How are governments responding to the revised draft New Urban Agenda?

13 takeaways from a leaked compilation of government-suggested changes to the second iteration of the Habitat III strategy.

Sworup Nhasiju

We haven’t yet seen the third incarnation of the draft New Urban Agenda, the U. N.’s in-the-works global strategy on urbanization, but it’s expected in the coming days. Yet Citiscope has received a leaked document compiling responses and recommendations made by national governments with regard to the last version of the agenda, which was released in mid-June.

The compilation document, the provenance of which has been verified by multiple sources, stretches on for 131 pages and bears a release date of 5 July. A similar collection of official responses was leaked to Citiscope last month.

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

Together, the two documents offer unvarnished insight into the state of the Habitat III negotiations today, including on the true priorities for national governments and their negotiating blocs. They also foreshadow points of agreement as well as lingering or growing points of tension.

Here are 13 takeaways from the latest leak.

So much for concision

The second draft of the New Urban Agenda was actually shorter than the first. That concision was viewed as a positive step for reaching consensus on the full document with limited time before the Habitat III conference meets in October to finalize the new strategy. However, the latest compilation document suggests that there are more calls from member states and negotiating blocs to insert new text or maintain existing language than there are calls for deletions. This trend could balloon the next draft before negotiators meet for key talks later this month in Indonesia, further growing the amount of work that will need to be accomplished during those key sessions.

Fresh voices

While the document was marked up mostly by the usual suspects — Canada, Colombia, the European Union, the Group of 77 (G77) developing countries, Japan and the Russian Federation — there were several fresh voices making key comments. Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Lebanon, Paraguay, the Philippines and South Korea all weighed in for the first time, while India, Iran and Turkey likewise made many more comments than they did during the first go-around. As Habitat III nears, it seems more countries are paying attention to the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Who are the Habitat III major players?]

Points of convergence

In summaries of the negotiations, recently appointed co-facilitator Ambassador Lourdes Yparraguirre of the Philippines has repeatedly referred to “points of convergence”, or areas where member states agree in the New Urban Agenda. The compilation document bears that out, as key concepts — integrated territorial development, gentrification, “polycentrism”, endogenous resources and empowering women — all pass muster without any calls for the terms to be deleted.

Points of divergence

On the other hand, plenty of disagreement remains on hot topics. Further, previously uncontroversial language raised red flags this go-around, such as the “social function of land”, which the United States did not call to strike in the first compilation document, but has requested deletion here. The European Union likewise left it untouched in the first draft but this time has suggested modifying the concept to “the social function of equitable land distribution.”

[See: The challenges of land and inclusion for the New Urban Agenda]

Elsewhere, repeated references to participation, such as “participatory planning”, “participatory approaches” and “participatory data collection”, went unremarked upon last time. This round, China singled out Paragraph 74 on “participatory approaches at all stages of the urban policy and planning processes” and requested its deletion.

Setback for local authorities

The long-term push by the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Authorities to carve out a space in the U. N.’s new urbanization agenda was dealt several blows, with China and the Russian Federation the chief culprits.

Proposals on governance reform that emphasized decentralization and “subsidiarity” — and thus would empower local authorities — were met with skepticism by both countries, whether in calls to mute language, such as substituting “take note” for “reaffirm and reiterate” (Paragraph 67), or outright deletion (Paragraphs 73-75, 77).

Indonesia, meanwhile, asserted that “local self-government” does not exist in its political context. Turkey argued that proposals for new local governance mechanisms infringed on national sovereignty.

In what could be a nail in the coffin, meanwhile, the call for local authorities to be recognized with a “special status” in the U. N. distinct from that of NGOs did not pass muster. The G77, China, the E. U. and the U. S. all recommended deleting the phrase (Paragraph 140).

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

Civil society losing ground

The civil society advocacy campaign around Habitat III also did not fare well in the compilation document. China, the E. U. and the Russian Federation all called to delete references to stakeholders (Paragraph 78). The E. U. and U. S. recommended removing a reference to the General Assembly of Partners and nixed proposals to consider a U. N. Decade on Sustainable Urbanization (Paragraph 147) and a Multi-Stakeholder Panel on Sustainable Urbanization (Paragraph 148).

Still, these proposals were met with skepticism in the first draft and managed to survive into the second round, so there may be some defenders. China, the G77 and the Russian Federation, for example, did not call to strike them.

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

Africa rising

The African Group, a negotiating bloc, significantly amped up its inputs on the New Urban Agenda. The group argued that the text must make a call to “harness urbanization for structural transformation”, which is “the most important priority for Africa today” if diplomats want buy-in from African countries (Paragraphs 9d, 10a, 81).

On that note, the group wants a stronger emphasis on how cities and human settlements can foster economic growth and lead toward “global value chains” (Paragraphs 6, 11b(iii), 19, 21, 80). The group also wants more language on informal settlements — a prime regional concern (Paragraphs 3, 19, 35). Collectively, these proposals account for the longest contribution for more text from a single member state or group.

[See: Finding a truly common vision for African cities]

Swiss neutrality?

Switzerland has emerged as one of the most vocal contributors to this compilation document, with over 50 contributions, including pointed language on behalf of its favoured concepts. “We deplore that the language of [Paragraph] 11 is less progressive on the question of decentralization and subsidiarity than it was in [Paragraph] 7 of the zero draft,” one comment states.

In another section, the delegation writes, “We regret the revised Quito Declaration does not include a positive statement on the key role and contributions of cities to sustainable development.” This comment is a reference to U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s line that “the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities,” which was quoted verbatim in the first draft but was removed at the insistence of the G77, Japan and the Russian Federation.

Paradigm shift strikes back

After the phrase “paradigm shift” was recommended for removal in the last compilation document — and indeed does not appear in the most recent version of the New Urban Agenda — the G77 and Colombia called for it to reappear (Paragraphs 18, 25). That should please Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos, who has insisted that the New Urban Agenda represents a paradigm shift in how the world thinks about urbanization.

Gender defenders

Advocates for a gender-sensitive New Urban Agenda — arguably the strongest civil society voice in the Habitat III process — can take solace with the Swiss and Canadian delegations, which emerged in the new compilation document as staunch defenders of the cause.

Switzerland calls out three sections where the “gender dimension” is “completely absent” (“Our principles and commitments”, “Environmentally sound and resilient urban development”, Paragraph 50 on consumption and production, and Paragraph 63 on resilience). Canada, meanwhile, recommends specific language on gender, women and girls in references to the right to adequate housing (Paragraph 39), security of tenure (Paragraph 40) and women’s empowerment (Paragraph 9c).

[See: Can the New Urban Agenda fundamentally transform gender relations?]

‘Right to the city’ gains new allies

In the negotiations thus far, the controversial term “right to the city” has been defended chiefly by Brazil and Ecuador, with muted support from Chile and Mexico. In the new compilation document, however, fellow Latin American countries El Salvador and Paraguay also come to the term’s defense, raising the number of advocates to six. However, they remain short of a consensus within GRULAC, the Latin American and Caribbean negotiating bloc, as Argentina, Colombia and Jamaica — other countries in the region active in the Habitat III process — have refrained from endorsing it.

Meanwhile, the proposed revision from these six supporters in Paragraph 7 reads, “We anchor our vision on the concept of cities for all, which in some countries is recognized as the Right to the City, referring to the equal use and enjoyment of the cities and human settlements within the principles of sustainable development.” This revision suggests a compromise that would not expand references to the right to the city beyond the places where it is already recognized.

[See: A needed cornerstone for Habitat III: The right to the city]

Who’s vulnerable?

The list of “vulnerable” or “marginalized” groups, also referred to as people in “vulnerable situations”, is an ever-elastic category that some member states wish to expand while others hope to contract. Groups that member states think deserve more mention include LGTBQ groups (Canada, the E. U., Mexico), indigenous peoples (Canada, the E. U.), women and girls (Canada, the E. U.), persons with disabilities (Canada), older persons (Canada), fishers (Colombia), youths (Canada), smallholder and family farmers (Colombia), and migrants (Switzerland). The Russian Federation, meanwhile, wants references to the “grassroots” removed.

New proposal on follow-up and review

The European Union has intimated that it has an alternative proposal for follow-up and review that would not enhance the mandate of UN-Habitat or elevate the World Urban Forum as a forum for review — contentious issues that have been gumming up negotiations on this critical issue. We’ll quote the E. U. idea here in full:

“We stress that the follow up and review at global level should feed into the review process for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We invite the Secretary-General, drawing on the expertise of UN Habitat and of other relevant UN agencies, funds and programmes to report biannually on the progress in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. This report will replace the annual report of the Secretary General on the implementation of the outcome of the UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) and strengthening of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) as well as the report of the Secretary General on the coordinated implementation of the Habitat Agenda.”

[See: How will we know if the New Urban Agenda has been successful?]

The proposal goes on: “The process of report preparation should incorporate the input of national and local authorities, multilateral organizations, international financial institutions, civil society, the private sector, academia, major groups and other stakeholders. The report will provide a qualitative and quantitative analysis of the progress made and will be submitted for discussion to the General Assembly and the ECOSOC and feed into the HLPF, in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development review” (Paragraph 139).

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