How do we ensure broad buy-in to the New Urban Agenda?

Successful urban strategies have worked because local governments and local civil society could see the value of applying them.

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The text for what is termed the “New Urban Agenda” is being prepared for agreement by national governments at Habitat III, slated to take place in Quito in October. The most pressing issue for this  agenda is not so much in what it commits to but whether it is relevant to urban governments and urban dwellers — especially those whose needs are not currently met — and whether it gets their buy-in.

This means the new global strategy will need to be clear and relevant to the billion or so people living in poor-quality housing with inadequate provision for basic services. It needs to be relevant to mayors as well as to other urban politicians, civil servants and other local civil society groups. And what it recommends has to be within their capacities.

But the New Urban Agenda has one great advantage that can help ensure that it is effective. The much-needed goals (including on poverty reduction, inclusion and climate change) have already been agreed — within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Instead of repeating these, the New Urban Agenda can focus on ensuring that international and national frameworks support local governments and civil society groups to meet these goals and targets.

But will U. N. member states endorse an agenda that supports this local relevance with needed strategies, plans and resources? If they do, they will have to go far beyond the SDGs, which are full of goals and targets (i. e. what has to be done) but very weak on how, by whom (in each locality) and with what support. They will have to focus on building or strengthening the institutional, governance and financial frameworks rather than offering another long (and not new) list of commitments that mostly repeat what is in the SDGs.

[See: The SDGs don’t adequately spell out cities’ role in implementation]

There are so many groups and sectors with legitimate claims to having their views represented and that are pressing for additions to the draft New Urban Agenda, the first version of which was released in May and has been followed by multiple iterations since then. The livelihoods and health of almost all the planet’s population are influenced by urbanization and urban areas — including most rural households, which depend on urban areas for access to markets, goods and services and often for part of their incomes. Can all of these groups’ concerns be represented without producing another long and often unimplementable list?

What has worked in the past?

If we look at all that has not been accomplished over the 40 years since Habitat I, the first U. N. Conference on Human Settlements, it is clear that we need new urban agendas. Who would have thought that 40 years after Habitat I, around a billion people would still be living in informal settlements? Or that there would still be vast deficits in the supply of safe, sufficient water and good-quality sanitation for urban residents — especially given that all governments attending Habitat I made commitments to water and sanitation for all by 1990?

“Successful urban agendas of the past included clear, simple and relevant guidelines for urban governments that got buy-in from thousands of such governments around the world. Their success was due in part to their encouragement of do-able local actions and in part because what they addressed were local issues relevant to local governments that also were supported by much of the electorate.”

Will Habitat III be any more effective than Habitat I and II in actually generating the needed action? There are still many “old” urban agendas that urgently need attention — not only the universal provision for safe, sufficient water and good sanitation, but also the upgrading of informal settlements at scale, and land-use management in the public interest, as strongly recommended at Habitat I. Any serious attempt to develop a New Urban Agenda has to think hard about the delivery failures of recent decades.

[See: Countries made only marginal progress on urban commitments since 1996, index finds]

Can we learn from examples of urban agendas that have managed to be effective in the past 40 years? Some of these have had considerable influence, drawing in large numbers of urban governments. Five of them — the Healthy Cities movement, Local Agenda 21, participatory budgeting, Making Cities Resilient and the Carbonn Climate Registry — focused on urban areas.

They included clear, simple and relevant guidelines for urban governments that got buy-in from thousands of such governments around the world. Their success was due in part to their encouragement of do-able local actions and in part because what they addressed were local issues relevant to local governments that also were supported by much of the electorate.

Two other examples have relevance here. The first are the urban agendas developed by newly elected city governments in many Latin American countries, as most countries moved from dictatorships to democracies. In some countries (for instance Colombia and Brazil), this was supported by decentralization that actually increased the funding available to city and municipal governments. In most cities, the proportion of the population with piped water, regular solid-waste collection and connection to sewers went up significantly. Upgrading informal settlements became the norm.

[See: Habitat III must institutionalize participatory urban development]

The second is the growing number of federations of slum/shack dwellers, formed to take action and to encourage local government to work with them. These formed their own international umbrella group, Slum/Shack Dwellers International, in 1996, and some of their leaders were present at Habitat II. Since then, national slum/shack dweller federations have grown in over 30 nations.

We have strong evidence of what these federations can do. Wherever possible they build or improve housing and provide sanitation; they also work with local government, which allows a much larger scale of impact. And they undertake surveys of all informal settlements in cities to give them a strong base for identifying priorities and negotiating with local government and utilities.

Local innovations

We want a New Urban Agenda that is concise and clear, that focuses less on repeating what must be done than on how goals already committed to can be implemented — and by whom and with what funding. The new strategy also must recognize the extent to which nearly all local and global goals depend on competent, effective urban governments that work with their citizens and support those living in informal settlements — and that get their buy-in.

[See: The United Nations risks stifling its own progress on sustainable urbanization]

We can learn from the power and reach of the initiatives mentioned above, all of which helped influence local urban agendas without much external funding. These previous agendas also can teach us about how to pay attention to the practices of functioning local democracies that respond to and work with their citizens to address exclusion.

The SDGs have ambitious political goals and targets regarding inclusion, empowerment, equality and indivisibility that need to be operationalized. The relevant practices include addressing political exclusion through innovations such as participatory budgeting and co-production of services with slum/shack dweller organizations and federations, and making real the right of all to inhabit the city and have access to its services, public spaces and labour markets.

[See: Cities turn to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals]

So much of the innovation in social policies was born in democratic municipal governments. This continues today. Utrecht and some other Dutch cities are trying out a scheme that guarantees a basic income for welfare recipients. Many cities in Europe and some in North America have greatly increased support for bicycle use and strengthened the percentage of trips made by bicycle, which brings multiple benefits to bicyclists and to the city. Many local governments have enhanced or increased public space. Yet so much of the innovation is never documented, because it is seen as the normal functioning of an effective local government.

Many cities with functioning local democracies also have innovated in climate change mitigation, even though this brings no immediate benefits to the city (although the co-benefits of this are increasingly recognized). It seems that city governments that deliver on local needs also can get popular support for contributing to addressing pressing global issues.

One area in much need of innovation is the provision of opportunities for youths. The Economist recently noted that although youths around the world have never been better educated, few opportunities exist for them in labour markets. How can a New Urban Agenda work for them, providing real opportunities for paid work and for learning at scale so that all the drive and innovation that the youth can bring will be channelled into activities that benefit all? There is much to be done to which they can contribute — in upgrading, producing building materials, gathering data, greening their cities and more.

Finally, innovation is needed in working across sectoral boundaries. So many international funders come with their own agenda, often focused on one particular sector, problem or intervention. A former head of research at UN-Habitat refused to work on health issues because he claimed these were the responsibility of the World Health Organization. Yet attention to environmental and public health is essential to all urban agendas.

[See: Habitat III loses proposed Multi-Stakeholder Panel — for now]

When they gather in Quito in October, national governments will need to agree on an urban agenda that urban governments and urban poor organizations will buy into. Yet this will require national governments to shift their attention from defining goals of good intention — early drafts of the New Urban Agenda are replete with pledges such as “we commit…” and “we will…”. Instead, what is needed is to create or enhance the institutional and governance basis for achieving these goals in each urban centre — with no urban dweller left behind!

This commentary draws on the Editorial in the April 2016 issue of Environment&Urbanization on “From the MDGs to the SDGs and Habitat III”, and also on three successive drafts of the New Urban Agenda.

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David Satterthwaite

David Satterthwaite is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and a visiting professor at the Development Planning Unit of the University College London.

David Dodman

David Dodman is director of the Human Settlements programme at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).