Official commitments to New Urban Agenda off to a slow start

Halfway through Habitat III, few countries have made pledges on the official Quito Implementation Plan platform.

Participants walk the grounds of the Habitat III conference, 18 October. (Christopher Swope)

QUITO, Ecuador — Few of the 140 countries represented at this week’s Habitat III conference on cities have yet offered concrete commitments to implement the New Urban Agenda, the United Nations’ new 20-year urbanization strategy, which is being adopted this week.

With dozens of panel discussions and speeches taking place daily from morning until night, much of the discussion here has turned to how to implement this voluntary, non-binding agreement. Those discussions have been complemented by multiple plenary sessions, at which national governments have expressed their backing for the new agenda.

Beyond rhetoric, however, Habitat III organizers are expecting formal commitments to implement the strategy in terms of money, policy or other pledges. Whether representing a national government or a neighborhood association, the main way to make a commitment to the New Urban Agenda is the Quito Implementation Plan, an online platform that went live last month.

“The voluntary commitments seek to be concrete actions, measurable and achievable, focused on implementation, and with great depth of information for future accountability and transparency,” the Habitat III Secretariat said Tuesday in a statement. “The term ‘commitment’ implies emphasis to the implementation and outcomes of one or multi-stakeholders’ initiatives to promote sustainable urban development rather than the common activity of the partners.”

In fact, an examination of the commitments to date suggest that most countries — and even multilateral institutions — are tying pre-existing efforts to the New Urban Agenda, rather than announcing new initiatives.

As a platform open to countries and everyday citizens alike, the commitments in the Quito Implementation Plan range widely. So far, these pledges include the EUR 1 billion pledged by the German government to alleviate overloaded public-transit systems, as well as a Quito youth group that organizes a weekly evening stroll through a park.

Citiscope reviewed the 61 commitments, representing 271 organizations, that were available as of Tuesday evening. The vast majority came from the non-governmental sphere — universities designing courses, think tanks preparing research projects, advocacy groups pledging local campaigns, a real estate firm promoting its affordable housing developments.

Meanwhile, only five of the commitments were from national governments. Three of those came from the European Union, along with one from Germany and one from Turkey.

[See: The E. U. is a major voice in the Habitat III process. What is it saying?]

The sluggish initial pace of commitments underscores growing concerns about the political traction of the New Urban Agenda. By contrast, the run-up to last year’s COP 21 U. N. climate change summit saw almost 11,000 pledges representing 10,000 partners to its commitment platform, known by the acronym NAZCA.

“My assessment is that we need many more governments bringing concrete initiatives to the table,” said Tania Roediger-Vorwerk of the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Handful of pledges

A few local governments have stepped up, as well. Two commitments listed on the official platform came from the Brazilian city of Santa Isabel, while another came from the Palestinian city of Hebron.

“My assessment is that we need many more governments bringing concrete initiatives to the table.”

Tania Roediger-Vorwerk
German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development

Two other pledges came from within the U. N. system itself. One was offered by the U. N. Economic Commission for Africa; the other came from UN-Habitat, the lead agency on cities. Separately, the U. N. Development Programme (UNDP) announced a new sustainable urbanization strategy. “We need cities to be more resilient and their inhabitants less vulnerable,” said UNDP Administrator Helen Clark.

At press time, no commitments had been made by other multilateral institutions or development banks. While several of the latter did issue an unusual joint statement of support Tuesday, they offered no financial commitments.

[See: New Urban Agenda good on ‘what’ but not on ‘how’, critics warn]

A spokesperson for the Habitat III Secretariat noted that pledges would continue to be accepted throughout this week’s conference but also emphasized that the focus of the New Urban Agenda is ultimately on spurring action in the long term.

The “most difficult aspect of the commitments is not to present them” but to act on them, the spokesperson said. “Habitat III should prioritize … focused and innovative initiatives in which several partners can join efforts, instead of duplicating resources.”

“The goal of the Quito Implementation Plan is to support … these partnerships” in coming months, the spokesperson said.

Indeed, that forward-looking sensibility will resonate for many here. While for some gathered here this week at Habitat III, the conference feels like the finish line after two intensive years of preparation, the summit organizers are keen to emphasize that these four days in Quito are only the start.

“This is not the end of the road, just the beginning,” said Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos on Friday. He elaborated further in his opening address on Monday, noting the voluntary commitments that have already been made to the Quito Implementation Plan. “This gives an excellent kick-start for the major tasks ahead us,” he said.

[See: Nations set to adopt 20-year strategy on the future of cities]

But the limited engagement thus far from national governments prompted urging from Germany — the first to deliver on a commitment — that others follow its example.

“They can expand their initiatives which they have already delivered for the Paris Agreement,” Roediger-Vorwerk said, referring to the global accord on climate change finalized in December. “That might be one part of the picture. But we need more governments who realize that the New Urban Agenda will be on the table.”

Actual commitments

So of those governments that have formally announced commitments to implement the New Urban Agenda, what have they been pledging?

On Monday, the German government announced the Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative, which will mobilize over EUR 1 billion to support efforts to reduce congestion, traffic fatalities and air pollution in cities in 22 countries.

[See: Germany stepping up major engagement in Habitat III preparations]

The European Union announced three initiatives this week. First, the European body pledged to advance the Urban Agenda for the E. U.—  a regional roadmap to sustainable cities developed in parallel with the New Urban Agenda — by developing action plans for the agenda’s 12 themes, which cover basic issues such as housing, climate change, economic development and migrants.

Second, the E. U. pledged to foster cooperation among European cities and cities from nearly a dozen countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Canada, China, India, Japan and the United States) on four issues: access to water, transport systems, health and housing.

Finally, the E. U. will work with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to establish a global definition of cities based on “degree of urbanization”, a statistical classification developed by the European Statistical Office. A globally consistent definition will be helpful for comparing across regions to measure cities’ progress toward the U. N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include a landmark goal on cities and a host of other targets with an urban dimension.

[See: Inextricably interlinked: The urban SDG and the new development agenda]

When queried, several other countries offered examples of recent initiatives aligned with the New Urban Agenda, though they have not been formally submitted as voluntary commitments. On Monday, for instance, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa announced new legislation to rein in land speculation through land value capture.

Mexico referred to its new urbanization law, passed last year. The legislation was first announced earlier this year in the run-up to Habitat III.

[See: Mexico seeks to place rights at the centre of the Habitat III negotiations]

And Chile pointed to an ordinance, passed earlier this year, that requires developers of large real estate projects to provide public-space benefits and to pay into a municipal fund for public space in exchange for additional built area beyond what is zoned.

“One of the relevant themes of the New Urban Agenda of Habitat III has to do with the quality of urbanization, and as such the quality of the public goods inside the city, because those are what makes it possible for citizens to have access to transport, recreation, and public space,” said Paulina Saball, Chile’s minister of housing and urbanism.

In the case of the United States, existing efforts were deemed sufficient. “We’re determined to lead by example in implementing the New Urban Agenda,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro told Citiscope. “Fortunately, the issues that the New Urban Agenda tackles are very consistent with the issues that the administration has been tackling now for almost eight years.”

Castro cited U. S. President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which has a significant cities component, as well his own agency’s Better Buildings Challenge to reduce energy usage, as two examples that came out last year’s U. N. Climate Change Conference, COP 21. However, the country brought no new policies or programmes to announce to coincide with the adoption of the New Urban Agenda.

And development banks?

Then there are the development banks — a key player in the discussion of urban development, particularly given broader analysis of a potential reorientation of global aid flows to place greater emphasis on cities.

The World Bank estimates that annual urban infrastructure needs exceed USD 4.5 trillion. On the occasion of Habitat III, the Washington-based financial institution and seven other multilateral development banks came together and issued a joint statement Tuesday expressing their commitment to promote sustainable urbanization. This was the first time that the eight banks — representing Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Islamic world — have agreed collectively to focus on urban issues, organizers say.

[See: Searching for the financing message in Habitat III’s ‘millennium challenge’]

When queried, several of the financial institutions noted the large scope of their existing commitment to urban development, although no new financial pledges were announced by Tuesday. The European Investment Bank, for example, calculated its estimated contribution at USD 100 billion over the next five years, including USD 200 million for a new subway line in Quito.

“It’s a little premature to expect that in the very first of this kind of meeting where all the [multinational development banks] are present that all of a sudden we are going to come up with direct financial commitments,” said the bank’s official responsible for urban lending, Jan Vapaavuori.

Last July, in contrast, six major multilateral development banks and the International Monetary Fund collectively pledged USD 400 billion in loans and other assistance to help the world’s nations meet their obligations under the SDGs.

Yet with just a short period between when diplomats finalized the New Urban Agenda last month and this week’s conference, the world’s development banks were not able to muster significant new financial resources to the cause of urbanization quite yet.

“I don’t think that it’s reasonable to expect that something is issued and three days later eight institutions can tell you this is how much it’s going to cost,” said World Bank urban specialist Victor Vergara.

Note: This story has been updated to clarify the German government’s commitment.

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