History in the Making: Habitat III Negotiators Release Final Draft of the New Urban Agenda

Quito, Ecuador will host Habitat III in October. Photo by Claudio Alvarado Solari / Flickr

Last week, the final draft of the New Urban Agenda (NUA)—the document at the center of Habitat III in Quito next month—was released. After an unexpected stalemate at the Preparatory Committee in Surabaya in July, Habitat III negotiators convened this week in New York to finalize the text, which will lay the groundwork for global urban development for the next 20 years. After a marathon, 38-hour closed door session of informal negotiations, delegates were able to find common ground on many of the most challenging issues, including language around the Right to the City, the future of UN-Habitat and its role in Habitat III implementation and many more minor, but still vexing, topics.

The final draft includes references to or endorsements of many essential issues, including the role of voluntary commitments from cities and stakeholders, follow-up reporting processes and the importance of national urban policies. Despite these positive steps, the draft lacks clear linkages to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, specific reference to a platform for action and clear guidance for country and stakeholder reporting expectations. These issues will be critical as decision-makers and stakeholders prepare for Quito.

The Quito Implementation Plan and Stakeholder Action

Ambitious action from non-state actors will be key to effectively implementing the New Urban Agenda and ensuring a positive legacy for Habitat III. Many stakeholders have raised questions and concerns about how non-state actors can get involved in Post-Quito implementation. Paragraphs 21 and 154 of the Agreed Draft of the NUA emphasize the importance of these activities, but there is not a specific reference to the Secretariat’s Quito Implementation Plan or any other action platform linked to the Lima-Paris Action Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals. This raises concerns that securing buy-in and commitments from diverse stakeholders may be a challenge.

National Urban Policies That Empower Cities

Strong and inclusive national urban policies will be central to scaling action for sustainable cities at all levels of government. Paragraphs 89-91 outline the need for countries to create and implement national urban policies that decentralize decision-making power into the hands of local and sub-national decision-makers and equip them with the resources and financial mechanisms they need.

However, it’s important that these policies empower cities and sub-national regions to find their own solutions. In the forthcoming weeks, stakeholders should be on the look-out as countries gear up to announce commitments for this kind of national legislation in Quito.

Ensuring a Strong Reporting Process

Paragraphs 161 through 169 call for “voluntary, country-led, open, inclusive, multi-level, participatory, and transparent follow-up and review of the New Urban Agenda…tak[ing] into account contributions of national, sub-national, and local levels of government and…supplemented by contributions from the United Nations system, regional and sub-regional organizations, major groups and relevant stakeholders.” This reporting process, which will be led by UN-Habitat, has the potential to ensure that the New Urban Agenda is not another document lost to time, but rather a force of action, propelling stakeholders across sectors to make commitments and create change.

To ensure effectiveness, however, there needs to be clear guidance on how countries and other stakeholders will be expected to support the reporting process, especially in light of the SDG’s and Paris Agreement’s reporting requirements. These important international processes are only minimally referenced or omitted entirely in the New Urban Agenda, but they should be leveraged to benefit the NUA follow-up process. The reporting process and guidance for countries should be discussed in depth and agreed in Quito in order to make the most of the resulting energy and momentum.

Contentious Issues Remain: Future of UN-Habitat and the Right to the City

One of the more controversial issues throughout the Habitat III negotiations has been the concept of the Right to the City, which has been championed by many Latin American countries, and is seen as a mechanism to create better, more collaborative relationships between authorities and urban residents. Though the phrase remains in the text (Paragraph 11), the commitment to this concept has been watered down so as only to note that some cities refer to the “shared vision of cities for all” as the “right to the city.” While this compromise was accepted by advocates, they remain disappointed by the status of what they see as a central tenet of a progressive future for urban development.

The final hurdle for negotiators was the role of UN-Habitat, which ended in a compromise essentially passing the buck to the General Assembly to act as a non-partisan evaluator of the “effectiveness, efficiency, accountability, and oversight of UN-Habitat” (Paragraph 172). This debate, which has been a constant refrain since the beginning of the negotiations, has focused on the role of UN-Habitat as an organization, rather than how the UN System as a whole can more proactively support and manage one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century—sustainable urban growth. This compromise, thanks to the timing of the new Secretary General appointment and the long-awaited UN reform, provides an opportunity to rethink how the New Urban Agenda can be implemented and supported by the greater UN.

What to Look for in Quito

As the world gears up for Quito, countries and non-state actors alike should begin to solidify their commitments and develop ambitious action agendas, keeping in mind that cities have an essential role in achieving not only the goals of the New Urban Agenda, but also the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. Interested parties should keep an eye out for opportunities to participate in more in depth discussions of reporting frameworks, ideas for future UN support of the New Urban Agenda and stronger linkages to the other global processes. Moving forward together, we can use the New Urban Agenda as a guide to share the vision of a sustainable, equitable urban future with decision-makers and ensure that our energy and resources are going towards creating cities for all.

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