new climate reporting measures, have not surfaced.

Still, these discussions are now taking place at both the formal and informal levels. Further, a host of global processes on city data and performance review is already well underway, offering innovative new frameworks that the Habitat III process should be able to consolidate and build upon.

These include the very advanced negotiations around the new Sustainable Development Goals “indicators”, particularly for Goal 11 — to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” The process to finalize these indicators — many of which could be disaggregated to the city level — should be finished by this coming spring, potentially offering the Habitat III process a major new springboard for a monitoring regime around the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Cities respond: Testing the urban SDG indicators]

As Citiscope reported, a group of 40 mayors from around the world met in September in New York City to assert that they would develop an “integrated and holistic sustainable development strategy” before 2020 to ensure that the SDGs are achieved within their jurisdictions.

Likewise, the run-up to the Paris climate talks saw an unprecedented outpouring of pledges on climate action from cities and regions. These have been made under a series of new agreements, each of which comes with its own framework for and approach to monitoring and review.

[See: Cities, regions to form five-year vision on climate action]

Yet another alternative, the landmark new global standard for cities performance data on key services — ISO 37120 — remains little over a year old. It too offers a major new opportunity for apples-to-apples comparisons of city data.

UN-Habitat has been developing a series of city-level monitoring tools for even longer. The City Prosperity Initiative builds upon previous attempts to standardize the measurement of — and facilitate policy-making discussions around — sustainable urban development.

The potential of these review regimes is exciting. We’re well into an overwhelmingly urban century, with cities already accounting for some 55 percent of mankind — a figure that is predicted to rise to two-thirds by the middle of the century. Meanwhile, today’s urban settlements are likely to almost double in population.

That means cities’ success in such areas as transparency, accountability and empowerment of their citizenry is vitally important. Add to climate an array of issues ranging from housing quality to sanitation, educational efforts to public safety, curbed automobile use to metropolitan-wide coordination. Collectively, these issues will determine much of humankind’s fate in the decades ahead.

The Paris climate accord says, in effect, “We’re all in this together. And we’re not paralyzed — we can act, collectively, to protect our global future.” Now the challenge is to make sure the New Urban Agenda, which will cover as broad a range of issues as the world’s cities will face in coming decades, will offer not just aspirations but also clear monitoring systems — and a chance to make a real difference.

Note: This story has been updated to include additional references to monitoring initiatives already underway.

Stay up to date on all Habitat III updates! Sign up here for Citiscope’s weekly newsletter.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest CitiSignal

Comments Policy

Citiscope is a place for the world’s urban leaders — mayors, councils, business, civic, neighborhood and independent observers — to exchange ideas and learn from each other. Comments are most welcome. Participants must first sign in to Disqus. (Not registered? It’s easy: Sign up here or connect with a social media account.) We ask that you use your real first and last names and say what city you’re from. Comments that do not follow Citiscope’s comments policy will be removed.

Neal Peirce

Neal Peirce is the founder and editor-in-chief of Citiscope.