Will Habitat III’s New Urban Agenda get buy-in from local governments and civil society?

By David Satterthwaite

The New Urban Agenda will be determined in October 2016, and it has frequently been discussed what it should look like. IIED Senior Fellow David Satterthwaite argues that to really have an impact, the NUA must shift away from producing recommendations and instead actively support urban governments in their attempt to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.

This text draws on Satterthwaite, D (2016), “Editorial: a New Urban Agenda?”, Environment and Urbanization 28:1 published in April 2016 with a commentary on the Zero Draft of the New Urban Agenda added.

The text for what is termed “The New Urban Agenda” is being prepared for agreement by national government representatives at Habitat III, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in Quito in October 2016.  A ‘Zero Draft’ was released in early June, shortly followed by a revised draft.

These zero drafts focus so strongly on national government commitments, many of which are repeating commitments already made – some stretching back to Habitat I in 1976!  But what will determine the effectiveness of any New Urban Agenda is whether it is relevant to urban governments and urban dwellers – especially those whose needs are not currently met – and gets their buy-in. This means that it has to be clear and relevant to slum/shack dwellers and mayors, as well as to other urban politicians, civil servants and other civil society groups;  what it recommends has to be within their capacities.

The New Urban Agenda is fortunate in having two recent, highly relevant sets of commitments that national governments have already made – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement.  So instead of having ‘The New Urban Agenda” produce another long list of goals (most of which are not new), it can focus on how to support urban governments to develop their responses to the SDGs and to work with them so the SDG commitment to “leave no-one behind” is realized. This means shifting attention from defining goals to creating the institutional and governance basis for achieving them in each locality.

The transformative potential of urban governments

In urban areas, so much of “what needs doing” to meet all needs, eliminate poverty, achieve inclusion etc.  depends heavily on the competence, capacity and accountability of urban governments. We know from experience that urban investments and urban governance can help address the pressing social, economic, environmental and (global and local) ecological issues outlined in the SDGs.

As such they can have a transformative agenda. This requires all sectors and agencies to work across sectoral and spatial boundaries. It also means learning from the experiences of innovative city governments, mayors and civil society groups –especially those that show how prosperity, good living conditions, and low ecological footprints can be combined. But will this receive the needed support from higher levels of government?

Well-functioning cities yield enormous economic returns to nations and to private enterprises – and also to citizens as deficits in infrastructure and service provision are addressed and as prosperity is combined with inclusion. Here, a “new” urban agenda recognizes this, contributes to stronger urban economies, reduces distortions that plague mobility, and helps increase the supply and reduce the cost of land for housing, helped by a rethink of regulations and subsidies. All this should be understood as an investment with a high rate of return.1

There are also many synergies between good local development, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. All are concerned with reducing local risks to life and health – even as they view the risks and responses through different lenses.2

Inclusion in the urban context

Meeting SDG commitments to inclusion has to address the hardening of exclusion in much of the world, linked to government resistance to urbanization. In many growing urban centres there are powerful politics at play that reject inclusion in favour of elite coalitions. The SDGs place much emphasis on universal access to goods and services and universality is a critical component of inclusion. Will the SDGs’ strong commitments to inclusion and greater equality in urban development overcome this?3

An urban agenda based on the SDGs has to deliver on three levels of inclusion: removing discriminatory exclusion (for instance, denying migrants the right to settle in the city, buy property, and have access to services); ensuring that prevailing institutions support the agenda (regulating markets, providing services that reflect the needs of disadvantaged groups); and ensuring that human rights are fully met.

At the same time there is a need to shift from funding housing to broader land use management that manages urban expansion and increases the availability of land for housing that features infrastructures at appropriate densities and standards, with locations and transport systems that make them part of the city’s labour market. What is not needed is the return to heavily subsidized mass public housing in peripheral locations that do not meet the needs of low-income groups.4

Another area where innovation is needed is the work across sectoral boundaries. So many international funders have their own agenda, often focused on one particular issue – for instance one particular disease or intervention. There is a reluctance to cross sectoral boundaries; Yet, attention to environmental and public health is essential to all urban agendas.

One hindrance to supporting implementation of urban projects is lack of data to assess needs and to monitor achievements in each locality. Much of the data required to monitor progress needs to be available for each small area unit, street or ward to inform local government policies and investments.

To address water and sanitation deficits, you need to know exactly where these are. Yet most data sources (for example, national sample surveys) only provide data for national and regional levels or are aggregated for all urban areas. Recommendations for indicators may mention the importance of disaggregation by geographic location, but they need to be more specific on what level of disaggregation is needed to support local governments to address the SDGs.  The indicators that are chosen and the data sources that are used will influence how the SDGs are actually addressed and monitored.5

Finally, there is the limitation in data-gathering capacity at the national level. Many recommendations call for data on key indicators to be updated every year and available for each locality, but it is not feasible to undertake a census every year. There is thus the need to shift this task onto local governments and recognize and support them in investing in their own data collection and monitoring process.6

For the cities that have innovated in these areas, their government’s responses to democratic pressures have been important. Much of the innovation has been in Latin America, where it is associated with elected mayors and city governments that supported more transparent and participatory approaches.

Innovations in the “bottom-up” urban agendas around the world have also been driven by the organizations and federations of slum/shack dwellers that offer local governments their capacities and support. Here, innovative urban agendas are being formed by partnerships between these federations and local governments – in effect they are co-producing inclusive solutions for the SDGs.7

Youth opportunities and outlook

One area in much need of innovation is the provision of opportunities for youth. Globally, youth have never been better educated, but so few opportunities exist for them in labour markets.8 How can a New Urban Agenda work for them, providing real opportunities for paid work and for learning at scale so that all the drive and innovation that youth can bring will be channelled into activities that benefit all? There is much to be done to which they can contribute – in upgrading, building materials production, data gathering, city greening, managing public space, to name but a few.

So in conclusion, can national government representatives acknowledge that the two key stakeholders for implementing the New Urban Agenda are urban governments and those within their jurisdictions whose needs are not met – including representative organizations of slum/shack dwellers? No New Urban Agenda will be effective without their buy-in.  And can those who are developing the text of the New Urban Agenda curb their enthusiasm for drafting another long list of “goals of good intentions”?  Instead they should channel their energies on creating the institutional and governance basis in each locality for achieving the commitments national governments have already made in the SDGs and in the Paris Agreement.

David Satterthwaite

David Satterthwaite is a senior fellow at IIED and visiting professor at the Development Planning Unit, University College London. Two recent books co-authored with Diana Mitlin were Urban Poverty in the Global South; Scale and Nature (2012) and Reducing Urban Poverty in the Global South (2013). Both were published by Routledge.
He was a co-ordinating lead author of the chapter on urban adaptation in the Fifth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and he is currently working with other IPCC authors on a book on how cities can combine development and climate change adaptation and mitigation.
David Satterthwaite
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