New Urban Agenda second draft is released, drawing praise and criticism

National governments will reconvene to look at the concise new draft next week.

After a three-week delay, a hotly anticipated second version of the New Urban Agenda, the United Nations’ 20-year blueprint for urbanization set to be adopted at this year’s Habitat III conference, was released over the weekend. See the new and previous draft here.

Collating comments from two rounds of negotiations at U. N. Headquarters in New York, the Habitat III leadership delivered the document by the 17 June deadline recently established by the process’s new co-facilitators, Mexico and the Philippines. This second draft was originally expected by the end of May but was pushed back because of a political impasse in the Habitat III talks.

[See: Habitat III impasse resolved with Mexico, Philippines to lead talks]

Despite having received 104 pages of written input, the drafters of the new version managed to reduce the text from 175 to 151 paragraphs, or from 22 to 17 pages. In so doing, they mostly retained the original document’s structure, style and tone. The reduced word count will likely smooth the path forward, given the limited number of negotiating days left before the October conference. However, the declarative future tense (“we will”) remains — over the objections of the United States, which called such affirmative language inappropriate for a non-binding document.

In the first draft, there was a separate preamble and declaration. Those two have now been merged into a single “Quito Declaration on Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements for All.” That new title already suggests one significant concession to the Group of 77 (G77) developing countries, an influential bloc that has called for “human settlements” to be mentioned in most instances where the word “cities” appears.

[See: 12 takeaways from government-suggested edits of the draft New Urban Agenda]

The controversial topic the “right to the city” remains qualified as it was in the previous draft, with no significant change either for those who called for it to be deleted or those who wished for its use to be expanded to apply universally. “We anchor our vision on the concept of cities for all, which in some countries is understood as the 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, accessible and sustainable cities, which exist as a common good essential to quality of life,” the declaration now reads.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the document still consists of the “Quito Implementation Plan for the New Urban Agenda”. In the new version, key proposals from stakeholder groups — such as a call for an International Decade of Sustainable Urbanization and a Multi-Stakeholder Panel on Sustainable Urbanization  remain on the table.

The role and future of UN-Habitat — another contentious issue — are discussed directly. A paragraph calls on the U. N. General Assembly to adopt a resolution establishing universal membership on the agency’s Governing Council, ensuring a stable source of funding and recognizing the agency’s primary role in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

The role of local authorities, decentralization and “subsidiarity” all remain in the text, likely at the behest of the European Union. However, a reference to the World Assembly of Local Authorities was removed.

[See: Cities clamour for a seat at the table of the U. N. countries club]

“We’re pleased to see stronger language on stakeholder engagement, particularly in the area of data collection, knowledge and the importance of a robust science-policy interface.”

Shipra Narang Suri
Habitat III General Assembly of Partners

The World Urban Forum is mentioned as one of the “platforms for inclusive and participatory discussion and exchange of views”. But it is not discussed as the mandatory, or even voluntary, venue for reporting progress toward achieving the New Urban Agenda, as some have advocated.

Instead, the new draft calls on UN-Habitat to feed progress reports into existing mechanisms, such as the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, which meets next month and will serve as an annual review of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

[See: Cities poised to play a bigger role in SDGs review process]

Cautious praise

The immediate response to the new draft has been mixed, with a tilt toward favourable. The draft’s concision and tighter structure drew praise, as did maintaining several of the key items cited above.

“We’re pleased to see stronger language on stakeholder engagement, particularly in the area of data collection, knowledge and the importance of a robust science-policy interface,” said Shipra Narang Suri, vice-president of the civil society umbrella group the General Assembly of Partners, which called for such provisions during hearings earlier this month.

“We’re also happy with the continued emphasis on a rights-based approach, as stated in the ‘Vision’, as well as the focus on planning, integrated territorial development, housing, land, resilience, mobility and basic services, the informal economy, decent work.”

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

The United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) World Secretariat issued a statement with cautious praise for the new draft. “Indeed, the text includes good recognition of local authority associations and of the role of the local and regional authorities in the leadership of the Urban Agenda,” it read.

“In particular, we welcome the strong references to [local and regional government] involvement in monitoring and review processes of the New Urban Agenda and the call for a special status for local authorities to strengthen their role internationally,” the response stated.

“We welcome the strong references to [local and regional government] involvement in monitoring and review processes of the New Urban Agenda and the call for a special status for local authorities to strengthen their role internationally.”

United Cities and Local Governments

Recognition within the U. N. system that local governments are something more than non-governmental organizations even if less than national governments was the main takeaway from a series of U. N. hearings that mayors and local leaders testified at last month.

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

Such reactions from the two groups with the most at stake in the New Urban Agenda — civil society and local authorities — suggest that the new draft is seen as having responded positively to their lobbying efforts over the last 18 months.

Missing links

Not that immediate reactions didn’t also draw criticisms. There are many individual issues that critics felt are still left out, in addition to overall philosophical differences with the new draft’s perceived ideological push. Concerns also remain that the New Urban Agenda is a radical departure from, rather than a continuation of, the previous two Habitat conference agreements.

For the GAP’s leadership, the immediate reaction of what is missing concerned humanitarian crises, a topic recently addressed at a major U. N. summit in Istanbul. “We continue to be concerned about the weak emphasis on urban humanitarian crises and the lack of recognition of the fact that many cities are getting ‘left behind’ in the development curve due to the recurrent and protracted humanitarian crises they face,” said Narang Suri.

In a reference to the motto of the SDGs, she added, “In addition to ‘leave no one behind’, we should also emphasize ‘leave no city behind.’”

[See: What is the rest of the world saying about the Habitat III ‘zero draft’?]

The disjuncture with the rhetoric around the SDG agenda also perturbed Kathy Kline, chair of the GAP’s older-persons constituency. “Why no mention of a paradigm shift in the way we plan, develop and manage urban development, recognizing it as an essential instrument in the achievement of all Sustainable Development Goals?” she asked. Several references to a “paradigm shift”, a theme central to Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos’s vision for the New Urban Agenda, were stripped from the text.

Overall, Kline expressed concern that economic development trumps sustainable development in the new draft, noting that “prosperity and opportunities for all” now preempts “development for social inclusion and poverty eradication” in the implementation plan. She also fingered the phrase “public spaces are drivers of economic development” as a possible harbinger of greater privatization of the public realm.

The most withering criticism, however, came from the New School’s Michael Cohen. He deemed the new draft an “ahistorical” document that “could have been written any time in the last 40 years”, other than for its mention of climate change.

He argued that despite a lineage encompassing Habitats I and II from 1976 and 1996, respectively, “the New Urban Agenda assumes that history begins either on June 17, 2016 when the revised zero draft was released on October 20, 2016, when the Habitat III event in Quito will conclude.”

[See: Fractured continuity: Moving from Habitat II to Habitat III]

Cohen explains, “The word ‘commitment’ is used 54 times, and there are innumerable other words committing governments and civil society at all levels to ‘support’ or ‘ensure’ other outcomes.” His criticism, however, is that such commitments come in a vacuum. “Yet no effort is made to evaluate whether earlier commitments made at Habitat I or Habitat II have been achieved,” he said.

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