What’s new in the final draft New Urban Agenda?

For the past four months, activists, lobbyists, local governments and national governments have been jockeying for position around a major new U. N. strategy on sustainable urbanization.

After four iterations, the final draft of that document, known as the New Urban Agenda, was released Tuesday, on the heels of intensive, 38-hour negotiations that took place last weekend at U. N. Headquarters. Many now expect this draft to be the one that gets adopted next month when heads of state and government gather at the Habitat III summit in Quito, Ecuador.

[See: Final burst of talks results in consensus on draft New Urban Agenda]

The repercussions of this 23-page document will be felt for the next two decades, and the ramifications of any truly transformational aspects may take years to be understood. But in the immediate aftermath of the exhausting conclusion to the Habitat III talks, Citiscope notes five takeaways from the storylines it has been following for the past several months.

1.     A vision of 21st-century urbanism — and details on how to make it happen

The good news for urbanists is that the meat and potatoes of the New Urban Agenda has been settled for some time. Indeed, there was relatively little controversy over the document’s main provisions: For the first time, an internationally negotiated document calls for compact cities, polycentric growth, mixed-use streetscapes, prevention of sprawl and transit-oriented development.

“For the first time, an internationally negotiated document calls for compact cities, polycentric growth, mixed-use streetscapes, prevention of sprawl and transit-oriented development.”

But how the United Nations, its member states, local governments and civil society were going to track the implementation of such an ambitious vision has been up in the air almost since the first draft of the New Urban Agenda was released in early May. While that question is not fully answered by the final version — the role of the U. N.’s lead agency on urbanization, UN-Habitat, will be the subject of an independent assessment next year with a decision ultimately taken by the U. N. General Assembly — it does shed more light on institutional mechanisms for monitoring the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Proposal would kick Habitat III’s main sticking point to U. N. General Assembly]

For starters, reporting progress is “voluntary”, but it encompasses the broadest possible scope. The new document calls on every level of government as well as civil society to participate in “country-led, open, inclusive, multi-level, participatory, and transparent follow-up and review of the New Urban Agenda” through “a continuous process aimed at creating and reinforcing partnerships among all relevant stakeholders and fostering exchanges of urban solutions and mutual learning.”

Such efforts will feed into quadrennial reports to the U. N., the first of which is called for during the 72nd session of the U. N. General Assembly, which runs for a year from September 2017. That timing overlaps with a new annual U. N. meeting to review progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — and that process is slated to take up the topic of cities in its July 2018 edition, which may create an opportunity to amplify the message during the New Urban Agenda’s first review. Given that the final New Urban Agenda explicitly notes the need for “effective linkages” with the follow-up and review of the SDGs, such a convergence seems likely.

[See: SDGs review offers potential preview of how to track New Urban Agenda]

At the same time, the final New Urban Agenda did maintain some space for UN-Habitat’s existing efforts to promote awareness about urban issues, such as World Cities Day, World Habitat Day, the World Urban Campaign and the World Urban Forum.

Finally, the document leaves open the possibility of a “Quito+10” midway review in 2026. And —  dare we mention it already — it also encourages the U. N. General Assembly to authorize Habitat IV in 2036.

2.     A salvaged role for civil society

The Habitat conferences have a reputation for being among the most progressive in the U. N. system. At Habitat I in 1976, activists organized the first NGO conference — the Habitat Forum — ever held on the sidelines of a U. N. event. Twenty years later in Istanbul, civil society played an active, if not collaborative, role in the fashioning of the Habitat Agenda, the world’s last major cities strategy.

“Monitoring efforts on the New Urban Agenda will feed into quadrennial reports to the U. N., the first of which is called for during the 72nd session of the U. N. General Assembly, which runs for a year from September 2017.”

But as the Habitat III negotiations proceeded, civil society advocates worried that they were being edged out. First, they lost two concrete proposals, for a Multi-Stakeholder Panel on Sustainable Urbanization and a U. N. International Decade on Sustainable Urbanization. The former would have provided an institutional mechanism by which they could further their advocacy on this issue; the latter would have helped raise awareness more broadly about the topic.

[See: Proposed mechanisms would coordinate post-Habitat III action on urbanization]

Then, at the last round of formal talks, held in late July in Surabaya, Indonesia, there were suggestions by member states to delete reference both to the General Assembly of Partners (GAP), an umbrella group for stakeholders in the Habitat III process, and more broadly to so-called “major groups”, the U. N.’s institutional architecture for representatives outside of national governments to engage with U. N. processes.

The GAP worried that the momentum its members have built in the past 18 months on the road to Quito would evaporate without a reference in the final document. Meanwhile, the hardcore U. N. advocacy crowd — NGOs accredited to the U. N. that lobby on particular issues day in and day out — worried that no mention of major groups would be a dangerous precedent and a step backward for efforts to open up the international body.

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

In the end, both groups can cheer. The GAP’s “valuable contributions” are acknowledged as part of the legacy of Habitat III in the document’s “Means of Implementation” section, which suggests that life after Quito is possible.

Major groups, in turn, are mentioned twice. In a series of tweets, the Major Group for Children and Youth hailed the move as a “big win for multilateralism”, calling the references “legal mandates for the widest scope of stakeholders”.

3.     Local authorities make it to the finish line

Representatives of local governments were the constituency with the most at stake — and subsequently the most to lose — in the Habitat III negotiations. With their international networks and advocacy efforts having massively expanded in the 20 years since the Habitat II conference, leaders of the world’s cities, metropolitan areas, states, regions and provinces were eager to get a seat at the table of the global decision-making body that is the United Nations. Indeed, the main voice in this process — the city network known as United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) — specifically modeled its name on that of the United Nations.

[See: Cities clamour for a seat at the table of the U. N. countries club]

Subsequently, they had concrete demands, both institutionally and politically. First, they wanted to amend Rule 64 of a 2003 U. N. resolution that authorized UCLG to participate in the Governing Council of UN-Habitat. While seemingly minor in the grand scheme of the U. N., this presence was seen as a beachhead for a formal, deliberative place in the U. N. system.

Via Habitat III, they hoped to amend — or at least call for an amendment — to certify that local authorities were more than mere non-government organizations, itself a contradiction in terms. That effort ultimately fell flat. Even worse, references to the U. N. Advisory Committee of Local Authorities (UNACLA), which was established as a result of the 1996 Habitat Agenda, were deleted in the final version — casting that body’s future in doubt.

[See: The only sustainable city is one co-created by all of us]

Second, advocates hoped for recognition of the Second World Assembly of Local Authorities, a kind of parallel process to Habitat III that will marshal 3,000 local leaders in Bogotá just days before the event in Quito. While previous versions called for the New Urban Agenda to treat the outcomes of that gathering as “inputs”, the final version simply says that the New Urban Agenda will “take note” of the occasion. (UPDATE: A reader wrote in to note that the Second World Assembly of Local Authorities is also recognized in the agenda’s section on “follow-up and review”, seen as a major victory for the group.)

Finally, they hoped for an enhanced role in the actual elaboration of the New Urban Agenda —  the so-called seat at the table. But in the end, the local authorities were confined to the same role they have always occupied alongside NGOs and civil society, even as this document will theoretically shape the relationship of national and local governments for the next two decades. Indeed, the final details were hashed out behind closed doors without any local government representatives present, even as observers.

[See: The United Nations risks stifling its own progress on sustainable urbanization]

Not that it was all doom and gloom. In the end, “local governments” is mentioned 35 times and “local authorities” is mentioned four times. A late-stage call from Turkey to change all such references to “local administrations” — which would have weakened their agency as separate spheres of government — was fended off by a coalition of committed allies among member states.

And the section “Building the Urban Governance Structure: Establishing a Supportive Framework” was left intact. That section includes committed language (“We will”) calling for an enhanced working relationship between nation and local governments. And it acknowledges new realities such as the need for metropolitan governance that crosses administrative boundaries, legislation authorizing more-sophisticated forms of municipal financing and national support to build governance capacity at the local level.

4.     ‘Friendly to families’ checks LGBT

For a brief moment, it seemed like the New Urban Agenda was poised to stake new ground for the U. N. by acknowledging the LGBT community in an internationally agreed document, with calls for such language coming strongly from Canada alongside support from the European Union, Mexico and the United States.

[See: Gay community sees New Urban Agenda as opportunity for historic acknowledgement]

However, that milestone did not to come to pass, as a proposal by Belarus on behalf of the Group of Friends of the Family effectively checked such a move. On Friday night, in what according to multiple sources were particularly heated negotiations, Belarus threatened to implode a deal reached the previous day on the controversial “right to the city” if it lost its appeal for “family-friendly” to appear in the New Urban Agenda. Belarus also brought to the table a powerful precedent: The Habitat Agenda refers to “the family” as “the basic unit of society”.

The final trade-off? Swap out “family-friendly” for “friendly to families”, but leave LGBT outside the document.

5.     And, of course, geopolitics

If the main provisions of the New Urban Agenda were already agreed upon, what caused the negotiations to drag on in their final session for 38 hours? In a word: politics (and money).

Every U. N. agreement, whatever the topic, is a skirmish in the broader battle between the developed and developing world over hot-button social, economic and political issues — many of them coming down to debates over money. The developing world, which negotiates as a bloc called the G77, feels like the developed world should pay more to help poor countries tackle the pressing issues that the U. N. commits to solving. Developed countries disagree, especially as nations increasingly enter the ranks of “middle-income” economies; they argue that everyone is financially responsible for their own commitments.

Those debates centered on a handful of references in the New Urban Agenda, each of which took up hours of negotiations. The final outcome? As Citiscope previously reported, the G77 maintained a reference to “common but differentiated responsibilities”, a bedrock concept agreed to in 1992 that holds that all countries are responsible but not equally responsible for addressing global environmental degradation. To keep this in the new document, the G77 traded off a proposed UN-Habitat trust fund and a reference to official development assistance, both of which would have entailed more financial contributions from the developed world.

[See: After Habitat III, we need to institutionalize our urban policy dialogues]

The European Union scored a political victory by keeping references to last year’s COP 21 climate conference as the “Paris Agreement on climate change” rather than the G77’s preferred nomenclature, the “Paris Agreement under the U. N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.” A subtle difference, this one has major implications: The Paris Agreement is less friendly to the financial needs of the developing world than the UNFCCC’s own internal policy. Thus, asserting the latter would make the Paris Agreement beholden to the UNFCCC’s stance.

Finally, the G77 scored political victories of its own. The final version acknowledges the “right to development”, a concept about which the U. S. has long been skeptical, having declined to vote on the question when it was first brought to the U. N. in the early 1990s. The document also maintains a reference to “countries and territories under foreign occupation”, an oblique nod to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. And it “strongly urge[s] states to refrain from promulgating and applying any unilateral economic, financial, or trade measures”, a reference to the U. S. embargo of Cuba.


Greg Scruggs is Citiscope’s Habitat III correspondent.

Citiscope is a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. More at Citiscope. org

Read older posts from this section

Leave a Reply