SURABAYA, Indonesia — The last week of July marked a turning point in the Habitat III process, the U. N.’s ongoing debate over a future vision for sustainable urbanization. With negotiations among national governments entering their final phase on a new 20-year urbanization strategy, increasing effort is being put into figuring out how to create a clear framework for the implementation of what’s being called the New Urban Agenda.
Discussions on that framework are proceeding along both official and unofficial tracks. From national departments for international cooperation to civil society grass-roots organizations, there is fast-growing interest in making sure that the New Urban Agenda, when it’s finalized in Quito in October, is more than a mere piece of paper.[See: How will we know if the New Urban Agenda has been successful?]
The topic certainly received key attention at the recent negotiations on the New Urban Agenda that took place in Surabaya, Indonesia, in late July. Those discussions involved comparisons of past strategies adopted around the world, in an attempt to identify priority actions and evaluate the impact of urban policies at multiple levels.
One model that received attention is known as the Cities Enabling Environment Rating, proposed by the global network Cities Alliance and regional branches of the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) umbrella group. Supporters emphasize that the system is particularly useful in promoting collaboration among different levels of government. The rating was first launched in Africa in 2013 and since has undergone two revisions.
According to the initial findings, countries that saw significant improvements in their institutional urban environment were those that promoted integrated and multilevel urban strategies. Ghana, for instance, has been singled out for creating a national urban policy and corresponding action plan through the collaboration of a wide range of stakeholders in an institutionalized urban forum. The country also was noted for creating a national framework that has trained and empowered local government staff.[See: Countries made only marginal progress on urban commitments since 1996, index finds]
Focus on broad collaboration
The Cities Enabling Environment Rating is built around 10 indicators — constitutional framework, legislative framework, local democracy, financial transfers, own revenue, capacity-building, transparency, citizen participation, local government performance and urban strategy. These are rated on a scale of 1 to 4, from least to most effective.
The rating is now being used in nearly all African countries. Supporters say it is enabling policymakers and others to identify what cities need in order to be able to drive change proactively. And indeed, the results have attracted attention from national and local decision-makers that are keen to know how to put in place reforms that would lift their ratings.[See: Citizens are telling cities and national governments to cooperate]
The principle at the heart of this system is the importance of collaboration among all urban stakeholders. That fits well along the early drafts of the New Urban Agenda, which have acknowledged the benefits of decentralization. Nonetheless, the issue continues to draw scepticism from many national governments in the context of the ongoing Habitat III negotiations, said Bernadia Irawati Tjandradewi, secretary-general of UCLG’s office for Asia and the Pacific. “We push the idea of territorial approach of development, and we are struggling to include it in the New Urban Agenda,” she said.
Concerns about decentralization and the active involvement of local stakeholders in implementing the New Urban Agenda are shared by many civil society organizations. In Surabaya, many groups urged a new and more inclusive system of relations among stakeholders — “nothing for us without us,” said Rose Molokoane, president of Slum/Shack Dwellers International, an advocacy group. “We want to know more about the governance of the cities, because we want to be part of how cities are governed,” she said.[See: The United Nations risks stifling its own progress on sustainable urbanization]
Building on the African experience, countries in Asia will now be launching the Cities Enabling Environment Rating. Thirty countries and associations of local authorities in the region will soon be undertaking a process of data collection and scoring that will see initial results in April.
Supporters say that an assessment of the state of the art of urban policies in multiple countries offers a baseline for future monitoring of the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. Such a mechanism could help define which aspects of national urban policies should be improved and how to empower local governments.
Not that the rating system would be formally included in the New Urban Agenda. Rather, organizations such as Cities Alliance and UCLG are presenting it as a methodology that bolsters knowledge and collaboration among stakeholders while also promoting principles such as inclusive partnerships, decentralization and “subsidiarity”.
Regular monitoring of issues around inclusivity in national urban policies also can help ensure that no one is left behind — a key objective of the New Urban Agenda. And it can promote a culture of co-production of knowledge that ensures access to reliable information through the active involvement of communities and experts on the ground.
Desperate for data
The U. N.’s lead agency on urban issues, UN-Habitat, certainly shares the belief that creating better urban policies requires a solid urban knowledge base grounded in clear methodologies. The agency is putting forth a tool for joint monitoring of the implementation of the New Urban Agenda as well as of the targets under Sustainable Development Goal 11, the “urban SDG”. That mechanism is called the City Prosperity Initiative.
The tool aims to fill the knowledge gap caused by incomplete data and metrics collection among cities. This is a key factor influencing the quality of urban policies, said UN-Habitat’s head of research and capacity development, Eduardo Moreno. In particular, he highlighted the link between urban prosperity and the ability of a city to measure and compare its key data. “Prosperity is not an accident,” Moreno said, noting that the importance of data collection goes well beyond its perception as a mere technical exercise.[See: Cities shut out of U. N.’s first SDGs review, advocates say]
Launched in 2012, the City Prosperity Initiative takes into account multiple dimensions of sustainability. It looks into urban governance and legislation, the environment, social cohesion, as well as urban economy and municipal finance. But importantly, it also adds spatial indicators in each of these areas. Combined with the possibility of disaggregating data and indicators for various research purposes, this can help cities gain an in-depth understanding of challenges and opportunities, as well as to make more-precise comparisons with other cities in the world.
Through the platform it is possible to directly compare Dallas, Johannesburg and Oslo, for instance, and thus to understand why one city has poorer infrastructure compared to another with a similar average income. Backers hope the tool’s transparency and accessibility can push decision-makers to rely more on data in formulating their urban policies.[See: Habitat III loses proposed Multi-Stakeholder Panel — for now]
The initiative also seeks to broaden the technical analysis in order to connect decision-making to data collection and analysis in a more structured way. As such, more than 400 cities in 20 countries are involved in a related policy dialogue, which aims to create an open platform that can make urban data a decisive factor in global benchmarking and local democracy.
A key priority has been strengthening the reliability of these data sets. The U. N. Statistical Division continues to be engaged in the vast attempt to create indicators by which to track progress on the new Sustainable Development Goals, and UN-Habitat is proposing that countries be asked to create a national sample of cities. In turn, that sample would contribute to more-accurate analysis at both the national and city levels.
Through the City Prosperity Initiative, UN-Habitat also is hoping to carve out a strong role in the post-Quito process, including by pushing to have the tool included in the New Urban Agenda global monitoring framework. Of course, it will be up to the member states to decide what role the agency will play, but the discussions in Surabaya clearly underscored the rising realization that an effective monitoring regime is the only way to ensure that the time and energy that has gone into the New Urban Agenda thus far is not wasted.
“My worry is that up to now, the [New Urban Agenda draft] is relatively weak in proposing an accountable and transparent monitoring and reporting mechanism,” said Moreno. “It is just creating the conditions for countries to monitor on a voluntary basis. But I believe the role of U. N. agencies is to create these baselines and monitoring tools and also to tell to the countries if cities are performing or not.”
Simone d’Antonio is a Rome-based journalist who covers innovation, sustainability and urban issues.
Citiscope is a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. More at Citiscope. org.
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