Joan Clos: New Urban Agenda ideas ‘are now trickling down’

"Only six months after Habitat III, we will have, I hope, an action framework that will fulfill the commitment that Habitat III should be action-oriented — not just a declaration or a rhetorical document," said Joan Clos, who presided over last year's conference on sustainable cities. (Habitat III Secretariat)

Six months have passed since 167 countries adopted the 20-year urbanization strategy known as the New Urban Agenda at last year’s United Nations Habitat III summit in Quito, Ecuador. That the world made it to that milestone is due in no small part to the efforts of Joan Clos, executive director of UN-Habitat, the U. N.’s lead agency on urban issues. The indefatigable former mayor of Barcelona traveled to over 40 countries on the road to Habitat III, drumming up interest and support from heads of state, housing ministers, big-city mayors and civil society activists.

Since the summit, Clos has barely slowed down as he pushes countries to act on the 24-page voluntary, non-binding agreement they adopted in October. (The U. N. General Assembly formally adopted the document in December.) With a new U. N. secretary-general now in charge and Clos’s own two-term mandate expiring at the end of this year (with a possible renewal through next year), the world’s urbanist-in-chief is in a race against time to secure the legacy of the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Six months after Habitat III, is the New Urban Agenda gaining political traction?]

Last week, I spoke with Clos about the state of play for the agreement of which he was the chief architect. This interview, which took place 21 April via videoconference from Clos’s Nairobi office, has been slightly edited for length and clarity.


Gregory Scruggs: At the six-month mark, how would you assess the New Urban Agenda’s political traction within the United Nations system?

Joan Clos: First of all, the New Urban Agenda was endorsed by the General Assembly in December. For us this is a very important step forward, because it means that it has been endorsed unanimously. This is, of course, the first step. At the same time, that opens the way for coming steps, which is working on the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

Q: Do you think that the New Urban Agenda has political momentum similar to what, for example, the Paris Agreement or the 2030 Agenda have achieved?

A: Everything has its different scope and its different projection in terms of public opinion, but I would say that the New Urban Agenda is now fully integrated with the process of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. The issue of urbanization was singled out in the formal approval of Goal 11. Specifically, for the first time in the history of development, urbanization has been elevated as one of the pillars of sustainable development.

Equally, in terms of climate change, in the Paris Agreement the urban chapter was very important, and the mayor of Paris herself organized a series of events about local involvement and urban aspects of climate change. I am very happy that this track of urban consideration in the climate change issue has not lost strength — neither in COP 22 and I am sure that in Bonn this year, in COP 23, this is going to keep its relevance. After all, there is a scientific consensus that around 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are related to urbanization. Therefore, any serious consideration of climate change needs to involve urbanization.

[See: A Clos-up view on urbanization]

We are advancing in other lines, too. Together with the International Organization for Migration, we are presenting a joint event in October on migration and urbanization. In December, it’s a meeting of the [U. N. World Tourism Organization], where the specific theme is going to be urbanization and tourism following the New Urban Agenda. And the World Bank recently issued a very good report about African cities, on the collaboration between the World Bank and UN-Habitat we had during during Habitat III.

In general, we are perceiving that the framework and the set of ideas that were expressed in the New Urban Agenda in Quito are now trickling down and appearing in the work of many U. N. programmes.

Q: At the conclusion of Habitat III, you called on the cities of the world to adopt the New Urban Agenda in their municipal councils. How many cities have taken that step so far?

A: We don’t have the statistics of that, because it is the national governments who provide those statistics. We know that several cities have done so. I am going to have a meeting next week of the U. N. Advisory Committee of Local Authorities in Istanbul, and we are going to follow up on this proposal. There are quite a number of cities that are quite interested on following on the adoption. Of course, it can be a declaration, but the important thing is that they commit to the implementation.

We are also seeing a very positive evolution in implementation of the City Prosperity Index — by now we have more than 400 cities that have engaged in the index. The City Prosperity Index is a methodology for evaluating the kind of indicators linked to the New Urban Agenda, and shows that there’s a very important response to this call of engaging in the principles of the New Urban Agenda.

Q: Where are you seeing the most significant interest in energy around implementation outside of U. N. agencies?

A: For the first time in Quito, [civil society] organized themselves around the General Assembly of Partners. That is a huge achievement. Of course, in the end, the change at the city level requires the political commitment of the decision-makers, meaning the local authorities, the national authorities and the sub-national authorities.

[See: The New Urban Agenda will pay for itself]

Q: Are there specific countries or cities, local or national authorities, that are most committed at this stage?

A: There’s a very good response in Latin America: Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador, of course, because it was the host country. Also in other parts of the world — in Africa, we are seeing Senegal, Morocco, Cameroon, Rwanda, which have been very active in mobilizing towards the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

The same can be said of several of the countries in Asia. For example, I just received communication from India’s high-level minister of urbanization that he’s attending the Governing Council [of UN-Habitat, taking place in early May]. He has expressed to me the commitment of India to continue in the [100 Smart Cities programme], which is a very massive commitment to urbanization.

[This week] in Tehran there was the World Summit of Islamic Cities, where specifically the subject is the financial pillar of implementation of the New Urban Agenda. We receive every day news about different activities in relation to the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

Q: Recently, the U. N. secretary-general announced a panel that will conduct an independent assessment of UN-Habitat. How important is the panel’s report for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda?

A: I wouldn’t say that the panel has to do with the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. In the end, the implementation of the New Urban Agenda is the responsibility of the member states, as the signatories of the commitment. Therefore, the panel has another function, which is to assess UN-Habitat — to strengthen the capacities of UN-Habitat in order to help member states to implement the New Urban Agenda. The basic responsibility of the implementation of the New Urban Agenda falls to the member states.

Q: But the panel’s assessment was noted in the “follow-up and review” section of the New Urban Agenda. If member states are responsible for implementing the New Urban Agenda, are they also waiting to see what the result will be of this question?

A: No, no, no — the function of the panel is an assessment of the way to strengthen UN-Habitat, as a tool to support the member states in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. It’s not the role of the panel to involve themselves in the implementation, other than evaluating UN-Habitat and in proposing strengthening measures in order to support a better UN-Habitat to deliver its function. The panel should provide material to the high-level meeting that is going to be hosted by the president of the General Assembly at the end of August, in order to generate consensus between member states in how to address the strengthening of UN-Habitat.

[See: UN-Habitat facing ‘considerable decline’ in core funding, assessment warns]

Q: That high-level meeting will be the one determining the ultimate follow-up and review of the New Urban Agenda?

A: No, the follow-up and review of the New Urban Agenda is going to be done by the periodic evaluations and reports that are going to be presented every four years in ECOSOC [the committee that organizes the work of the U. N.’s specialized committees, including UN-Habitat].

The mechanism of the evaluation and measurement of the outputs of the New Urban Agenda is going to come through the agreement established in the New Urban Agenda in the last chapters, about the periodical revisions. These periodical revisions are going to be articulated in cooperation with the stakeholders in the different World Urban Forums that are going to be organized in the coming years.

There’s a first report on the New Urban Agenda that is going to be presented next year to ECOSOC, and the next big one is going to be in 2021.

Q: In the six months since Quito, how would you assess progress towards the Quito Implementation Plan?

A: There are several initiatives here. One is the voluntary commitments that we have engaged in an open platform where by now we have something like 63 or 64 voluntary commitments. This is permanently on revision. We are following that very closely.

[See: The Quito Papers: An intellectual counterpoint to the New Urban Agenda]

There’s another line of work that we are doing, and this is through the Governing Council of UN-Habitat — the approval of the Action Framework for the Implementation of the New Urban Agenda, or ANIFUA. Several meetings have already taken place with stakeholders, the last of which was in New York two weeks ago. We are preparing everything in order that in the Governing Council, we will have the green light in going toward implementation of the AFINUA.

AFINUA is a very action-oriented project and includes 36 specific measures that should be considered as a framework for implementation of the New Urban Agenda. This has been a technical job done by many specialists, including quite a number of those who participated in the different “policy units” of Habitat III. Therefore, there is a very strong linkage between the preparatory process of Habitat III and this implementation framework for action. This is the other part of the implementation of Habitat III.

I think that we are very well on track in that direction. Only six months after Habitat III, we will have, I hope, an action framework that will fulfill the commitment that Habitat III should be action-oriented — not just a declaration or a rhetorical document.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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