To deal with rapid urbanization, U.N. urged to copy global climate mechanisms

Unfinished buildings and cranes tower above London, 2012. Early September will see a key high-level meeting at the United Nations on how the international community will deal with future urbanization. (ZRyzner/Shutterstock)

Ahead of a major meeting next week, a prominent grouping of civil society representatives is urging the United Nations to strengthen its coordinated response to rapid urbanization by copying mechanisms set up decades ago: those created to combat global climate change.

The suggestion comes from an umbrella group of urban constituencies known as the General Assembly of Partners (GAP). In a statement this week, the GAP outlines recommendations for the creation of entities it calls an Intergovernmental Panel on Urbanization and a United Nations Framework Convention on Urban Change.

The GAP statement comes in response to a report released this month by a panel of experts commissioned by the United Nations secretary-general around how to reform the U. N.’s focus on urban issues. That panel ended up recommending the creation of a first-ever global body to coordinate international urbanization — “UN Urban”.

The proposed UN Urban will now be at the heart of a two-day debate next week at U. N. Headquarters in New York. That meeting, which will feature top U. N. brass, urban development ministers, big-city mayors and major thinkers in contemporary urbanism, will more broadly discuss how to reform UN-Habitat, the U. N.’s lead agency on urbanization.

[See: Next month, a key opportunity to re-imagine the global response to an urban world]

The GAP, formed ahead of last year’s Habitat III summit on the future of cities and representing 16 constituencies, welcomed the UN Urban proposal. But it also is urging the U. N. General Assembly, which ultimately will act on the panel’s recommendations, to go further.

“Global governance of urbanization is as urgent now as was the establishment of global governance of climate change and environmental issues thirty years ago,” the statement reads.

To that end, the GAP suggests an alternative to UN Urban in the form of an Intergovernmental Panel on Urbanization and a United Nations Framework Convention on Urban Change. Both are modeled on existing mechanisms to address climate change. The GAP first proposed these ideas in negotiations on the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that came out of Habitat III.

Monday’s statement argued that such entities “upgrade significantly knowledge of urban issues as the IPCC did regarding environment and climate change,” a reference to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, created in 1988. The GAP is calling for a new urban-focused entity based on an “updated” version of the IPCC.

[See: Proposed ‘UN Urban’ would coordinate global approach to urbanization]

GAP promoted the idea of such a panel in its May 2016 statement Partnerships for the New Urban Agenda as a means to increase public awareness and consolidate scientific understanding based on research and data on the meaning and importance of sustainable urbanization,” GAP President Eugénie Birch told Citiscope.

“We viewed it as a complement to the extensive work undertaken by the U. N., including UN-Habitat, global researchers and the many other contributors to knowledge about cities and human settlements,” she said. “The idea gained considerable support during the New Urban Agenda negotiations and might be worth reconsidering.”

Stakeholder role

In its statement, the GAP also criticized the panel of experts’ proposed reforms to the governance structure of UN-Habitat, which has suffered from flagging donor confidence in recent years. The group called the proposal, which would expand the agency’s existing two oversight committees to five, “a compromise, far short of a genuine tripartite arrangement involving member states, local authorities and stakeholders”.

“Global governance of urbanization is as urgent now as was the establishment of global governance of climate change and environmental issues thirty years ago.”

General Assembly of Partners
Statement, 28 August

The panel does recommend the creation of committees of local authorities and stakeholder representatives. But these bodies would be purely advisory and without a “seat at the table” of any of the agency’s oversight boards, as stakeholders have been calling for.

[See: Where does the ‘UN Urban’ proposal leave the New Urban Agenda?]

Still, the GAP is complimentary toward the panel for its recognition of “the necessity of collecting sub-urban data if the world is going to deal seriously with inequality and social exclusion.” The statement goes on to note, “Urbanists have been calling for this kind of analysis for years — but many economists and statisticians have not agreed.”

In turn, it recommends a prominent role for stakeholders. In making this proposal, it cites the example of the “Know Your City” campaign by Slum/Shack Dwellers International, an NGO, whereby residents of informal settlements are trained to collect data in communities that municipal governments often overlook.

Know Your City’s database currently has information from dozens of settlements in 10 countries across Africa and Asia, with data points as detailed as the ratio of toilet seats to residents. If empowered as an official data collection method, Know Your City could be scaled up to meet the data need in the rapidly growing informal sector.

Civil society is slated to have a chance to discuss these recommendations at next week’s meeting. A draft schedule for the 5-6 September event is available here.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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