12 takeaways from government-suggested edits of the draft New Urban Agenda

Leaked official comments on the Habitat III strategy’s first draft offer the clearest indication yet of what exactly national governments are — and aren’t — looking for in the New Urban Agenda.

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Last week, Citiscope received a leaked copy of a 104-page compilation document submitted by U. N. member states of written comments on the first draft of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy set to be adopted in October at the Habitat III conference. (Multiple sources verified the leaked document’s legitimacy.)

That first draft was released in early May, after nearly a year of technical analysis and stakeholder input. After Citiscope reported extensively on civil society and local governments’ first reactions to the New Urban Agenda “zero draft”, the new compilation document provided a glimpse into the views of member states — those who will actually decide on the agenda’s final details.

[See: First responses to the New Urban Agenda ‘zero draft]

While some of the government comments are nitpicky about grammar and syntax — complaints about past participles make an appearance, as do detailed notes on capitalization — others address serious substance.

Although member states have offered public statements during the first two rounds of Habitat III political negotiations over the past month, the way they wield the proverbial red pen reveals far deeper sentiments about the shape of the New Urban Agenda — and how powerful a document it will or won’t be.

1.     Keep it short —  but at what cost?

Any editor will herald the value of concision, a call made publicly by Colombia at the end of last week’s talks. While reiterated in the compilation document (Colombia is coordinating the main section of the New Urban Agenda draft on behalf of the G77/China, a key grouping of developing countries), it is Japan that goes the most extreme. Overall, the Japanese are calling for the deletion of 27 paragraphs, including on issues that have been deemed key to Habitat III, such as public space, urban economies, cultural heritage, security of tenure and informality.

[See: Four storylines to watch in the Habitat III negotiations]

Japan proposes to merge the document’s preamble, declaration and the section known as the Quito Implementation Plan. Such a move would radically condense the text. It would also probably result in the loss of the New Urban Agenda’s rhetorical flair — such as the use of a quotable phrase from U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “The battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities,” that the G77, Japan and the Russian Federation all called to strike.

2.     Cities and human settlements

Echoing a call made in public statements, the G77 repeatedly went through the text and added “human settlements” after most mentions of the word cities, especially in the section titled Quito Declaration on Cities for All. This stylistic war of attrition is about a larger issue: Will the Habitat III conference depart from a traditional focus on human settlements at all scales — from small villages to megacities — and focus increasingly if not exclusively on the urban world?

3.     ‘Right to the city’ on shaky ground (Paragraph 4)

The phrase “right to the city” makes only one appearance in the text, but it has generated considerable controversy, even leading to a closed-door negotiating session last week. Canada, the European Union, India, Japan, the Russian Federation and the United States all called for it be deleted from the document. Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador defended the concept, calling for its definition to be elaborated upon and its mention to be expanded. The G77 was conspicuously quiet, reflecting internal disagreement on the question.

4.     We the governments, not we the people (Paragraph PP8)

In a blow to advocates who have spent the last 18 months pushing the Habitat III process to be an inclusive partnership between national governments, local governments and civil society, the U. S. called for multiple edits to the following: “[Cities] are places in which we, the people, aim to achieve gender equality, empower women and girls, reduce poverty, and create jobs and generate equitable prosperity. Cities present an opportunity for us, the inhabitants, to commit to share resources and space in a way that ensures the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources.”

Specifically, the U. S. requested the deletion of “we, the people” and “us, the inhabitants” on the grounds that governments, not people, are adopting the New Urban Agenda.

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

5.     At the core: Transformative commitments (or principles?)

The section entitled “Transformative Commitments for Sustainable Urban Development” was singled out as the core substance of the New Urban Agenda by the G77. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that it also generated among the most comments of any section — nine member states weighed in through written comments.

It is thus likely that this section will generate the most heated negotiations in the coming months. Member states are harping on inadequate treatment of a litany of topics: informal housing, slum upgrading, public space, education, oceans and sectorial approaches, among others. Japan called for the section to be streamlined, in keeping with its radical downsizing approach; the U. S. averred on the use of “commitments” and called for “principles” instead.

6.     Adopt national urban policies? Not necessarily, says U. S.

One of Habitat III’s signature initiatives has been to promote the formulation and adoption of national urban policies, in keeping with longstanding UN-Habitat efforts. While this topic has been the subject of considerable research and several conferences over the course of the Habitat III process, it was dismissed by the U. S., which rejected multiple instances that seemed to compel member states on this front (Paragraphs 7a, 32, 85, 86, 125, 166).

7.     Joan Clos may not get his paradigm shift (Paragraphs PP4, 3, 7)

In both speeches and an exclusive interview with Citiscope, Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos has repeatedly called for Habitat III to represent a “paradigm shift” in how the world views urbanization. He may not get his wish, at least explicitly, as both Japan and the U. S. called for such language to be removed from the document.

The U. S. opposed the term in strong wording that all but called it extremist: “To avoid the imposition of utopian or radical top-down approaches and visions such as those proposed by right to the city advocates and others.” The E. U., however, welcomed such language — and may be the key to keeping it in the document.

[See: The E. U. is a major voice in the Habitat III process. What is it saying?]

8.      Pushback on the 20% transfer to local governments (Paragraph 130)

One of the zero draft’s few concrete, detailed proposals was a call for national governments to transfer at least 20 percent of their fiscal resources to local governments. This hard-and-fast commitment was likely to be a tough sell with national governments, and was deemed unpalatable by the European Union, Indonesia and Japan.

9.     Avoid declarative language

The grammarians at the U. S. State Department were rigorous in combing the document to excise declarative language on the grounds that the New Urban Agenda is a non-binding document and that it is not appropriate to make declarative statements about the future. Specifically, they called for all instances of “will” to be replaced with “may”, “promote” instead of “ensure” and “shall” instead of “must.” Such a softening may lessen the political impact of the New Urban Agenda in the long run.

[See: Shouldn’t the New Urban Agenda be a binding agreement?]

10.  Geopolitical hot potatoes (Paragraph 12)

In a paragraph on cases deserving special attention, a reference to cities under “foreign occupation” — likely a reference to the Israeli occupation of Palestine — was flagged as an “inappropriate insertion of a clearly political issue” by the U. S. and thus best avoided in the New Urban Agenda. Canada concurred. In the same paragraph, the European Union also called for “high-income countries” to be given special consideration alongside middle-income, landlocked, African and small island developing states.

11.  Skepticism of the GAP’s proposals (Paragraph 171)

The civil society umbrella group known as the General Assembly of Partners has made a number of post-Habitat III proposals that found their way into the New Urban Agenda zero draft, such as a multi-stakeholder panel on sustainable urbanization and an international decade of sustainable urbanization.

[See: Habitat III stakeholders offer vision of broad partnership for sustainable urbanization]

These ideas encountered considerable skepticism. The multi-stakeholder panel raised eyebrows from the African Group, which called for a concept note; Colombia, which said it was “necessary to evaluate” the proposal; the European Union, which said it would consider the idea; and the U. S., which opposed the creation of any new body. The U. S. also declared itself opposed to any new international decades. Japan, meanwhile, called for deleting the whole paragraph.

12.  What is the future of UN-Habitat? (Paragraphs 171-175)

The conclusion of the document, which covers follow-up and review, was a firestorm of comments over the future of UN-Habitat. What should its role be in the monitoring of the New Urban Agenda? Is Habitat III even an appropriate forum in which to discuss the future of the agency? There is deep disagreement not just on the question but the relevance of the question and willingness to engage in such a debate. As the subject of the other closed-door negotiation last week, there is clearly much to be done to reach consensus on this contentious issue.

Note: This story has been updated to clarify the compilation document’s provenance.

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