After Habitat III, we need to institutionalize our urban policy dialogues

Collaborative urban governance and robust follow-up mechanisms will be key to a successful New Urban Agenda.

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Urbanization is not new. What’s new is the speed and scale of its advance today — especially with regard to cities’ fast-expanding role at the global level.

Today, national governments are debating a new global vision of sustainable urbanization. That strategy, known as the New Urban Agenda, is to be adopted in October at the Habitat III conference — the one time every 20 years that countries come together to discuss the world’s cities. The difference the New Urban Agenda could make, particularly in becoming a truly new worldwide agenda, is to help us better grasp the role of cities for sustainable development.

[See: Final burst of talks results in consensus on draft New Urban Agenda]

Cities can no longer be understood as purely local actors. Today, they are increasingly recognized as fundamental for safeguarding a broad range of global public goods, among them the climate, economic prosperity, social integration, democratization and political stability.

Given this dramatically expanded role for cities, there’s compelling need for a new global architecture that focuses on nation states’ urban-development policies, as well as for greater citizen engagement at the local level.

Internationally, the voices of cities should inform the decisions and actions of international agencies much more broadly than they do now. As logical loci for action, cities need to be adequately represented and involved in relevant international processes. They should, for example, be part of the official Habitat III delegations.

[See: The only sustainable city is one co-created by all of us]

At the national level, there’s compelling need for frameworks for urban policies that strengthen the mandate, resources and capacities of cities. Nation states should embrace the principle of “subsidiarity”. This would mean, on the one hand, ceding the power of decision-making to the lowest appropriate level of authority; and on the other hand, ensuring that local decision-makers are empowered to fulfil their responsibilities.

Successful cities need to be governed, not just administrated. They need responsive, enabled local governance. And they need to find ways to mobilize and motivate their citizens to engage with their cities and respond to global challenges — a bottom-up approach that includes, for example, urban transition labs and “co-creation” approaches. The importance of collaborative urban governance cannot be emphasized enough in the New Urban Agenda.

Beyond the New Urban Agenda

In order to “walk the talk” of sustainable development by cities, we can’t simply rely on the text of the New Urban Agenda, which will be neither binding nor closely prescriptive. Instead, the implementation of this new vision will depend largely on voluntary action and commitment by all actors.

“Given the dramatically expanded role for cities, there’s compelling need for a new global architecture that focuses on nation states’ urban-development policies, as well as for greater citizen engagement at the local level.”

For this, we need to start acting now. We need frontrunners to join forces — for example, voluntary collective action by interested parties, such as through global urban partnership initiatives. We need to think of how to create a community of practice on national urban policies, drawing on the experience of a broad range of countries and multilateral organizations such as UN-Habitat, the OECD and the World Bank.

First ideas for new partnership initiatives are already being discussed. Existing ones — such as Cities Alliance, as a successful example of a multi-stakeholder partnership on action and dialogues — could be expanded.

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

Recently, for instance, there’s been an expansion of new initiatives on financing urban development. Now, we need to ask whether there is a way to promote knowledge exchange among these initiatives.

Another possibility for a dedicated global urban partnership initiative would be a set of national and local urban sustainability action programmes aimed at reaching goals set forth in two key accords that were finalized last year: the Paris Agreement on climate change and the U. N.’s new Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.

But really, the key to bringing the spirit of the New Urban Agenda to life will be to follow up on the agreement, to monitor its progress and — above all — to begin to engage in a continuous policy dialogue. Similar to Agenda 2030, the New Urban Agenda will need to put in place a robust review and reporting mechanism.

One way of ensuring substantial follow up would to initiate a series of policy dialogues through which a broad range of stakeholders can report on ongoing experiences as well as newly arising challenges. For many years now the biennial World Urban Forum has been the most prominent dialogue forum on global level, which could be closely linked to the political follow up of the New Urban Agenda.

The preparatory process for the New Urban Agenda itself motivated a range of new formats and networks. The Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Authorities and the General Assembly of Partners come to my mind, also well-established city networks such as ICLEI and C40.

[See: How will we know if the New Urban Agenda has been successful?]

The fact is, we do not yet fully understand how the phenomena of digitalization, Industry 4.0 (so-called smart factories), migration and climate change will affect our cities. There’s a need for rapid learning by politicians and urban practitioners alike, and the follow up to the New Urban Agenda will need to support these learning processes.

The design of such a follow-up mechanism will surely be a challenging task. But it also will be critically important to maintaining action and engagement over time, providing increasingly better policy answers for the sustainable development of cities in the Global South and North alike.

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Christoph Beier

Dr. Christoph Beier is vice-chair of the Management Board of Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. With responsibility for the company’s technical and methodological excellence and innovative capacity, he oversees the Sectoral Department as well as the Sector and Global Programmes Department. He also is responsible for GIZ International Services (InS) and the Evaluation Unit.