Platform needed to provide scientific input on New Urban Agenda implementation, researchers say

Mechanism seen as critical following Habitat III negotiations’ removal of proposed Multi-Stakeholder Panel on Sustainable Urbanization.

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QUITO, Ecuador — The combined knowledge of the thousands of scientists, urbanists and officials rushing around the exhibition halls and conference rooms of the Habitat III summit happening here this week could fill libraries full of books.

But the problem is that this urban knowledge is not collected in one place. It’s scattered around the world’s research labs, universities, think tanks and government departments, some of it ignored on dusty shelves or buried deep in clogged-up hard drives.

“We have a lot of knowledge on cities and urbanization, but it’s siloed,” says Timon McPhearson, director of the urban ecology lab at the New School in New York. “We do not have an integrated scientific body that’s seen as legitimate, that’s seen as coordinated and organized.”

McPhearson is part of a group of researchers who on Tuesday announced a call to action to develop a platform that could bring together the scientific and broad research community to provide input on policy around the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year vision on sustainable urbanization that world leaders are adopting here this week.

This, the researchers say, is imperative if the prosperous urban visions captured in the New Urban Agenda is to become a reality. They also point to the need in the context of implementing the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global anti-poverty framework agreed last year that also includes a landmark urban focus. The New Urban Agenda is seen as a roadmap for implementing the SDGs in cities.

“We have to start thinking about what we do next after Habitat III,” said Anne Hélène Prieur-Richard of Future Earth, a global research initiative focused on sustainability science. “We have a New Urban Agenda, it’s very exciting, but how are we going to implement it?”

[See: We’re entering a ‘new era’ for cities and science]

Science needs to play a major role in assisting the implementation process, the researchers said.

“It’s impossible to actually monitor any progress on the Sustainable Development Goals without a scientific process of gathering data, analyzing it and giving it back as an assessment process,” said McPhearson. “You cannot do this without science.”

Multi-stakeholder gap

The platform is seen as particularly important given a key proposal that was stripped out of the New Urban Agenda’s text during political negotiations over the summer. That proposal would have seen the creation of a Multi-Stakeholder Panel on Sustainable Urbanization, which would have included scientists. With its removal, no similar infrastructure remains in the Habitat III outcome strategy.

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

Since urban research requires an integrated approach, the proposed platform will pool researchers from across disciplines.

“Among the various questions — whether it’s health, sustainability, resilience, vulnerability and risk to climate change, or the social inequities that are persistent in pretty much every city in the world — we can’t think about it from just an economic perspective, which is important, or just an environmental perspective, which is also important,” said McPhearson.

Rather, he said, what is needed is an “integrated perspective”.

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

While science will be used to monitor progress on the New Urban Agenda and SDGs, researchers also will contribute to generating new data, creating new metrics for monitoring progress on implementation, and finding solutions to the urban challenges facing cities across the world.

“I think one of the things that is overlooked when people tend to think of scientists, as some kind of group, is the creativity and innovation that exists within these minds,” McPhearson said.

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Brendon Bosworth

Brendon Bosworth is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Cape Town and is the editor of UrbanAfrica.Net, a project of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town.