Proposed ‘UN Urban’ would coordinate global approach to urbanization

People play and relax at Singapore's Marina Barrage, 2016. The proposed new body suggests that the United Nations is finally coming to terms with the importance of cities and the demographic reality that the world is majority urban. (IamDoctorEgg/Shutterstock)

A global panel of experts has recommended the creation of a first-ever international body focused on urban sustainability. The panel was formed at the behest of U. N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who subsequently indicated his support for the creation of such an entity, being referred to as “UN Urban”.

The proposal, released 3 August, is the topline conclusion of a major report on how to reform the U. N.’s current lead agency on urban issues, UN-Habitat. Coming almost a year after the Habitat III summit on the future of cities, the proposal is the clearest signal yet of how the international community plans to grapple with the trend of global urbanization as Guterres embarks on comprehensive reform of the U. N.’s development architecture.

The recommendations came as part of the “Report of the High Level Independent Panel to Assess and Enhance Effectiveness of UN-Habitat”. In April, Guterres convened the eight-member panel consisting of mayors, urbanists, diplomats and activists, and tasked them with evaluating UN-Habitat. In recent years, the agency has suffered from flagging donor confidence.

The panel ended up offering a hybrid proposal, recommending a rejiggering of UN-Habitat as an “urban champion” and creating a new entity, UN Urban, to stimulate an interest in cities across the U. N. system. For UN-Habitat, the panel recommended a tighter focus on two key issues: equity in urban development, with a focus on informality, and the setting of urban planning norms through rules and legislation. In doing so, it encouraged UN-Habitat to reduce its operational work in the field and increase its normative work — something Guterres has argued is a systemic issue at the United Nations writ large.

[See: With Local 2030, the U. N. seeks to turbocharge its engagement with cities]

UN Urban, in turn, would complement UN-Habitat’s operational work by bringing other U. N. agencies to the table in an effort to ensure that all field work on urbanization is consistent and coordinated. Precise details on what would be UN Urban’s purview vis-à-vis UN-Habitat were not outlined in the report.

Secretary-general’s support

Last year’s Habitat III summit was supposed to determine UN-Habitat’s future mandate, including its role in implementing the conference’s outcome, a 20-year urbanization strategy known as the New Urban Agenda. But that politically sensitive topic nearly derailed negotiations on the agenda, and diplomats eventually agreed that an independent panel would take up the issue in 2017.

“The Secretary-General finds many of the recommendations in line with his own proposals for the reform of the U. N. development system, particularly the establishment of ‘UN Urban.’”

Stéphane Dujarric
Spokesman for the U. N. secretary-general

After a little over three months of deliberations — which some charged was too short a period for such an intensive task, prompting a month’s extension — the panel concluded that the U. N. General Assembly should establish a new body. That entity, under the proposed name UN Urban, would serve as “an independent coordinating mechanism to convene all UN agencies and partners on urban sustainability.”

The proposed body is modeled on similar thematic entities that do not act as full agencies, such as UN-Water and UN-Energy. The panel recommends that it operates with a small secretariat at U. N. Headquarters in New York.

[See: Is there any hope of aligning the many efforts working on the SDGs?]

“The Secretary-General finds many of the recommendations in line with his own proposals for the reform of the U. N. development system, particularly the establishment of ‘UN Urban,’” spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said in a statement.

“The Secretary-General considers rapid urbanization and its links with poverty, inequality, public health, migration, climate change and natural disasters to be one of the most pressing concerns of the United Nations,” Dujarric said.

The proposed new body suggests that the United Nations is finally coming to terms with the importance of cities and the demographic reality that the world is majority urban. One of the panelists, former Johannesburg mayor Mpho Parks Tau, cautions against reading too much into the name, however, as the report stresses the need “for a conceptual shift to a more territorial approach.”

[See: Habitat III struggled to deliver — but nonetheless, a new global urban agenda is upon us]

“Despite its name, ‘UN Urban’ must challenge the artificial urban-rural dichotomy and work to mainstream a territorial approach to development across the U. N.,” Tau said in a statement. “We have called for ‘the urban’ to be understood in its broadest sense: encompassing metropolitan areas, intermediary cities, peri-urban areas, and the rural surroundings with which they are inter-dependent.”

Urban turf war

Early reactions to the proposal have been mixed. Over the past week, excitement has built around the idea of a new, U. N.-wide body that would galvanize global attention around urbanization, one of the defining trends of the 21st century. But there also is trepidation that such a body could further sap resources from UN-Habitat.

Among the positive camp is David Simon, director of Mistra Urban Futures, a Swedish think tank and advocate for an urban focus in the U. N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). (Mistra also has supported Citiscope.)

“The report makes clear and coherent recommendations that have a logical consistency and dovetail well with what many researchers and other observers involved in the Urban SDG campaign and preparation of the New Urban Agenda have been advocating,” he told Citiscope. Core to achieving this, he said, is the recommendation to establish UN Urban within U. N. Headquarters, aimed at ensuring “effective integration of the Urban SDG and New Urban Agenda across all U. N. agencies.”

[See: UN-Habitat reforms will hold up New Urban Agenda implementation]

Still, skepticism of the proposal has also been widespread, focused on multiple aspects of the panel’s vision. Part of that criticism is concerned with how the new body would sit alongside UN-Habitat.

As proposed, UN Urban would not replace UN-Habitat, which for the past 40 years has been the U. N.’s main shop for addressing urban issues. That’s a topic that it has embraced with gusto under the leadership of its current executive director, former Barcelona mayor Joan Clos, whose term runs out at the end of the year.

Nor, however, would UN Urban as proposed serve as a vehicle exclusively for UN-Habitat’s work. Rather, it is envisioned that staff from a variety of U. N. agencies with urban expertise — for example, UNESCO’s World Heritage Cities Programme or the U. N. Development Programme’s Sustainable Urbanization Strategy — would take leadership roles, in addition to personnel from UN-Habitat.

U. N. Secretary-General António Guterres, left, greets UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos at a community space in the Nairobi informal settlement of Mathare, in March. (Julius Mwelu/UN-Habitat)

The panel offers recommendations on how to fund some of this new urban work, too. It suggests creating a dedicated global trust fund to serve “as a platform to secure alternative funding for sustainable urbanisation efforts”. The panel’s experts envision that UN Urban would help inspire donor confidence in the importance of urban issues, thereby leading to increased contributions.

This is a particularly sensitive area for UN-Habitat, which has been the subject of increasing concern for its cratering core funding. Anonymous critics within UN-Habitat now appear to be warning that the panel’s idea for a trust fund overseen by UN Urban would balkanize funding for an already ailing agency. The proposed fund would be delinked from UN-Habitat’s own funding.

[See: The U. N.’s urban agency is seeing record demand — even as its funding plummets]

In an internal memo shared with Citiscope by Roland Adjovi, a lawyer who has represented UN-Habitat staff in labour disputes, purportedly high-ranking UN-Habitat staff warn that while “UN Urban would increase funding to support relevant urban work, with a percentage allocated to UN-Habitat’s normative and policy integration work … there is a risk that donors would give either to UN Urban or UN-Habitat.” “Normative” here refers to the agency’s core functions such as research and advocacy from within the Nairobi headquarters and its regional offices, as opposed to its operational work in the field.

Others say such turf wars are beside the point. For many urbanists, the more important issue is whether any part of the U. N. system — either the current or reformed UN-Habitat, or a proposed UN Urban — is up to the task of grappling with a global trend reshaping the planet. (In subsequent reporting, Citiscope will look at the implications of the panel’s proposals for monitoring of the New Urban Agenda.)

In this, however, some are expressing concern that the vision offered by the panel of experts may not go far enough.

“There are many issues about the future of urbanization about which we simply do not know enough. Patterns of urban change are diverse, highly dependent on external forces and, in some cases, surprisingly rapid,” said the New School’s Michael Cohen. “This leads me to the conclusion that the report has not highlighted sufficiently the need for a stronger research and monitoring function in UN-Habitat and the U. N. system more generally.”

UN-Habitat’s governance

In addition to the creation of an entirely new body, the panel recommended significant changes to how UN-Habitat is governed. The number of discrete components in the governance system would expand, and UN Urban would sit on the sidelines in an advisory role to the core group of member states most invested in UN-Habitat’s work.

“Purportedly high-ranking UN-Habitat staff warn that while ‘UN Urban would increase funding to support relevant urban work … there is a risk that donors would give either to UN Urban or UN-Habitat.’”

Currently, the Nairobi-based agency is overseen by a Governing Council of 58 national governments that meet every two years. In addition, a Committee of Permanent Representatives, staffed by diplomats based at embassies and missions in Nairobi but not necessarily with expertise in urban issues, meets three times a year. (Advisory boards for groups such as women and local authorities also meet regularly but have limited influence on UN-Habitat’s affairs.)

[See: Panel’s formation marks turning point in confusion over New Urban Agenda monitoring]

The panel recommends ballooning this two-body structure into five parts. The Committee of Permanent Representatives would remain, supplemented by a smaller “Policy Board” with fewer members and a tighter focus.

These two entities in turn would report to an entirely new “Urban Assembly”, which would replace the Governing Council and would consist of all 193 U. N. member states. The new Urban Assembly would continue to meet every other year, alternating with the World Urban Forum, UN-Habitat’s signature biennial conference which the panel recommends become a permanent event to keep the New Urban Agenda on the global radar.

Finally, the new Policy Board would be advised by a slate of outside observers, broken into two committees. One would be for local governments, made up of 10 representatives. Another would comprise 10 non-government figures: five urban experts and five private sector representatives.

Several close observers expressed serious skepticism to Citiscope about the workability of this complex new structure. And even while the proposal appears to respond to several longstanding demands from various parts of the global urban community, these aspects, too, are meeting with resistance.

UN-Habitat shares office space with several U. N. agencies and departments at a sprawling complex in Nairobi. (Julius Mwelu/UN-Habitat)

The official role of local governments has been a key and contentious part of the debate over U. N. reforms and how the international system deals with issues of urbanization. The issue came to a head most recently in the run-up to Habitat III. But the new committee for local authorities falls far short of the robust “seat at the table” that networks of local governments have been demanding, by relegating local governments to an advisory role instead of giving them full-fledged participation in the Urban Assembly.

[See: Where is the local voice in the SDGs review process?]

Meanwhile, civil society representatives are expressing frustration with the proposed format of what’s being called the Committee of Stakeholders. They warn that in focusing solely on the private sector and “urban experts”, it upends the careful way in which the United Nations has traditionally brought together civil society and stakeholders. It also does not incorporate the General Assembly of Partners, a stakeholder umbrella group formed in the run-up to Habitat III.

“The Stakeholder Committee is at this moment a very bad idea,” said Chandana Das of the constituency group representing children and youth at the United Nations. Das warned that the arrangement “dilutes” existing ways of recognizing civil society in the U. N. system.

Such criticism is likely to find receptive ears as the proposal moves forward. The panel’s full slate of findings will be debated at U. N. Headquarters on 5-6 September, just before the annual convening of the U. N. General Assembly. In theory, any of the proposals can be tweaked or modified as they are deliberated on by the General Assembly’s Second Committee, which passes an annual resolution on UN-Habitat. It is expected that the General Assembly will make a final decision on the recommendations by the end of the year.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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