How quickly will governments respond to the New Urban Agenda?

As Habitat III draws to a close, opinions are mixed on whether the framework on sustainable cities is gaining political traction.

National government delegations take part in a Habitat III plenary session, 17 October. (Habitat III Secretariat)

QUITO, Ecuador — Despite low turnout from heads of state, organizers and governments expressed confidence that this week’s Habitat III conference is laying the groundwork for the long-term implementation of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy being adopted here this week.

Just three heads of state or government — the presidents of Ecuador and Venezuela, and the prime minister of Lesotho — came to Quito for the third edition of the Habitat summit. That is significantly lower than the initial figure of high-level registrations, according to reports published last week.

That number also is low in comparison with other comparable U. N. conferences. Last year, for instance, 25 world leaders attended the Sendai conference on disaster risk reduction. Four years ago, 79 went to the “Rio+20” sustainable development conference.

And while direct comparisons would be misleading, Habitat III certainly has seen far weaker high-level participation than some of the key global gatherings of recent years. A reported 150 world leaders traveled to Paris in December for the COP 21 conference on climate change, while 136 head of state reportedly were in New York for last year’s adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — although many of those were already expected for the opening of the U. N. General Assembly.

Habitat III is capping off two years of landmark international discussion and agreement that has ushered in what is widely seen as a new era in development priorities, and the New Urban Agenda has been anticipated as providing guidance on how to implement the SDGs in cities. Yet initial indications on the document’s political buy-in — and how quickly it will prompt official action on the ground — are mixed.

“The political traction is reflected by who participates,” said Felix Dodds, a seasoned analyst of the United Nations. “There are three heads of state attending and two heads of U. N. agencies” in Quito this week — Helen Clark of the U. N. Development Programme and Joan Clos of UN-Habitat, who is also secretary-general of the conference. (IOM Director General William Lacy Swing also was in Quito.)

“There don’t seem to be any heads of development banks,” Dodds said. “Compared to the SDGs, this is not seen as a major outcome document.”

[See: Question of the Day: What are the biggest obstacles to implementing the New Urban Agenda?]

Last week it was widely reported in the Latin American media that 11 heads of state were confirmed to attend this week’s events, citing the Ecuadorian government. That reportedly was to include recent Nobel Peace laureate Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. Ultimately several cancelled, although it is unclear why.

National vs. local

Representatives of several national governments downplayed the significance of the low presidential and prime ministerial turnout in Quito, emphasizing that ministers and other officials more directly involved in the issue of urban development are here.

“There are certainly ministers in these governments that care a lot. Those are the guys that are really going to be implementing it,” U. S. diplomat Nancy Stetson told Citiscope. “I don’t think we should be measuring level of commitment to this document by whether or not a head of state comes.”

Germany was highly invested in the run-up to Habitat III, having served on the preparatory committee for the conference, hosted several meetings and funded in-depth research on the New Urban Agenda. This week, it also was the first country to announce a voluntary commitment to the Quito Implementation Plan, the official platform to certify initiatives that aim to achieve the New Urban Agenda’s goals.

[See: Official commitments to New Urban Agenda off to a slow start]

Tania Roediger-Vorwerk of the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development also cautioned against reading too much into who showed up in Quito. The New Urban Agenda will be implemented, she said, even if such actions are not undertaken in the name of the agreement — simply because the 24-page document covers such a broad range of pressing global issues.

“There are so many important political fields,” she said, “and there’s such international pressure on issues like mobility, refugees, housing and climate change that are somehow covered by the New Urban Agenda.”

Germany expected to send two ministers to Quito, but both canceled at the last minute because of domestic political obligations. Instead, Berlin Mayor Michael Müller is the country’s head of delegation, which numbers 120.

Indeed, some are pointing to local officials such as Müller as more important players in taking forward the mandates of the New Urban Agenda, at least in the short term. “What really is going to be important is cities looking themselves at how they’re doing and groups within cities saying, ‘Are we making progress or are we not making progress?’” Stetson said.

Mayors did indeed show in up the hundreds in Quito this week, where they have regularly emphasized their readiness and willingness to start implementation — although they also said they could do so only with additional finances and authorities.

[See: Mayors warn sustainable cities are impossible without their direct input]

Still, those numbers were far lower than the estimated 1,000 mayors who attended December’s Climate Summit for Local Leaders at Paris City Hall, on the sidelines of COP 21. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, U. N. Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, co-hosted that gathering, but neither came to Habitat III.

Toward urban policies

Either way, Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos — himself a former mayor and a significant proponent of local authorities’ role in implementing the New Urban Agenda — pointed his finger at national governments in terms of taking up the key responsibility post-Quito.

[See: A Clos-up view on urbanization]

“In many parts of the world, the central government is not fully aware of their contribution to the lack of quality of urbanization,” he said Friday. “In the modern state, this is a very dangerous thing, because in fact, the central government has a lot to do with urban quality because the central government establishes the rules of the game, the financial level of local authorities, the security policy, the health policy, the education policy.”

One way that central governments can help the process along is by adopting national urban policies — a central priority for many Habitat III leaders. While definitions vary, in general such policies consist of a single law or a combination of legislation focused on enabling, rather than hindering, the efficient function of urban areas as a whole — as cities, rather than just neighbourhoods.

This week, UN-Habitat, Cities Alliance and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development announced a joint programme to foster national urban policies worldwide through knowledge generation and technical assistance. The programme’s goal is for half of all countries to develop such policies by 2025. If such a metric is met, it would be a significant legacy of Habitat III.

Advocates of national urban policies are quick to note, however, that these cannot be imposed. “Countries come to us,” said Jane Reid, UN-Habitat’s point person for the initiative. “We don’t want to go to countries and say, ‘You must have this.’ We can say why it’s important, but the ownership of the policy has to be in the country.”

[See: Nations share their urban stories ahead of Habitat III]

One place where the Habitat III process has catalyzed that desire is Israel. Last year, the country hosted its first urban forum, and now two members of the urban caucus in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, are in the preliminary phases of preparing such legislation — and gathering ideas for their version here in Quito.

“The potential for a national urban policy in Israel is great, because we’re small but a growing population — faster than the West — and we’re 90 percent urban,” said Tamar Zandberg, a member of parliament. Her colleague Dov Khenin added: “The government is dealing with a housing crisis by building houses, but the whole attitude is very one-dimensional: Let’s build flats all over the place. They totally lack in urban thinking.”  

Monitoring progress

A clearer sense of the number and type of commitments to the New Urban Agenda made by governments — national and local — will become clearer in the weeks following the conference’s end Thursday. But one core issue that was not discussed this week, and which will not be dealt with for months, is how to track progress toward the New Urban Agenda’s lofty aspirations

For complex reasons, that issue was shelved at the last minute in political negotiations that ended in September. The question will be taken up next year by the U. N. General Assembly.

[See: Proposal would kick Habitat III’s main sticking point to U. N. General Assembly]

Yet even when that discussion does officially begin, U. N. observer Dodds warns, a key problem looms: The New Urban Agenda lacks hard targets. “Without a target that commits you to something, you can’t have any metrics to measure,” he said.

While the New Urban Agenda is a voluntary, non-binding agreement, it does include some initial mechanisms for what’s known in U. N. parlance as “follow-up and review”. Its final section calls on the U. N. secretary-general to prepare a quadrennial report on implementation of the agenda. The report will be coordinated by UN-Habitat, the U. N. agency that specializes in urbanization.

[See: Can we actually agree on indicators to measure urban development?]

The first of those reports is expected in 2018. That time frame overlaps with the ninth World Urban Forum as well as the U. N.’s annual review of the SDGs, which in 2018 is expected to focus on Goal 11, the “urban” SDG. Unlike the New Urban Agenda, that goal includes targets and indicators, and researchers have highlighted dozens of other SDG targets with an urban dimension.

Still, much remains up in the air about the first stocktaking on the New Urban Agenda. Before it can take place, the first question in the docket will be on the future of UN-Habitat itself — the issue that held up negotiations on the New Urban Agenda for months this summer.

Gabriela Rico contributed reporting to this story.

Note: This story has been updated to note IOM Director General William Lacy Swing’s presence in Quito.

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