U.N. issues draft New Urban Agenda, aiming for ‘actionable’ document

Document aims to guide sustainable urbanization globally over next two decades. Key release jump-starts political negotiations ahead of Habitat III conference in October.

Painting by Tithi Luadthong. (Shutterstock)

Following a global consultation that reportedly drew on the views of over 10,000 contributors from six continents, the United Nations has released the first draft of the New Urban Agenda, a document aimed at guiding global urbanization policy for the next 20 years.

[Para leer este artículo en español, haz click aquí]

The document, referred to as the strategy’s “zero draft”, was released Friday by the governments of France and Ecuador. The two governments oversee the process toward the Habitat III conference, where U. N. member states are slated to adopt the New Urban Agenda in October in Quito. (UPDATE: An unofficial Spanish-language translation of the zero draft is available here.)

The 22-page draft builds on the United Nations’ current core emphasis on sustainable development. This focus was codified last year in a set of new anti-poverty Sustainable Development Goals and built upon through the Paris Agreement on climate change that was agreed to in December and signed last month.

At the same time, the draft New Urban Agenda charts its own course by declaring the importance of cities and urbanization as protagonists in the fight for a sustainable planet. “The battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities,” it reads, directly quoting U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

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

Breaking with trends from its predecessors — the Vancouver Declaration, signed in 1976, and the Habitat Agenda, finalized in 1996 — the New Urban Agenda has staked out a vision of a distinctly urban future, underlined by demographic trends. In its preamble, the draft document notes that the world is majority urban for the first time in human history, a trend that will grow to 70 percent by 2050, by which time there will be more urban dwellers than there are humans today. It also argues that 80 percent of global gross domestic product is produced in cities and metropolitan areas.

In turn, the document hopes to harness the potential of urbanization by offering a mix of policy options that countries will want to adopt. “The New Urban Agenda aims to be concise, action-oriented, forward-looking, universal, and spatially integrative … avoiding a one-size fits-all approach,” the document states.

“The timeline was extremely tight, but thanks to the strongest commitment of all and good teamwork within the Bureau and the Secretariat, we could present a Zero Draft that meets our main aspiration: to be actionable,” Franz Marré, a German diplomat who worked closely on the new document’s preparation, said by email. The Habitat III Bureau and Secretariat are the two entities formally shepherding the process toward Quito.

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

Through a spokesperson, Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos called the work of putting together the zero draft “a deeply consultative process”.

Cities for all

The draft New Urban Agenda includes several sections, one of which is being called the Quito Declaration on Cities for All — pointedly avoiding the term “right to the city” in the title. Several advocates and some member states have called for a right to the city to be the central pillar of the New Urban Agenda, a demand that has generated considerable controversy in early debates.

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

“Overall, implementation and financing needs more clarity and specificity, but we believe there is room to elaborate on those elements in the forthcoming [negotiations].”

Shipra Narang Suri
Habitat III General Assembly of Partners

“We commit to the realization of the concept of cities for all, which in some countries is defined as Right to the City and compiles the shared systemization of existing rights, seeking to ensure that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, are able to inhabit, use, and produce just, inclusive, and sustainable cities, which exist as a common good essential to a high quality of life,” the Quito Declaration reads in part.

Two issues have received particular attention in the zero draft. Public space, a favourite theme of Clos’s, was given a “central role” in the draft strategy. Housing, too, has been given billing as “at the center of the New Urban Agenda”, reflecting a call from housing advocates and preliminary work prepared by UN-Habitat.

“Housing is both inseparable from urbanization, and a socioeconomic development imperative,” the document reads. “The expansion of adequate and affordable housing is central to achieving inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable cities in a world where rapid urbanization has exacerbated housing shortages.”

[See: Habitat III must rethink the role of housing in sustainable urbanization]

This language comes in a section called the Quito Implementation Plan, which makes up the bulk of the draft. The need to implement the New Urban Agenda has been cited as an imperative since the beginning of the Habitat process, and this is where much of the document’s substance can now be found. It covers the litany of topics that have emerged during the past 18 months — public participation, cultural heritage, inclusive economic development, built environment form, urban ecology, resilience, climate change and sustainable consumption, among many others.

The Implementation Plan also covers major areas such as legislative and financing frameworks that have been deemed pivotal to the success of the New Urban Agenda’s provisions. National urban policies, metropolitan governance structures, robust urban planning, the “social function” of land and sustainable mobility are all covered in this section, as are borrowing, expenditure, revenue and other aspects of municipal finance. A call to allocate 20 percent of national resources to the local level is the only quantitative recommendation made in the draft agenda.

[See: New solutions to close the gap on municipal finance]

Finally, specific proposals include a possible U. N. Decade on Sustainable Urbanization and an International Multi-stakeholder Panel on Sustainable Urbanization, two recommendations made by the General Assembly of Partners, an umbrella of stakeholder groups. The document also calls for the strengthening of UN-Habitat as the lead agency on implementing the New Urban Agenda.

First reactions

While many groups are continuing to chew over the 22-page draft this week, the two key stakeholder groups officially recognized by the U. N. General Assembly as interlocutors in the Habitat process have offered immediate comment on the document.

“A call to allocate 20 percent of national resources to the local level is the only quantitative recommendation made in the draft agenda.”

“The General Assembly of Partners is delighted with the zero draft of the New Urban Agenda, especially the member states’ recognition of GAP’s work and their consideration of GAP for contributing to the post-Habitat III architecture,” said Eugénie Birch, president of the General Assembly of Partners. “GAP is eager to work with the member states’ for the further elaboration of stakeholder engagement in these and other matters.”

[See: Proposed mechanisms would coordinate post-Habitat III action on urbanization]

“We are also pleased with the emphasis placed on integrated planning, housing and addressing informality as central to sustainable urbanization, in terms of key themes,” added the group’s vice-president, Shipra Narang Suri. “As for implementation, we are convinced that strengthening UN-Habitat as the key coordinating organization is the right approach, and we look forward to more concrete proposals on how this may be done, in future iterations.”

For local governments, which are officially represented by an entity called the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments, the zero draft was also well received.

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

“We welcome the inclusion of many of the key recommendations of the Global Taskforce in the document, in particular in relation to finance, legal frameworks and governance, and particularly, the need for effective decentralization,” said Emilia Saiz, with the global cities network UCLG, on behalf of the Global Taskforce.

But both the Global Taskforce and the GAP representatives indicated concern over the sections on financing.

“As one of our major concerns is the financing of the growing urbanization and of New Urban Agenda, we urge for a more ambitious call in the Quito Declaration to multilateral organizations, financial institutions and development banks to explore how to develop a specific initiative for financing urban infrastructures and essential services to respond to the dramatic needs in the coming decades,” said Saiz.

[See: The New Urban Agenda will pay for itself]

The GAP echoed this call. “Overall, implementation and financing needs more clarity and specificity, but we believe there is room to elaborate on those elements in the forthcoming” negotiations, said Suri. Over the coming months, those negotiations will include sessions among members states as well as between member states and local authorities and civil society.

Have a reaction to the New Urban Agenda’s zero draft that you’d like to share with Citiscope? Email us at gscruggs [at] citiscope.org and cbiron [at] citiscope. org.

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