Proposed mechanisms would coordinate post-Habitat III action on urbanization

Forthcoming report by the Habitat III General Assembly of Partners outlines major multilateral infrastructure to facilitate global action on sustainable urbanization, for both the New Urban Agenda and SDGs.


A draft report from a key grouping of Habitat III stakeholders proposes a series of four new bodies to assist in implementing and monitoring the emerging global frameworks on sustainable urbanization.

The group, known as the General Assembly of Partners, is finalizing the report in time for a meeting in Prague next week. The document, the result of several months’ of work, offers recommendations for new multilateral infrastructure to assist with and guide global work around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the New Urban Agenda. The SDGs were finalized by U. N. member states in September, while the New Urban Agenda, a 20-year urbanization strategy, will be agreed to at the U. N.’s Habitat III conference in October.

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“Partnership” is one of the most common words at the United Nations, as the international body has long recognized that it cannot achieve its lofty goals on its own. To flesh out a partnerships-based plan for post-Habitat III implementation, the GAP met last month in Berlin at the invitation of the German government. Founded last year as a temporary initiative of UN-Habitat’s World Urban Campaign, the GAP seeks to harness civil-society energy ahead of Habitat III and to channel it into global implementation of the best ideas about the future of cities.

In Berlin, the GAP’s membership began to solidify a report that offers a raft of recommendations for the New Urban Agenda. Given that national governments ultimately have final say on U. N. agendas, the GAP hopes that speaking with a unified voice will generate the momentum needed for its recommendations to land in the strategy’s final text.

“The word partnership is in the air, but the question is how to define exactly what partnerships are in terms of contributions and sharing back and forth,” said GAP President Eugénie Birch. She called the GAP’s plans “systematic and comprehensive in thinking about what partners can do and offer” in light of civil society’s expertise in knowledge creation and assessment, advocacy, monitoring and pilot projects.

[See: Nearing a text: March to see release of key documents informing the New Urban Agenda]

Citiscope received a sneak peek of the GAP document, which will be publicly released this month when the body meets on the sidelines of the Habitat III regional meeting for Europe and North America, in Prague.

With concrete proposals for new U. N.-level action on sustainable urbanization and the creation of platforms for a host of actors in the public, private, non-profit, philanthropic and academic sectors, the GAP’s proposal offers an early glimpse of the implementation strategy for the New Urban Agenda — a consideration that conference organizers and advocates alike stress as the key objective for Habitat III.

Partner platforms

The GAP’s 10-page draft road map is entitled “Partnerships for the New Urban Agenda”. The core of the document comes from a vision that would have implications well beyond the Habitat III conference.

“The GAP’s proposal offers an early glimpse of the implementation strategy for the New Urban Agenda.”

This new framework is broken into four proposals. While the first two are largely institutional within the United Nations, the latter two seek demonstrable results in the field. Collectively, they form what the GAP leadership is calling the Global Urban Partners’ Platform for Sustainable Urban Development. The proposed ideas are as follows:

[See: Sustainable cities: Key to future governance and development]

  1. An Intergovernmental Panel on Sustainable Urbanization would build on the cutting-edge knowledge generated by the 200 “policy unit” experts who have come together to provide recommendations for the New Urban Agenda. The IPSU would be similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was founded in 1988 and kickstarted today’s global conversation on the topic by providing regular reports through informed science. A similar approach to sustainable urbanization could likewise  provide a recognized body of research that can bolster subsequent debates.

  1. A United Nations Advisory Committee on Sustainable Urbanization would advocate inside the United Nations, advise on the sidelines of World Urban Forums and speak up for civil society at UN-Habitat’s Governing Council. There are U. N. advisory committees embedded through the organization, covering topics from human rights to budgeting. And there is precedent for Habitat conferences to generate such committees — the U.N Advisory Committee of Local Authorities, for instance, was a product of Habitat II.

  1. A Partners Lab for Urban Sustainability would provide the platforms’ partners a chance to flex their muscles in the field and implement pilot projects across the wide spectrum of sustainable urbanization. Examples could include a philanthropy funding better civic participation in urban planning at a national scale, an NGO implementing a public-space strategy in a single city or a company investing in low-carbon transportation throughout a region.

  1. A Partners’ Dashboard for Sustainable Urbanization would focus on monitoring both the provisions of the New Urban Agenda and the local implementation of the SDGs. It will focus on data collection to complement what city and national governments will already be monitoring to meet their U. N. obligations under, for example, Goal 11, the “urban SDG. The document suggests that the dashboard could also serve as a radar screen for promising initiatives that merit the attention of global awards.

[See: How will we keep track of city actions under the New Urban Agenda?]

The draft document also publicly calls for a U. N. International Decade of Sustainable Urbanization, a long-term focus within the United Nations on a single topic that can move the ball forward on global agreements. For example, right now is the International Decade for People of African Descent, which has advanced the case for national governments involved in the transatlantic slave trade to pay reparations.

‘Enabling environment’

Importantly, the GAP draft sets up a framework through which Habitat III will build on recent U. N. processes on sustainable development and climate change that have looked beyond national governments to incorporate other stakeholders. Specifically, the SDGs and the COP 21 climate conference in December serve as the bases for future partnerships around the New Urban Agenda.

“While we, the members of the GAP, are fully aware that it is the national governments’ primary responsibility to forge the New Urban Agenda and, subsequently, provide the leadership and enabling environment — legal, administrative and financial — for its implementation, we also realize that partners [stakeholders] are expected to be active contributors to the New Urban Agenda and its implementation,” the document states. (Brackets are from the original.)

The “enabling environment” would include legislative reform at the national level on a host of issues, including land rights, infrastructure, slum upgrading, gender equity, housing and basic services. It would also enshrine formal engagement with stakeholders in the planning process, rather than allowing for top-down decision-making.

On the institutional front, such an environment would create mechanisms for sharing information and data, especially disaggregated at the local level. Finally, the GAP calls for fiscal devolution to put more resources in the hands of local governments.

[See: UN-Habitat’s vision of sustainable urbanization is good — but not enough]

The draft thus makes the case for national governments to join forces with outside entities in order to make the 20-year vision of the New Urban Agenda into a reality.

“We believe that this document is an exemplar of the balance that can be created, consensus that can be developed, integration that can be achieved in the creation, execution, monitoring of policy by multi stakeholder partnerships,” it states. “We strongly urge member states to incorporate its essence, as well as its key recommendations, into the New Urban Agenda.”

When it comes to principles, the GAP’s approach relies heavily on the human-rights framework that underpinned the 1996 Habitat Agenda, the predecessor to the New Urban Agenda that came out of the Habitat II conference in Istanbul.

It also emphasizes other ideas that have emerged at the forefront of the Habitat III debate. These include better metropolitan governance, looking at cities through a gender lens, adopting pro-poor policies that include the informal sector and spatial strategies to support low-carbon territorial development.

‘Transformative’ meeting

While many of the ideas at the core of the GAP report have been in the works for months in the run-up to Habitat III, they crystallized in February at the three-day meeting in Berlin. Birch called that event “transformative”, noting, “There’s nothing like meeting face to face.”

The German government has been active on the Habitat III front — for example, taking a leadership role by serving on the Habitat III Bureau, the 10-member committee of national governments steering the ship for the conference. Along the way, Germany has been an advocate for enhanced stakeholder participation and an open, inclusive conference.

[See: The drafters: Meet the two women leading the Habitat III Bureau]

“Successful policymaking depends on various perspectives and includes all stakeholders,” said Franz Marré of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsored the meeting. Calling broad stakeholder participation a “trademark” of Habitat conferences, he added, “The GAP is an innovative format for stakeholder participation in a U. N. conference and could well set a precedent for future U. N. conference proceedings.”

From Germany’s perspective, the New Urban Agenda should “recognize and empower cities as development actors”, Marré said. While it is incumbent upon national governments to make that happen, he acknowledged that “back-up and support will need to be provided through a strong, cooperative global system of actors and instruments.”

[See: Cities must be part of defining the New Urban Agenda]

That, ultimately, is where the GAP’s proposal comes in, with the potential for February’s meeting to plant the seed of a long-term effort.

“The New Urban Agenda will need to be implemented through a global partnership that does not only involve national, regional and local governments but is based on a strong and broad stakeholder participation,” Marré said. “This partnership approach may indeed be a main message of Habitat III for the next 20 years.”

The action returns to Berlin from 31 May to 3 June for the final meeting of PrepCity, an initiative of Metropolis, the world city association.

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