Who’s Afraid of the New Urban Agenda?

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With 18 months to go until Habitat III – the Third UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development – country delegates gathered last week and this at the UN in Nairobi to deliberate and state their positions on the new urban agenda. This conference takes place once every 20 (!) years and in order to understand its significance, let’s take a quick look back at what happened at the last one – and what’s happened since then.

In 1996 the Habitat II conference took place in Istanbul. Habitat II is renowned for two reasons:

1. The outcome was a hefty 109-page document called the Habitat Agenda that UN member states agreed to. The Habitat Agenda is impressive in its comprehensive and strongly worded coverage of a wide range of issues relating to human settlements.

2. The process leading up to the conference was a breakthrough in stakeholder participation in the UN, which is generally driven by its member states (i.e. national governments). Habitat II achieved significant advances on certain issues largely due to civil society participation.

But that was then; this is now.

Despite the strong statements in the Habitat Agenda – such as “We shall also ensure the full and equal participation of all women and men, and the effective participation of youth, in political, economic and social life” – very little has actually been done to implement the declaration. This is partly due to a lack of implementation tools in the document and partly due to an absence of an effective monitoring and accountability mechanism. The new urban agenda being hashed out for Habitat III must therefore be evidence-based and include concrete governance tools – that is, detail how national governments can bring about the necessary changes.

Since Istanbul, officially recognised civil society engagement appears to have regressed, even though it is clear the participation of all stakeholders is needed in order for the new urban agenda to be fully effective.

Fortunately, non-state actors are not content with sitting on the sidelines while national governments set the agenda and they are demanding that their voices be heard. Just last week, a broad international coalition of stakeholders and partners, including the World Future Council, representing a diversity of interests and 14 major constituent groups gathered at the UN to form the General Assembly of Partners (GAP). The GAP is a special initiative of the World Urban Campaign and is organised by the Habitat III Secretariat. It aims to support stakeholders’ engagement and contribution to the Habitat III Conference and in particular to the new urban agenda.

One issue that keeps cropping up from all sides, whether it be member states’ position statements, civil society side events or UN-led issue papers, is that of the relationship between urban and rural. It can be a somewhat contentious issue but undeniably central to any discussion of urban development. The Habitat Agenda in 1996 urged governments that “an integrated approach is required to promote balanced and mutually supportive urban-rural development.” Urban development can be an opportunity for, not threat to, rural areas, especially economically. Realising the potential of mutually beneficial relationships between urban, peri-urban and rural areas lies at the heart of regenerative urban development. Cities that are regenerative make full use of the productive capacity within and around its borders in order to regenerate the resources it consumes, thus strengthening the link between urban and rural areas.

Multiple advantages are associated with regenerative urban development, including:

– Increased self-subsistence and resilience by relying on local resources and assets
– Wealth circulates within the local economy, benefiting local inhabitants
– Development of hinterland around the urban area
– Building up the productive capacity of the local region
– Reduced transport time and cost

Examples of urban-rural symbiosis already exist. To get the attention of governments around the world, the new urban agenda should be an emotive narrative about the future of human habitat, as the Habitat Agenda was. But the outcome of Habitat III in 2016 must be more than that: for there to be a chance of successful implementation, knowledge and evidence must form the foundation of the new urban agenda and provide governments with the tools to bring it into reality.

Monday, April 20th, 2015