Consensus reached on New Urban Agenda

In years to come, 10 September 2016 might be thought of as a significant date in the development of urban and housing policy for many countries. It marks the date UN delegates reached consensus on the draft New Urban Agenda, which in all likelihood will be adopted at the United Nations’ Habitat 3 Conference held in Quito, Ecuador in October.

The New Urban Agenda (NUA) is a policy position to be adopted by UN Member states which centrally advocates for universal access to sustainable cities and human settlements. In a sense, the NUA fills a policy void which has emerged over the years, and is an opportunity to spatially coordinate development in cities and towns with the greatest potential to address poverty and inequality. 

The NUA will ensure that cities are at the forefront of measuring the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which was adopted in September 2015. As such, the NUA forms a natural extension to strategies and activities to achieve SDG 11 titled, Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. , Within Goal 11, a target is set, “By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums”.

After setting out the vision, general principles and a call to action, the NUA contains three central messages:

  1. Sustainable urban development: This section outlines the core of the new agenda, which is wide ranging and far reaching. From parks to food systems, migrants to LGBTI identities, smart cities to biodiversity, participation to spatial planning; the document is peppered with all the elements we understand to encompass the ‘sustainable city’.
  2. Effective implementation: This section contains recommendations for the mainstreaming of sustainable and inclusive cities, and centrally advocates for decentralisation and inclusive governance. Multi-level governance, from the global to the local, should prioritise ‘functional territories’, or areas that have definitive spatial, environmental, economic and social/cultural characteristics, above mere administrative boundaries. This calls for greater coordination of development.
  3. Follow-up and review: The UN Habitat agency is identified as the overall oversight body in monitoring the implementation of the NUA, and national and sub-national government agencies are required to fulfil their reporting of goals associated with the NUA.

The document stretches over 23 pages and contains 173 paragraphs, which is relatively short for document addressing issues at such as broad scope and scale. Reaching consensus on the content of the document marks more than four months of intensive negotiations. This was well documented by urban blogs such as Citiscope and Next City. Bloggers documented the arguments for and against the NUA, especially during the so-called ‘PrepCom 3’ meetings held in Surabaya, Indonesia in July when world leaders failed to reach consensus.

Leaders got stuck on the references to the ‘right to the city’ concept, which has been popularised by civil society groups such as the Global Platform for the Right to the City and the World Social Forum adoption of the 2004 World Charter on the Right to the City [Word Document]. This concept would allow everyone, especially the disenfranchised, have a right to shape and design their cities. As a compromise agreement, the new draft will remove the more substantive elements of the concept.

The “right to the city” emerged early in the Habitat III process as a demand from civil society groups active in urban social-justice campaigns around issues such as gentrification, forced evictions, foreclosures, refugees, the privatization of public space and the criminalization of homelessness.

Under the slogan “Cities for people, not for profit”, such groups have called for the New Urban Agenda to encourage national and local governments to care for their most vulnerable inhabitants rather than cater to private-sector interests as the planet continues to urbanize at a rapid pace.
— Greg Scruggs, Historic consensus reached on ‘right to the city’ in New Urban Agenda, Citiscope Habitat III correspondent.

Civil society groups advocated for the 'right to the city' to be the cornerstone of the New Urban Agenda. According to Isabel Pascal, communications officer of Habitat International Coalition (HIC) General Secretariat, writing for Citiscope, the World Charter for the Right to the City "broadens the traditional focus on improving quality of life based on housing and the neighbourhood to encompass quality of life at the scale of the city and its rural surroundings. This is a collective right that confers legitimacy upon people’s actions and organizations based on their uses and customs, with the aim of achieving the full exercise of the right to an adequate standard of living", 

For now the NUA makes fleeting reference to the ‘right to the city’ in paragraph 11. “We note the efforts of some national and local governments to enshrine this vision, referred to as right to the city, in their legislations, political declarations and charters”, it states. 

Reaching consensus on the draft New Urban Agenda hold much promise to realise the goals of the sustainable and inclusive cities. The implementation and review guidelines give meaning to the principles contained in the Agenda. If implemented, the majority of the global population will enjoy the benefits associated with cities and towns, and create a sustainable balance with productive rural economies. This is an ambitious objective, and monitoring the response of global leaders in Quito, Ecuador in October at the Habitat 3 conference will be instructive. Will the NUA fill the policy void on cities in international policy making, or will early contestation of key principles erode the effectiveness of Agenda?