4,000 users taking part in online debates around Habitat III themes

The Urban Dialogues, hosted throughout July by UN-Habitat, underscore a major new focus on stakeholder engagement for the entire U.N. system.


The preparations for Habitat III, next year’s U. N. conference on cities, are already well underway and will soon be touching down in dozens of countries on five continents. Through next spring, a spectrum of both official and semi-official events will offer numerous opportunities for the public to weigh in on the details of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III.

For those who live far from the action and without the resources to travel to an Urban Thinkers Campus or a regional meeting, however, the Habitat III Secretariat has launched an online platform to facilitate questions, concerns and, most importantly, robust conversation and debate. Throughout July, these online forums will serve as the easiest place for the average citizen to engage with Habitat III.

Called the Urban Dialogues, the platform launched on 6 July with a month-long debate around the Habitat III issue papers, the 22 reports that cover the depth and breadth of 21st-century urbanization. The dialogues are divided into six broad themes that mirror those of the issue papers: social cohesion and equity, urban ecology and environment, urban housing and basic services, urban economy and spatial development.

Halfway through this month’s open discussion, these topics have already generated 160 posts. The Habitat III Secretariat reports that some 4,000 users have registered to take part in the dialogues, roughly split between men and women.

“In a multilateral negotiation such as the one for the outcome document of Habitat III, there are some mechanisms to allow ECOSOC-accredited stakeholders to participate in the debate and to contribute with their inputs,” said a spokesperson for the Habitat III Secretariat, referring to the U. N. Economic and Social Council.

But, the spokesperson continued, “Citizens not being part of these accredited non-governmental organizations should be also able to contribute.”

Non-traditional voices

Bassem Fahmy, an urban-planning consultant in Cairo, is one of the active users taking part in the dialogue around spatial development. “The dialogue looks very professional, and the moderation is perfect,” he reports.

Each debate has two moderators, nearly all drawn from the ranks of U. N. agencies. Most of the issue papers were drafted, after all, by the United Nations.

Marcus Mayr, from UN-Habitat’s Climate Change Planning Unit, is moderating the urban ecology debate. “My expectation is that as many experts and interested people share their views and aspirations on what elements should be part of the New Urban Agenda, and to give ‘non-traditional’ partners a voice in the process,” he said.

The Habitat III Secretariat anticipates that future debates will draw moderators from the ranks of the 10 policy units — the groups of 20 outside experts each who will offer key recommendations on the drafting and implementation of the New Urban Agenda. That effort, for example, will serve as the grist of the next online debate. The policy units’ work, which starts 1 August, will in part draw on a synthesis report of the Urban Dialogues that will be published after the online forums close, at the end of July.

The 31 July closing date for the debates on the issue papers stems from a deadline for stakeholder input established at Habitat III preparatory negotiations that took place in April in Nairobi. There, member states, frustrated over what they saw as the very late delivery of the draft issue papers, created a firm timeline for future Habitat III documentation and feedback. (This revised timeline has already been tweaked: Member states themselves were supposed to have submitted comments on the issue papers by 30 June, though that deadline has now been pushed back to 31 July, as well.)

“My expectation is that as many experts and interested people share their views and aspirations on what elements should be part of the New Urban Agenda, and to give ‘non-traditional’ partners a voice in the process.’”

Marcus Mayr
Moderator, Urban Ecology debate

As a consequence, the Habitat III Secretariat has had little control over the timing of the Urban Dialogues, and July has proven to be an exceptionally busy month at the United Nations. Last week, for instance, the Financing for Development conference took place in Addis Ababa; the next two weeks will now see the final intergovernmental negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Such a schedule can inevitably leave NGOs and others feeling strapped for time and resources with which to take part.

“The U. N. calendar has been extremely crowded with all of the intergovernmental processes … that comprise the Post-2015 Agenda. There is no way that any one organization can participate in all of it, so one must prioritize according to one’s own agenda,” said Jeffrey Huffines, the U. N. representative for CIVICUS, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

“The fact that [Financing for Development] is occurring at the same time as the Habitat III consultations is nothing new — these conflicts in the U. N. calendar are happening all of the time,” Huffines continues. “I would expect that the NGOs that are specifically following Habitat III will make it a point to participate, while others won’t take the time.”

The Stakeholder Engagement Programme for the U. N. Division for Sustainable Development did return repeated requests for comment.

We the peoples

A robust online platform for stakeholder engagement is a relatively new endeavor for the United Nations ahead of major conferences. Such an approach was pioneered ahead of the Rio+20 conference in 2012 and the related process known as The World We Want, which fed into the draft list of SDGs last year.

The technical platform for the Urban Dialogues is based on an updated version of the architecture used for both of those processes. However, according to the Habitat III Secretariat spokesperson, “The spirit of the discussion is more based on the online debates of the World Urban Forum, especially WUF7 held in Medellin.”

As a baseline, the second round of The World We Want thematic consultations in 2014 addressed six broad themes, similar to today’s debates on the Habitat III issue papers. Over periods ranging from four to eight weeks, those six topics generated nearly 320 posts — roughly double what the Urban Dialogues have achieved in far less time and only halfway through its July run.

In the past, such broad-based engagement has been a logistical challenge. But it also has not been a philosophical priority for U. N. member states. Rio+20 and especially the SDGs appear to have changed that mindset. The latter process, which is set to culminate in September, resulted in an exhaustive series of national and regional consultations that drew on 750,000 people from 194 countries. U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the whole endeavor “a historic effort for a historic policy-making process.”

For the SDGs, the U. N. Development Programme (UNDP) led that process.

“The thorough outreach and consultation process that led to the new set of development goals … was a new way of working for the United Nations,” said Paul Ladd, the director of UNDP’s Post-2015 Strategic Policy Unit. “It allowed the organization to connect directly with people and ask them about their aspirations and needs. As such, it resonated with the first line of the UN Charter: ‘We the peoples…’.”

The Habitat III Secretariat stresses, however, that the goal of the Urban Dialogues is quality, not quantity. “It is an investment on bringing to the debate those ones interested to contribute qualitatively,” the Secretariat spokesperson said.

While more than a week remains to contribute to the current Urban Dialogues, many more opportunities for input will exist going forward. The work of the policy units, which will occupy the remainder of the year, will likewise be the subject of a public debate, as will the nearly dozen regional and thematic meetings slated to take place between September and March.

The first draft of the New Urban Agenda, meanwhile, is due out by April.

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