Question of the Day: What is the most transformational idea in the New Urban Agenda?

25 experts weigh in on the Habitat III outcome strategy, to be adopted this week in Quito.
Karakotsya/Shutterstock

In early September, 193 countries agreed on a final draft of the New Urban Agenda — a global 20-year vision for how to create cities that are sustainable and equitable. This week, presidents, ministers and others are gathering in Quito, Ecuador, for the Habitat III conference, where they will formally adopt that strategy and unveil commitments on how to implement its details.

Citiscope reached out to 25 thinkers and organizations that have been keen participants in the process that created the 24-page document. Now that the dust has settled, how do they see its final text? And more importantly, when we look to the next 20 years of implementation, how do they think the New Urban Agenda can improve the lives of those who live in cities?

We asked each expert to respond to five questions. We’ll be publishing their answers, lightly edited, each day this week. We want to hear from you, too. Write your response in the comments section at the bottom of this article.

The first question: What do you think is the most innovative or transformational idea in the New Urban Agenda?

Tomorrow’s question: Is there a key issue that you think is missing from the New Urban Agenda, or one that is seriously under-defined? If so, what is it?


The focus on the finance/law/institutional nexus of running cities.

— Susan Parnell, African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town

The emphasis on the role of local governments.

— Aliye Celik, NGO

The vision of cities for all. Although it is still nascent in the New Urban Agenda, establishing the idea that all people, present and future, have a stake in the use and enjoyment of cities will shift discussions on city planning and growth in significant ways.

— Joseph D’Cruz, United Nations Development Programme

Its comprehensiveness and inclusiveness are innovative and potentially transformational. At the same time, however, they are also a weakness, as in the effort to “get everything in,” there is a lack of prioritization, and so no implementation imperatives nor a clear case for the inter-connectedness of its major components.

— Judith Hermanson, IHC Global (Coalition for Inclusive Housing and Sustainable Cities)

What has been different and unique to the New Urban Agenda, and indeed Habitat III itself, is this bottom-up inclusive approach to stakeholder engagement. It couldn’t have happened any other way as urbanisation requires the knowledge of all levels of civil society.

— Charles Ebikeme, International Council for Science

The inclusion of reference to humanitarian crises — natural, man-made, epidemics, conflict — is certainly new. Urban crises haven’t been given the prominence they deserve up until now by urban development specialists, national governments or international agencies

— Lucy Earle, Global Alliance for Urban Crises

The entire Habitat III process could spur many innovative and transformational developments — it doesn’t happen every day that such a wide range of actors get to know and engage with each other and have such regular occasions to exchange ideas and information. Member states, U. N. institutions, urban experts, civil society representatives and so many others were involved in the Habitat III process. These new networks might just be the seed from which new approaches and partnerships to support the achievement of sustainable cities and human settlements for all can grow.

— Eleni Dellas, adelphi

The New Urban Agenda goes one step further in the recognition of the key role played by subnational governments. It seems self-evident when looking at cities, but the commitment to empower towns and regions through decentralisation reforms in line with the subsidiarity principle and to improve their involvement in decision-making processes is a frog-leap forward in the U. N. system. Moreover it recognizes the importance of promoting decentralized cooperation as a means to reinforce the capacities of local and regional governments.

— Wouter Boesman, Policy Adviser, PLATFORMA — The European Voice of Local and Regional Governments for Development

The New Urban Agenda brings a holistic approach to urban sustainability. The challenges we face in cities today are intricately linked and go beyond cities’ borders. Addressing these issues in an effective manner therefore requires integrated solutions involving all stakeholders. The New Urban Agenda recognizes this complexity and commits to bring all actors together in designing and implementing innovative solutions based on the principles of innovation, inclusiveness, transparency and accountability.

— Irge Olga Aujouannet, Director, Global Policy Affairs, World Business Council for Sustainable Development

The document is an embodiment of the time, energy and dedication of all the people who helped to create it. This speaks for itself, and the sheer volume of people at Habitat III signifies how relevant urbanization issues are across the world and for many different stakeholder communities. The document and the event both increase the attention of the “urban” at the global scale and the critical need for us to consider solutions that are within the context of planetary urbanization. This is the most transformative of it all. Likewise, within the document specifically, the multi-scale nature of urbanization and the attention to this consideration in planning is forward looking as well as focused attention on equity or social sustainability across the spectrum of issues.

— Corrie Griffith, UGEC Project, Arizona State University, USA

We welcome that the New Urban Agenda commits to enhanced engagement with and strengthening of local governments. We also welcome the New Urban Agenda and its guidance on integrated sustainable urban and territorial development and concepts like the right to the city. The New Urban Agenda now translates good ideas that have already been used and understood by local governments for many years — such as the right to the city — into language for and by national diplomats and the international community. This has the potential to pave the path for serious discussions at the international and national levels on which framework conditions will enable local and national governments to work together towards sustainable urban development. In this sense, we certainly welcome the commitment in the text of the New Urban Agenda to enhanced engagement with and strengthening of local governments. We as ICLEI are ready and eager to support and accelerate this path and offer our 10 Urban Agendas as a suitable approach for local action.

— Yunus Arikan, Head of Global Policy and Advocacy, ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability

To us there are two innovative ideas in the New Urban Agenda. The first one is the fact that U. N. member states have officially committed to ensure appropriate fiscal, political and administrative decentralization based on the principle of subsidiarity. Towns, cities and regions are best placed to ensure better provision of services (public transportation, health care, housing, education, etc.), adapted to their citizens’ needs. If we want them to be in full capacity to implement the New Urban Agenda, they must have adequate, stable and predictable funding, and this can only be guaranteed by further local autonomy, for instance, to raise local taxes. A second innovative proposal is the recognition of local governments as well as their representative associations, including CEMR and UCLG, as promoters of capacity development. International and national networks can gather the voices of local governments worldwide at a global stage as well as make sure that cities of all sizes take part in the global arena, and at all stages of the decision-making process.

— Frédéric Vallier, Secretary General of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR)

The New Urban Agenda is focused more on transformation than on technological and financial innovations. For example, there is no real reference to disruptive change through new mobility options (i. e. flexible bus services, car-sharing, ride-hailing apps, etc.) or new financing mechanisms, nor how to steer these types of innovative products into real future solutions. Implementation is where we expect to see real innovation. For example, initiatives like Vision Zero will help drive the development of innovative solutions to achieve the transformational vision set out in the NUA. The New Urban Agenda can also be seen as transformational through its focus on integrated strategic approaches as a foundation for sectoral solutions, rather than focusing on siloed, sector-specific solutions. The vision of the New Urban Agenda is for cities that are equal, accessible and people-centred. If taken to heart by those policymakers who are tasked to implement the NUA, this vision and the principles that vision propagates throughout the declaration could be truly transformational for urban design. Cities designed for people are safer, more equal, more carbon-positive, and more accessible.

— Holger Dalkmann and Alyssa Fischer, World Resources Institute

The New Urban Agenda reflects on several occasions the positive contribution of the informal economy to local development, the diversity of status of informal and formal activities, and the need to work at a progressive transition to improve livelihoods. This acknowledges the fact that the urban fabric happens through bottom-up processes, out of the sphere of public control, and consequently that public policy ought to adapt to this reality (and not the contrary). This is an important shift for public policy philosophy. We could however regret that the same acknowledgement as to informal housing and building as positive contributions to making cities work is not as engaged. Hence not allowing for alternatives and new approaches to city planning, servicing and management beyond exceptional urban upgrading, taking into account that most of the pressing needs happen in informal settlements, to design new kinds of urban policies.

— Laure Criqui, Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI)

The New Urban Agenda highlights the notion of integrated planning. Most promisingly, it suggests that it will promote a paradigm shift grounded in the “integrated and indivisible dimensions of sustainable development” (Section 24). While the actual text that follows does not quite live up to this, there are multiple reference to how urban planning and development need to be integrated across and within different spheres of urban development. These include: rural-urban integration, housing polices, water resource planning and management, infrastructure and spatial planning, as well as integration between national, regional and local policy frameworks. As such, the New Urban Agenda addresses a key problem with current urban development and planning, in that such planning largely is addressed in a very sectoral or compartmentalized manner, which often leads to inefficient land and resource uses, and unsustainable development. If the New Urban Agenda succeeds in ensuring that urban planning and development happens in an integrated way, and not in silos, then it would go a long way to supporting cities to develop in a sustainable manner.

— Jeet Mistry and Jennifer Lenhart, WWF

The New Urban Agenda recognizes its connections and overlaps with the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement and the Addis Ababa “financing for development” agenda. This is transformative. The understanding that local governments should be active players in designing and implementing national development policies, in partnership with central government, is a step forwards. This raises local governments to their full expression as the place where the citizen meets the state. Local government does not exist to merely keep the streets clean, it is an active agent of development and of civic existence — on a daily basis it shapes (for better or for worse) what it means to live life. The New Urban Agenda embraces this. The explicit support for local government access to the financial mechanisms of the Paris Agreement, including the Green Climate Fund (GCF), is innovative and would accelerate the impact of the GCF — given that building resilience to climate change and adapting to its effects falls largely within the competencies of local governments. For example: Public infrastructure, public-private partnerships, energy, water management of all kinds, local economic development, land-use planning, enforcement of regulations on the built environment.

— David Hugh Jackson, Director of Local Development Finance, United Nations Capital Development Fund

The global narrative on cities has expanded dramatically since the last Habitat gathering, in 1996. There is today a profound sense of urgency associated with the pace and scale of urbanization, with growing concerns about fragility in cities around the world. What is new is that these preoccupations are no longer confined to the Global South. The narrow framing of urban priorities as “cities without slums” as expressed in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 has broadened considerably. Today, the focus is on “making (all) cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”, as expressed in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. The New Urban Agenda text reflects this important shift in discourse. The very process by which the agenda was forged also marks a sharp break from past approaches. The crafting of the “zero draft” text reflects a new openness within (and outside) the United Nations to consult more widely on the content of global (urban) priorities. The process was hardly perfect. Even so, while mayors were still insufficiently included, there were genuine improvements in the form of consultations when compared to past practices. Dozens of official and semi-official events assembled literally thousands of specialists. Although the drafting of the content of the zero draft ultimately came down to 10 U. N. member states, the text was informed by a genuinely universal constellation of voices.

— Robert Muggah, Igarapé Institute and SecDev Foundation

We would like to highlight the vision for cities and human settlements that fulfil their territorial functions across administrative boundaries, and act as hubs and drivers for balanced sustainable and integrated urban and territorial development at all levels, contained in Paragraph 13.e of the New Urban Agenda. Urbanization and demographic growth have increasingly linked cities with their peri-urban and rural areas, spatially and functionally through interdependent economic dynamics, social links and environmental synergies that overcome traditional administrative boundaries. Examples of systems for which an approach of complementary functions and flows across urban and rural spaces is needed include: supply and distribution chains of commodities and services, social protection, transport, food production, land tenure, disaster risk reduction and risk management, and governance. Balanced sustainable and integrated urban and territorial development is a departure from myopic sectoral and urban-only approaches to holistic, multi-disciplinary, multi-sector and multi-stakeholder approaches at the city-region scale. The Habitat III vision for human settlements that fulfil their territorial functions across administrative boundaries, and act as drivers for balanced sustainable and integrated urban and territorial development at all levels, represents an opportunity to depart from a perspective of political, social and geographical dichotomy between urban and rural areas.

— Christopher Dekki and Maruxa Cardama, Communitas Coalition

There are many good things in the New Urban Agenda, but nothing really new or innovative compared to what mayors have been doing for years. Many city governments are far ahead of the NUA’s basic commitments on local climate action in terms of vision and ambition: cities like Copenhagen and Portland, for instance, are already implementing ambitious plans for carbon neutrality by 2050. However, the New Urban Agenda recognizes government solutions and scales them to the national level, and includes some key commitments on urban governance, finance and capacity building, which — if given sufficient collective effort — could be transformational. For example, Paragraph 143 makes a great commitment on city access to international climate funds but does not stipulate how to achieve this access. The text is a springboard, but we need a roadmap with nations to make this commitment, and others, a reality. In the end, the most innovative part of the New Urban Agenda might be its highly inclusive political process: the last 12 months have seen many preparatory meetings, publicly available versions of the successive drafts of the NUA, and opportunities for all stakeholders to contribute. This abnormally open U. N. process should be praised and recognized a model.

— Emmanuelle Pinault, Head of City Diplomacy — Political Engagement, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group

The most innovative idea is offering a set of practical strategies that address widening levels of urban poverty and inequality in our cities across the world, and recognize sound urbanization as a transformative solution to these challenges. The New Urban Agenda offers a set of solutions through a focus on strengthening municipal finance, legal frameworks and urban planning. The three are necessary conditions for sustainable urbanization. UN-Habitat with Morphologie Institute Paris are launching a book on “Economic Bases for Sustainable Urbanization” where we present historical examples of cities and demonstrate how cities that prosper are those that are able to build a system that combines good planning with a stable and clear set of rules and regulations, and a proper municipal finance. The second major highlight is that local finance comes strong as a major condition for cities to provide good urbanization. Cities need to pay for local infrastructure and services, and need predictable transfers and appropriate generation of revenues; then, managing and knowing their public assets, having a proper registration system and understanding principles of land value finance and land readjustments are major topics. The third important feature is that productivity is defined as a key concept for cities. For a city to provide jobs and prosperity, it needs to have a vibrant economy that pays for good services and infrastructure. This is only possible when the city has economic activities that successfully increase productivity; I will say, though, that the gains for productivity must be provided with equity and social ends.

— Marco Kamiya, Head of Urban Economy and Finance Branch, UN-Habitat

The New Urban Agenda is not innovative, but it helpfully summarizes some of the best ideas of the past two decades, including integrated regional spatial and resource planning, coordination among multiple levels of government, equitable transit-oriented development, age- and gender responsive infrastructure, and smart cities. The most transformational aspect of the New Urban Agenda is the commitment of national governments to promote the economic, environmental and social success of their cities — small and large. The recent convergence — starting with the Rio+20 conference — of the environmental community, political leadership and the scientific community toward the notion that urbanization is part of the answer to many of our global challenges, rather than a problem to be overcome, has unlocked the imaginations of policymakers, practitioners and activists who are now determined to help get urbanization right. We are also heartened by the prominent focus across the New Urban Agenda on how we finance implementation. In this regard, land value capture is likely the most innovative financing concept in the NUA. If we are to make future urban development more equitable, promote orderly growth on urban peripheries or densify our already sprawled cities, we will need to garner some of the land value that is generated by public investments, and use this revenue to pay for the investments.

— George W. McCarthy, President and CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

One of the most critical aspects of the New Urban Agenda is that it situates cities as essential in combating various global issues such as poverty and hunger, reducing inequality, empowering women and girls, improving health and well-being, fostering resilience and protecting the environment. Like many of my colleagues from around the world, I firmly believe that the global struggle for sustainable development will be a battle largely waged in cities, where two-thirds of the global population will reside by 2050. From the perspective of the World Council on City Data (WCCD) — which is helping to create sustainable cities worldwide through ISO 37120, the first international standard for sustainable cities — the fact that the New Urban Agenda raises the need to harness data and statistical capacities as a means of implementation is an idea with the potential to be globally transformative. I believe that the challenge of creating a more sustainable world — and specifically more sustainable cities — will hinge on the availability of high-quality, standardized and comparable city data for cities to plan, invest, measure progress and learn from other cities globally through accurate benchmarks and high-caliber data analysis.

— Patricia McCarney, President & CEO, World Council on City Data

We see an opportunity to highlight the problem of informal settlements as one of the most urgent and important issues at a global level, within the framework of the challenge of constructing cities for all. For Latin America, this holds great significance, as this issue is not given priority in the current political agenda of the region. This coincides with a lack of understanding of the magnitude of the problem — for example, due to the deficit of specialized information regarding these settlements. We are currently the most urbanized region of the Global South and the most unequal on the planet: Around 104 million people who reside in urban areas live in informal settlements because they do not have the necessary resources to access the space recognized as a city, which has led us to believe that these settlements are the greatest expression of inequality, segregation and exclusion in our cities. With the inclusion of this issue in the New Urban Agenda, a positive signal is sent of a clear commitment to solving the problem, including the commitment of civic participation in policy design, specifically of those who live in informal settlements, the promotion of initiatives to improve understanding of the issue, as well as streamlining resources from states to implement policies targeting the situation faced by one in five residents of cities in Latin America. The next step is for this commitment to translate into action in each country in the region — and Habitat III must be decisive about this. As TECHO, we commit to monitoring and supporting the efforts in this direction.

— Luis Bonilla, Chief Operating Officer, TECHO International

Thanks to coordinated international mobilization and tireless advocacy efforts from both civil society and local governments’ global networks, the right to the city was successfully introduced in the so-called New Urban Agenda. Its definition, as well as many of its main content and policy recommendations, are now included in the final text that is going to be adopted by national governments at Habitat III. The proof that this idea is innovative and transformational is the fact that this was one of the key “hot topics” during the four-month discussions and negotiations that ended up with the current consensual formulation (see Paragraph 11 of the NUA, “Our shared vision”). This is the first time that a reference to the right to the city is part of a U. N. international declaration and action plan. From our point of view, some of the most relevant principles of the right to the city that are now mentioned in the text are: the respect of all human rights and gender equality for all; the social function of land, the public control of gentrification and speculation processes, and the capture and distribution of land value increments generated by urban development; the promotion and support of a broad range of housing options and security of tenure arrangements; the recognition of the contributions from the informal sector and the social and solidarity economy to the urban economy as a whole; the commitment to a sustainable and responsible management of natural, heritage and cultural goods; and the integrated vision of the territory, understanding regions interactions and responsibilities beyond administrative boundaries.

— Lorena Zárate, President, Habitat International Coalition (HIC)

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