Lourdes O. Yparraguirre: The New Urban Agenda remains ‘transformative’

How do the Habitat III talks look to the negotiations’ co-facilitators?

Lourdes O. Yparraguirre is the permanent representative of the Philippines to the United Nations. In June, she and a colleague from Mexico were appointed to co-lead political negotiations on the New Urban Agenda, the global vision intended to guide sustainable urbanization over the next 20 years.

Those talks had begun the previous month, which meant that both of the new “co-facilitators” were forced to hit the ground running. And their time frame is short: In October, the entire membership of the United Nations is slated to gather in Quito, Ecuador, to finalize the document at a summit known as Habitat III.

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

So, how did the Habitat III negotiations look after leading the talks for a month? Ahead of recent key sessions in Surabaya, Indonesia, Yparraguirre spoke with Citiscope about the Habitat III process and the opportunities of the New Urban Agenda; see here for an interview with Yparraguirre’s counterpart, Dámaso Luna Corona. Both interviews have been edited slightly for content and length.

Citiscope: Why is Habitat III a priority for the Philippines?

Lourdes O. Yparraguirre: Our government places great importance on housing and urban development. This is reflected in the fact that we have a specific government agency, the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC), that has been headed by the second-highest official of the country for three administrations.

Habitat III is a priority for the Philippines because the country’s rapid urbanization has put undue pressures on city governments’ limited absorptive capacities to provide affordable, reliable and quality basic urban services.

In the span of two decades since Habitat II in 1996, the Philippines has emerged as one of the most populous countries in the world, with a population of nearly 100 million, most of whom are concentrated in cities due to the economic opportunities there. Many of our cities are confronted by myriad urban challenges, including deficient financing for housing, water supply and sanitation and poor urban planning.

[See: Cleaning up Manila’s Pasig River, one tributary at a time]

In addition, although we have had robust economic growth in recent years, the problems of poverty and inequality persist. Our sustainable development goal is to have inclusive growth — and growth is inclusive when it occurs in places where poor people live, both in urban and rural areas.

Another challenge we face is due to our vulnerability to the adverse impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change in the Philippines has been acutely felt in the last 10 years, with increased temperatures, flooding and an increase in both the number and intensity of typhoons.

Habitat III presents a critical opportunity for us to adopt a new 20-year urban development roadmap, which takes into account all of these challenges.

How do you measure success for the New Urban Agenda?

The success of the New Urban Agenda will be based on the adoption and mainstreaming by national, sub-national and local authorities of its principles and commitments. We must remember that the New Urban Agenda is not just a document to be adopted at a conference but rather a blueprint for sustainable urban development for the next 20 years. This is why monitoring, follow-up and review is critical to the success of the New Urban Agenda.

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

Equally, implementation must also mean that member states and stakeholders come together and work in partnership, enhancing coordination and cooperation in ensuring that the New Urban Agenda fulfils its transformative role in an increasingly urbanized world — eradicating poverty and achieving sustainable development.

Success will also mean that no one is left behind. The commitment to “leave no one behind” means that inclusive implementation of the New Urban Agenda is demonstrated by data-driven, evidence-based and target-specific policies, programmes and projects.

The conference secretary-general has called for a “paradigm shift” in how the world thinks about urbanization through the New Urban Agenda, yet that language was taken out of a recent version of the draft text. Does the New Urban Agenda still represent a paradigm shift?

Yes, it does in the sense that the New Urban Agenda calls for transformative action and policies in the way we deal with rapid urbanization. The key word is “transformative”: path-breaking policies, programmes, projects and partnerships.

The New Urban Agenda’s approach is anchored in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — which itself represents a major paradigm shift in approaching development, in that it fully incorporates the three dimensions of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental.

Following the Habitat II conference, member states adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and now we have the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The New Urban Agenda should complement and deliver on the transformative future envisioned by the 2030 Agenda.

[See: Cities shut out of U. N.’s first SDGs review, advocates say]

All throughout the New Urban Agenda, you will see the new an increased focus on the environmental and climate change aspects of urban planning and policymaking. This by itself is already a major paradigm shift.

On follow-up and review, there is a fundamental disagreement not just about whether to strengthen UN-Habitat’s mandate but whether strengthening that mandate is even the right conversation. How do you intend to bridge that gulf?

We have seen from the “informal informals” [negotiations that took place during May and June] that member states are in agreement that UN-Habitat has a role to play in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. They also agree that given the integrated nature of the New Urban Agenda and the need for system-wide coherence in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, other agencies across the U. N. system also have roles in its implementation. This is because the New Urban Agenda is not just about SDG 11 — making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable — but rather cuts across the entire 2030 Agenda and the 17 SDGs.

[See: Will the New Urban Agenda define the future of UN-Habitat?]

It is important, then, to focus on these points of convergence and build upon them.

Finding language that will have the broad support of member states is still a work in progress. What is clear is that nobody wants to weaken UN-Habitat. Our focus is to find language that would recognize the important role of UN-Habitat and to provide it with the wherewithal to fulfil its mandate.

What are a couple of concrete accomplishments within the U. N. system that you believe the New Urban Agenda will achieve?

The New Urban Agenda has quite a number of concrete proposals, including the right to the city, that are still under discussion.

Within the U. N. system, I believe that what is most important is the recognition that the implementation of the New Urban Agenda is a strong multi-level and multi-stakeholder process, with increased recognition of the roles of sub-national and local authorities, as well as of civil society and the private sectors and other stakeholders.

[See: Habitat III loses proposed Multi-Stakeholder Panel — for now]

For local authorities in particular, the New Urban Agenda gives importance to their role in achieving sustainable urban development in all aspects: implementation, monitoring, follow-up and review, and recognition of these inputs in the international arena.

Another concrete achievement would be the increased focus on resilience and disaster risk reduction and management in all aspects of urban planning and strategy.

What will be the status of the New Urban Agenda among the post-2015 agreements?

2015 was a highly productive year for member states and stakeholders, with a great harvest of international agreements: Sendai, Addis Ababa, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Paris Agreement on climate change. This has created so much expectation.

As you have seen in the past negotiating sessions, member states, major groups and all stakeholders recognize the critical importance of the New Urban Agenda in the landscape of the post-2015 agreements. They see it as integral to and connected to the 2030 Agenda, Sendai and the Paris Agreement, as it provides the “missing” piece for sustainable urban development.

So yes, it is my hope that member states and stakeholders can come again to ensure that the New Urban Agenda finds its rightful place alongside last year’s substantive “bedrock” or “anchor” agreements.

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