Habitat III process entering political phase

After nearly a year of substantive input from a spectrum of experts and stakeholders, national governments are getting ready to engage directly in discussions toward the New Urban Agenda.

U.N. Headquarters in New York will host several rounds of political negotiations around the New Urban Agenda in coming months. That process begins this week with expert consultations. (Osugi/Shutterstock)

NEW YORK — As any sports fan can attest, there’s nothing like playing in front of the home crowd. For the process leading up to this year’s U. N. Conference on Housing and Urban Development (Habitat III), what could be likened to a long road trip is finally coming home this week as the action shifts from far-flung ports of call to the conference rooms and cafes of U. N. Headquarters in New York.

Over the past two months, the final burst of Habitat III preparatory meetings stopped in Barcelona, Prague, Pretoria and twice in greater Mexico City. These events, known formally as regional and thematic meetings, were like mini-conferences that have tackled ideas relevant to Habitat IIIpublic space and informal settlements, for instance, as well as the state of urbanization in different regions of the world. In turn, these meetings generated input for the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III.

[See: Tension points emerging on details of the New Urban Agenda]

These meetings began in September in Tel Aviv with an inaugural gathering on civic engagement. Yet the final stretch has been an intense period of nearly back-to-back sessions spanning continents and time zones, with advocates racing from one to the next to make their case for specific issues in the New Urban Agenda.

Now they can make their case on the United Nations’ home turf. On 25-29 April, the U. N. will host five days of consultations on Habitat III in the critical final week before the release of the first draft of the New Urban Agenda. (A provisional agenda is available here.) Coming months will also see several rounds of political negotiations and discussion between member states and civil society and local authorities.

[See Citiscope’s Habitat III calendar]

In particular, these consultations will feature many of the 200 experts that have made up 10 technical groups providing key input on the issues relevant to the New Urban Agenda. Those experts have been pulled from the global ranks of scholars, practitioners and activists on issues of housing and urban development.

“It is now, with the open-ended consultations, that member states can hear the recommendations coming from the discussions, debates and work of thousands of experts on urban development,” said a spokesperson for the Habitat III Secretariat.

They will speak to the research and policy recommendations they have prepared over the past few months in a series of “policy unit” papers. Alongside the declarations issued from the regional and thematic meetings, these will form the raw material of the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Habitat III expert groups deliver final technical reports]

In turn, members of the Habitat III Bureau — the 10-country committee shepherding the conference preparation — along with staff from the Habitat III Secretariat will collate this material into the agenda’s “zero draft” by early May.

This week’s consultations are not negotiations — after all, there is no document yet to haggle over. Nonetheless, several countries are expected to send diplomats from their capitals for this weeklong expert briefing, which will help the document’s drafters prioritize the wealth of ideas that have come their way over the past year.

Some high-level officials who hosted Habitat III in their home cities and states are also confirmed. The governor of Mexico State, the Czech minister of housing and the deputy mayor of Montréal are all expected. Over the past eight months, these officials’ administrations hosted formal meetings on Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe and metropolitan areas, respectively.

Cities, states and countries that hosted preparatory meetings paid up to USD 1 million for this privilege, in the form of a donation to the Habitat III Trust Fund. They are undoubtedly eager to make sure their main points are now reflected in the New Urban Agenda.

[See: How is Quito preparing for Habitat III?]

According to sources close to the process, the main challenge for the document’s drafters are how to balance highly technical inputs — for instance, the Abu Dhabi Declaration on Sustainable Energy — with broader statements such as “The City We Need 2.0”, a civil society document that is more aspirational than technical in nature.

What’s more, the recently adopted 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development specifically calls for U. N. documents to emphasize implementation, not just ideas. Will the New Urban Agenda break with tradition and dive directly into concrete policy recommendations for the future of cities and human settlements? Only time will tell — but time is also short, as the much-awaited draft is expected no later than 6 May.

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