New Urban Agenda implementation slow, if not steady

By Gregory Scruggs

As the ninth session of the World Urban Forum (WUF9) gets into full swing in the humid heat of Kuala Lumpur, it has become increasingly clear that progress toward achieving the lofty ambitions of the New Urban Agenda has so far been slow. Fifteen months after Habitat III wrapped up in Quito, there is much talk of frameworks and action plans, but little in the way of fresh deliverables.

Sure, there have been plenty of highpoints here already, including the unveiling of a global definition of cities, updates on national urban policies and launches for regional efforts to implement the New Urban Agenda.

But those seem modest given the sheer scope of the New Urban Agenda’s ambition for transforming the world’s cities. The tone has also been a little on the defensive side. At the World Assembly of Local Governments, a group of mayors of mostly mid-sized cities – fewer mega-city leaders than usual made the journey to Kuala Lumpur – banded together under the banner of “preserv[ing] the legacy of Habitat III” as if it were in danger of disappearing.

All of this prompted Habitat for Humanity International Vice-President Steve Weir to remark, “It’s unclear whether the New Urban Agenda is moving the needle” .

There are a number of reasons why the agenda, as it currently stands, has received such a tepid response from key players in the international urban sector, and these relate both to the agenda itself and how it links in with the UN system’s overarching priority, the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs are a runaway freight train with immense political traction – they are namechecked by heads of state and recited by schoolchildren. In short, the SDGs are clearly moving the global needle.

Which leaves one wondering how the New Urban Agenda fits in. Is it just an agenda geared toward the implementation of Goal 11, the so-called “urban SDG”? Ahead of the annual SDG review in July, this is an approach other interest groups are taking. For example, later this month, the international energy community will meet at the Global SDG7 Conference in Bangkok, specifically to prepare for the global review of the SDG on energy.

Were the urban community to feel the same way, the World Urban Forum would likely have been rebranded as the “Global SDG11 Conference” and there would be a greater focus on measuring progress towards Goal 11. Looking at the agenda here in Kuala Lumpur, that does not appear to be the priority.

But because the New Urban Agenda has no indicators of its own, hewing to the SDGs seems like one potential way forward . “As a concept, we think the New Urban Agenda was brilliant,” Weir said. “We worry that the execution will be reduced to SDG indicators.”

He remarked that such an outcome would be “a missed opportunity” because the New Urban Agenda provides a broader perspective that is lacking in the SDGs.

“The New Urban Agenda created a vision of what an inclusive, safe, resilient city will look like in the future,” Weir said. “Inclusiveness, equity – those are things the SDGs don’t track. The SDGs are based on good hard data about specific countable things. The SDGs aren’t a vision. The SDGs don’t add up to the city of the future.”

“You could meet a lot of the SDGs and not accomplish the vision of the New Urban Agenda,” he explained.

Another major reason that the New Urban Agenda remains in a kind of limbo is because the agency most invested in its success, UN-Habitat, is itself also in limbo. Following a year of record low core funding, the agency now has a new executive director, former Malaysian mayor Maimunah Mohd Sharif.

Multiple sources inside UN-Habitat attest that her appointment and first visit to Nairobi has been welcomed by staff, but in her first interview after taking office she was reluctant to sketch out priorities or make bold pronouncements. Sources indicate that she is likely to lay out a roadmap for her mandate in June, around the same time that diplomats in Nairobi are expected to offer a proposal for restructuring UN-Habitat after last year’s UN-Urban proposal fizzled out.

All of these circumstances lead the World Bank’s Sameh Wahba to conclude that it is “a little bit too early to assess the traction that the New Urban Agenda has developed.”

“On the one hand, the document itself, including the process of its negotiation and the fact that it created a political commitment among the nations, is an important milestone,” he said. “On the other hand, getting into action toward implementation specifically at a moment when the institutional landscape is still in the midst of 15-month process to redefine itself, it might be a little too soon for that.”

A few of the puzzle pieces have been put into place, even if explicit action remains to be seen. For example, the World Bank is one of several partners behind a new Implementation Facility for Sustainable Urban Development that hopes to channel private capital into urban infrastructure to deliver on the New Urban Agenda. According to the City Climate Finance Report 2015, there is a USD 4.5 – 5.4 trillion need in urban financing at the global level. Given that official development assistance (ODA) amounts to just USD 142 billion, other sources of finance are desperately needed.

That facility will be country-led, meaning countries will step up and indicate their interest in orchestrating such funding to finance urban infrastructure. Countries like Brazil, Mexico, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Rwanda are in conversation with the bank this week.

As Wahba described it, “We’re trying to galvanize interest.” Words that ring true for the New Urban Agenda in general .

Gregory Scruggs

Gregory Scruggs

Gregory Scruggs writes about cities and culture. He was formerly a senior correspondent with Citiscope, where he covered the global debate leading up to the United Nations Habitat III Summit, for which a won a United Nations Correspondents Association Award in 2017. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.
Gregory Scruggs

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