Live from Habitat III: National Policy, Local Empowerment and Climate Change

Urban World Leaders Gather for Habitat III Plenary Session. Photo by Agencia de Noticias ANDES / Flickr

WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities is reporting on Habitat III from Quito, Ecuador. Follow our daily coverage on TheCityFix.

Habitat III, the third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, officially began on Monday, October 17th in Quito. On Wednesday, urban leaders from around the world gathered for two plenary sessions. Both sessions focused around three main elements, as speakers strove to unite the participants toward implementing a strong, robust and effective New Urban Agenda (NUA).

The third day of Habitat III hosted the fifth and sixth high-level plenary sessions. While the plenary primarily centered on Habitat III and the NUA, country representatives discussed distinct national urban policies and frameworks, the role of decentralization in urban planning and the link between climate change and sustainable development.

1. National Urban Plans

The success of the New Urban Agenda relies almost entirely on the ability of participating countries to create and update national urban plans and other institutional frameworks focused on enabling effective management of urban development. Processes of enhancing institutional capacity and garnering widespread political will to improve cities for all can be galvanized behind a National Urban Plan.

Recognizing the impact of creating a specific national policy for urban growth, many nations have already taken up this approach. Plenary participants from Togo noted that “Togo has been chosen as a pilot country by the UN for integrating the SDGs into national development programs and strategies,” and that a new national housing strategy has been implemented to address unhealthy conditions in informal settlements and land tenure issues. Papua New Guinea has also embedded urban planning into its political planning, creating the National Urbanization Policy that spans from 2010 to 2030 along with plans for a national slum upgrading policy and affordable land and housing programs. This national-level buy-in to a better vision of cities has guided social policies in many countries already, and if further encouraged, will continue to provide new perspectives on managing urban growth.

2. Decentralization of Urban Development Planning

Within these national urban policies, however, many delegates specified that more effective models of governance would be needed for a successful New Urban Agenda; namely, in decentralizing the process for urban decision-making within a broader, national plan. Many of the represented nations highlighted that bringing a more distributed approach to decision-making could prove useful in the action phase of the NUA.

Togo’s delegate, for example, went on to elaborate that “effective decentralization and good governance” would prove vital to continuing their progress on housing policy. By highlighting decentralization, this distributed and inherently participatory approach can allow for customized and locally appropriate thinking to be the driver of solutions. Representatives from Azerbaijan also noted that state-level plans would be formulated under the umbrella of a national-scale plan for urban development. Meanwhile, India is “empowering municipalities and other local-level institutions” to create and implement appropriate policies. Galvanizing support under a national plan is a start, but giving decision-making power back to cities and regional authorities allows for a closer view of what works to make a given city more livable and sustainable.

3. Intersection of Climate Change and Urban Development

Throughout Wednesday’s plenaries, country representatives drew attention to the harmful impacts of climate change on urban regions and the role cities must play to mitigate these effects. Seeing as cities emit 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, a representative from Finland noted that they play a crucial role in the implementation of the Paris Agreement. To fit within the global framework, the delegate encouraged cities to develop local climate change and mitigation strategies, linking climate change and urban planning.

While climate change is not often aligned with urban development, and has therefore taken a backseat throughout most of the proceedings, it was an important theme in the day’s plenary sessions. A distinguished representative from Papua New Guinea declared: “climate change is a key to development challenges.” To echo these sentiments, a delegate from the Seychelles called for NUA implementation to heavily encompass climate change provisions. The island nation challenged all governments to take climate change seriously and to achieve the commitments of the NUA accordingly. By reinforcing the relationship between climate change and development, representatives demonstrated the importance of integrating the NUA into other global processes, coordinating the NUA with climate goals in the Paris Agreement. “Cities should adopt a climate agenda that is closely linked with their growth,” said a delegate from Morocco. By aligning growth with climate policies, cities can protect their people and environment, while ensuring sustainable development. The Moroccan representative highlighted the upcoming COP22 in Marrakesh, Morocco’s capital, as an opportunity to link the implementation of the NUA with climate change agreements.

While Wednesday’s plenary sessions reflected a mosaic of nations, the call to action was singular. A cohesive and shared vision of a sustainable urban future will be empowered by national urban actions that empower all levels of regional and local actors in addressing urbanization, especially as it relates to global climate goals.

Follow our daily coverage of Habitat III on TheCityFix.

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