Nations set to adopt 20-year strategy on the future of cities

At the centre of this week’s Habitat III conference on sustainable urbanization is a strategy that has been negotiated and agreed by 193 countries — the New Urban Agenda. Is that accord transformative?

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tours the historic district of Quito, 16 October. (Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo)

QUITO, Ecuador — Most of the tens of thousands of people gathering here at the Habitat III conference on the future of cities have come to discuss their experiences, hopes and frustrations with today’s patterns of urbanization — to learn how others are responding to common urban problems and to share their own innovative solutions.

But this week’s energy also is focused on formulating a specific strategy document, one that will be implemented in countries around the world over the next 20 years — the  New Urban Agenda. After months of political negotiation, the text is being adopted here by representatives of at least 140 countries on behalf of all 193 member states of the United Nations.

On Monday, world leaders began to announce and detail their intention to adopt and implement the new strategy. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa was elected president of the conference and gave the first head-of-state address, in which he asserted that Latin America’s informal settlements “are considered part of folklore when in reality they’re part of misery.” As Ecuador’s contribution to the New Urban Agenda, he announced plans for a national law against land speculation and encouraged countries to uphold the right to the city, a principle reflected in the New Urban Agenda and enshrined in Ecuador’s constitution.

[See: 50,000 gather in Quito for Habitat III, a once-in-a-generation summit on the future of cities]

The world leaders in attendance — the presidents of Ecuador and Venezuela, and the prime minister of Lesotho, along with vice-presidents and ministers from some 140 countries — were urged on by U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who noted that major cities cover just 2 percent of the planet’s land area but account for roughly half the population.

“As you know, cities are increasingly the home of humanity,” he said. “That is why it is important that this agenda, this New Urban Agenda, be fully implemented.”

[See: Question of the Day: What is the most innovative, transformational idea in the New Urban Agenda?]

At the start of four-day summit that is celebrating cities as a solution, Ban praised the potential of urban areas. “Cities are remarkable engines of growth, centres of diversity and hubs of creativity.” However, he was pessimistic about the current state of urban affairs. “All these major cities, that’s where you can build good settlements, but at the same time, they create a lot of problems: pollution, crime, sanitation, water, health issues, slums, very dirty and very difficult human settlements,” he said.

Still, Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos was undeterred by the challenge of the status quo. “Urbanization is a collective process. It’s an art and a science,” he said. “The New Urban Agenda envisions cities where everyone can feel a sense of belonging and have equal opportunities to participate.”

Urbanism’s arrival

Supporters see the New Urban Agenda as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set a new vision on how to build cities equitably and sustainably, just as urbanization trends are ramping up. So after two years of technical input and public discussion, followed by four months of political debate, does the text these countries are adopting this week do what it needs to do? Reactions to those questions are starting to coalesce.

“As you know, cities are increasingly the home of humanity. That is why it is important that this agenda, this New Urban Agenda, be fully implemented.”

Ban Ki-moon
U. N. Secretary-General

[See: Question of the Day: What key issue is missing from the New Urban Agenda?]

At first glance, the final draft of the New Urban Agenda reads similar to any graduate-level planning textbook. It calls for compact cities, polycentric growth, transit-oriented development, adequate public space and reining in sprawl.

For scholars, practitioners and municipal policymakers engaged in the day-to-day work of citymaking, the document is more a ratification of long-held orthodoxies than a groundbreaking new treatise on urbanism.

“We can trace the idea of compact cities back to late-19th-century England; nor are the transit-oriented development and public space ideas particularly innovative,” said University of Pennsylvania urban planning professor Eugénie Birch. “Well-planned places in high-income places like New York City have these qualities, having instituted them rather haphazardly over the course of the last century.”

[See: Developing countries face a catastrophic lack of urban planning capacity]

Still, the document is a codification of these ideas that comes with the imprimatur of approval by 193 countries, and that’s what many see as the significant achievement. Indeed, the New Urban Agenda marks the arrival of these ideas at the highest levels of global policymaking, and the document’s adoption could now have a significant impact on how nations and the multilateral development community views cities — as engines of prosperity rather than hives of poverty.

“There is a mature institutional environment among international stakeholders on the importance of cities and the urban agenda,” said Ana Claudia Rossbach, with Cities Alliance’s Brazil office. “This could enable a positive environment for implementation from international banks, U. N. agencies and international cooperation agencies.”

As a result, the New Urban Agenda offers an intriguing view on how urban issues have percolated into the international policy arena. “What is new is their movement from utopian or reformist tracts to the mainstream of a global agreement by 193 nations and recommendations for their being instituted consciously, systematically and contextually,” Birch said, “not as silver bullets but as solutions to be tailored to local circumstances.”

More focused, more strategic?

Any assessment of the New Urban Agenda naturally leads to comparisons with its predecessor. Prior to this week’s gathering in Quito, the last time that national governments and urbanists worldwide came together to take stock of the work’s cities was in 1996, when they convened in Istanbul for the Habitat II conference. (The first of the Habitat conferences took place in 1976, in Vancouver.)

[See: Since Habitat II, a ‘transformative’ 20 years]

In Istanbul, governments debated and eventually adopted a strategy called the Habitat Agenda, a document that ostensibly has been guiding urbanization strategy over the past two decades. The Habitat Agenda now will be supplanted by the New Urban Agenda — a document that supporters hope will prompt action in a way that its predecessor wasn’t necessarily able to accomplish.

“Earlier Habitat outcome documents were models of urbanism, containing every good theory or best practice the authors could conceive,” said Birch. “However, they were unfocused and not strategic.” Indeed, the Habitat Agenda went on for 109 pages. The New Urban Agenda is considerably more concise, at 24 pages.

Birch lauds the new document for what she says is its ability to set priorities. For instance, she points to its emphasis on enabling legislation that will give local governments more autonomy to manage their cities, as well as its prioritization on the spatial aspect of planning — where urban development takes place on the ground.

Quoting from the text, Birch also highlights the document’s emphasis on the need to craft solutions for implementation that “create a proper enabling environment that includes ‘access to science, technology, and innovation and enhanced knowledge sharing on mutually agreed terms, capacity development, and mobilization of financial resources.’”

[See: After Habitat III, we need to institutionalize our urban policy dialogues]

Meanwhile, the social and political environments into which the New Urban Agenda is being released are different than they were two decades ago, potentially a key factor in how enticing and actionable governments will find the document’s strategies. The past two decades have seen a marked increase in awareness around urban issues, says Rossbach, who notes that “the topic has gained institutional and programmatic space” since Habitat II.

Ahistorical ideas

Not all long-time Habitat observers are sanguine about where the New Urban Agenda’s text ended up or about its potential impact. Michael Cohen, who directs the urban programme at the New School in New York and attended Habitat II as an urban analyst for the World Bank, is more skeptical of the new document. “I do not believe that the New Urban Agenda is transformative,” he said.

“The New Urban Agenda is a list of what needs to be addressed in thinking about cities, but it does not provide guidance on how these needs can actually be addressed.”

Michael Cohen
The New School

[See: Alternative forums to offer urban visions outside of Habitat III]

Cohen disputes the notion that the New Urban Agenda has adequately prioritized a strategy for grappling with an increasingly urban future. “It is a list of what needs to be addressed in thinking about cities, but it does not provide guidance on how these needs can actually be addressed,” he said.

Above all, Cohen critiques the document as operating in a vacuum that doesn’t address change over time. “The Habitat III conversation has been largely ahistorical, not taking into account the profound changes of globalization, natural disasters, technologies or political values,” he said. “In my judgment, the Habitat III process has not advanced global, national or local urban awareness.”

[See: Countries made only marginal progress on urban commitments since 1996, index finds]

At the same time, the document does leave some lasting markers, the effects of which may be understood only over time. One key example is the New Urban Agenda’s controversial inclusion of a reference to the right to the city, an umbrella concept that unites urban social-justice campaigners around issues such as gentrification, forced evictions, foreclosures, refugees, the privatization of public space and the criminalization of homelessness.

The fight over including the term in the New Urban Agenda was one of the last to be resolved before final agreement on the document last month. The result was a success for civil society activists and progressive local authorities, notes U. N. observer Felix Dodds — and one that built on the Habitat Agenda’s landmark reference to the right to adequate housing. “It was already a right, but it was a big push to have it within the text, which succeeded,” he said. “You could see this as a development over 20 years.”

The right to the city is already recognized by Brazilian federal law and Ecuador’s constitution. The two countries were the leading advocate for the concept, which opposes market-driven urban development, real estate speculation and gentrification. “What’s important is not only the four words as such,” said Ecuadorian diplomat Jonathan Viera. “The concept can be found throughout the document.”

Dodds also applauds the New Urban Agenda’s method of handling the other main point of controversy, the future of UN-Habitat, the specialized U. N. agency that focuses on urbanization. The otherwise esoteric issue is particularly important because it goes to the heart of the question of how progress on implementation of the New Urban Agenda will be monitored over the next two decades.

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

In September, a last-minute compromise resulted in a plan that removed this thorny question from the Habitat III negotiations. Under that plan, the new U. N. secretary-general will be tasked with submitting an independent assessment of the agency next year, to be followed by a two-day meeting in New York that will result in a decision on the issue by the U. N. General Assembly.

“That will be a substantive conversation,” Dodds said.

A broader process

The question of how to monitor the New Urban Agenda also is linked to a final point of contention about the document — the fact that it is voluntary and non-binding. Yet some see that as a net positive when it comes to innovations in both the process and the outcome.

“As the [New Urban Agenda] is non-mandatory, it also reflected some flexibility for negotiations, allowing it to be as progressive as possible,” said Rossbach. In particular she pointed to the right to the city but also to the emphasis that the New Urban Agenda places on issues such as national urban policies and the balance of power between national and local governments.

Meanwhile, it’s important to remember that the Habitat III process itself has been much broader than what eventually made it into the text of the New Urban Agenda. Wide-ranging preparations in the run-up to Habitat III produced a huge amount of new urbanization-related research, debate and recommendations, Rossbach noted.

[See: Habitat III expert groups deliver final technical reports]

This process saw dozens of countries prepare national reports, U. N. agencies and economic commissions assess specific topic areas and geographic regions, 200 global experts provide input, and a host of international meetings provide opportunities for engagement in every corner of the world. Of course, all of this material remains ready and available to guide policymaking, advocacy and thinking in cities for years to come.

“This process of combining technical and political consultations, even with all the constraints and limitations, was unique,” Rossbach said, “and eventually unprecedented within the main global agendas.”

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