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OPINION: The New Urban Agenda – What’s in it for developing cities?


The New Urban Agenda sets out “priorities and actions at the global, regional, national, subnational, and local levels that governments and other relevant stakeholders in every country can adopt based on their needs.” Here, CDKN’s Mairi Dupar scrutinises the 24-page New Urban Agenda, assesses its relevance for climate action in cities and gives it only partial marks. Contributions by Ari Huhtala and Maria Jose Pacha, CDKN.

The New Urban Agenda recognises that all levels of government must cooperate effectively for sustainable cities

The Agenda acknowledges that national governments have a “leading role” in the defining and implementing “inclusive and effective urban policies and legislation for sustainable urban development” while subnational and local governments have an “equally important contribution” to make “as well as civil society and other relevant stakeholders.”

Hallway conversations at the Habitat 3 conference in Quito, and some media coverage (‘Are local voices heard at Habitat 3?’) picked up the animosity between national and local governments and local communities when it came to defining the New Urban Agenda. Some mayors and local leaders were reportedly disgruntled that the agenda that they were meant to implement was being thrashed out by national representatives from Ministries of Housing and Urban Planning.

Elected officials, Mayors, Governors and Councillors, are the forefront of the battle for sustainable development” – Ban Ki Moon, United Nations Secretary General; 16 October 2016, Quito

However, the New Urban Agenda reflects an unavoidable political reality, which CDKN also sees daily in its urban programme. This reality is that innovation in climate compatible development may blossom at the local level, but supportive and enabling national policies are required in order for local efforts to truly flourish. Our experience shows that even transnational policies play a crucial role in development practice at city level (for example, the corporate policies adopted by multinational companies and played out locally, as in tourist industries in Cartagena, Colombia or coastal Belize).

Climate champions in cities can invent and adopt lower-carbon, climate-resilient ways of doing business. However, if their work is nested in policy frameworks and governance systems that reward fossil fuel consumption and create new climate vulnerabilities, then their efforts may be stymied and unable to take root. (See CDKN’s book: ‘Existing laws and policies can reinforce or undermine climate compatible development.’)   Like it or not, the achievement of sustainable cities, including their climate adaptation and mitigation characteristics, is a local to national to global affair.

The New Urban Agenda leads the way in calling for gender equality

One of the most impressive facets of the New Urban Agenda is its central focus on poverty eradication, social inclusion and, specifically, the achievement of ‘gender equality’. The Agenda is progressive in recognising the many forms of discrimination that exist in the city environment, for “women and girls, children and youth, persons with disabilities, people living with HIV/AIDS, older persons, indigenous peoples and local communities, slum and informal settlement dwellers, homeless people, workers, smallholder farmers and fishers, refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons, and migrants, regardless of migration status.” (A political disagreement among governments prevented the mention of gay, lesbian and transgender people here, whose inclusion is also needed.)

Furthermore, the text reflects CDKN’s deeply-held belief that only participatory and inclusive governance processes can address such forms of discrimination, unlock human potential and create meaningful development that endures.  Of course, the road to participatory, inclusive development processes takes time, careful planning and patience; CDKN’s ‘Inside Stories on Climate Compatible Development’ detail specific strategies and tactics for achieving this across diverse urban and subnational contexts.

We are also heartened that the New Urban Agenda embraces ‘gender equality’ as a necessary outcome in its own right. Not only is it just and fair that gender equality should be an outcome of development, but CDKN, Practical Action and IDS have documented extensively in their research project ’10 things to know: Gender equality and achieving climate goals’ that giving women an equal role in decision making has a material effect on the success of climate compatible development programmes in cities.

The New Urban Agenda recognises the planning challenges presented by informal settlements

The document acknowledges multiple times the challenges to planning, governance and the attainment of safe, secure, prosperous and inclusive city life that are presented by the world’s informal settlements. Whether known as favelas, bidonvilles, shanty towns or simply slums, informal settlements are a worldwide urban phenomenon characterised by their residents’ lack of land rights, poor or non-existent access to infrastructure and government services, and social exclusion. One quarter of the world’s urban population lives in informal settlements.

Although referring often to the challenges that informal settlements present, the New Urban Agenda is short on specific pointers for how to overcome these challenges.

Readers may look elsewhere for tailored guidance: the issue paper on informal settlements prepared by the UN Habitat Secretariat in the run-up to Habitat 3 contains useful analysis (see the recommendations in the end section). CDKN’s paper with the African Centre for Cities,  Strengthening Resilience in African Cities – A framework for working with informality presents a detailed,  empirically-based approach. The multi-faceted and highly participatory cLIMA sin riesgo (Climate without risk) project in Lima, Peru – supported by CDKN – involves residents of informal settlements in mapping the everyday risks that undermine their resilience and are exacerbated by climate change, as a basis for generating collective solutions.

The New Urban Agenda is strong on resilience

Like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) themselves – which the New Urban Agenda largely mirrors – the Agenda highlights the impacts of disasters (including due to ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’ hazards) on cities and the need for effective disaster risk reduction. The Agenda makes a prominent call for investing in measures to build cities’ resilience, dedicating a standalone part of the document’s ‘vision’ section to this issue. SDG 11 on cities stresses the need for them to be ‘resilient’ and SDG 13 on climate action leads on the need for ‘resilient, adaptive’ measures without much depth on mitigation actions.

The document also articulates well the importance of extra-urban areas and their sustainable management for sustaining the provision of ecosystem services such as water to growing cities. Perhaps some of the most sophisticated environment-related text comes in paragraph 71 of the call to action:

“71. We commit to strengthening the sustainable management of resources — including land, water (oceans, seas, and freshwater), energy, materials, forests, and food, with particular attention to the environmentally sound management and minimization of all waste, hazardous chemicals, including air and short-lived climate pollutants, greenhouse gases, and noise — in a way that considers urban-rural linkages and functional supply and value chains vis-à-vis environmental impact and sustainability, and strives to transition to a circular economy, while facilitating ecosystem conservation, regeneration, restoration and resilience in the face of new and emerging challenges.”

Indeed, the emergence of Payment for Ecosystem Services schemes over the past three decades reflects exactly this reality of rural-urban linkages for urban environmental security; CDKN has supported the scaling up of a related scheme called ‘Watershared’ in Latin America, which compensates upstream water and land managers for sustainable behaviours that improve the quantity and quality of water provision downstream and contribute to climate adaptation and mitigation.

The New Urban Agenda misses an opportunity to frame low-carbon development as integral to city growth

On the topic of governments’ aspiration to growth in cities, the New Urban Agenda says: “We envisage cities and human settlements that….meet the challenges and opportunities of present and future sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, leveraging urbanization for structural transformation, high productivity, value-added activities, and resource efficiency, harnessing local economies, taking note of the contribution of the informal economy while supporting a sustainable transition to the formal economy” (p3; 13d). The Agenda’s Vision and some short paragraphs in its Call to Action also urge governments to consider ‘climate adaptation and mitigation’ in city development. Governments are encouraged to take measures that are commensurate with the Paris climate agreement goal to limit global temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius (above pre-industrial levels) and as close to 1.5 degrees as possible

However, the text overall lacks a sense of urgency or conveyance of the imperative for drastic climate mitigation action that is called for by the Paris process. The scientific implications of the Paris commitment are that global emissions levels will begin to irreversibly decline within the next five years and reach negative emissions levels by the second half of the century (meaning that human society extracts more greenhouse gases from the air than we put in). The New Urban Agenda seems, to us, to be a missed opportunity to recognise the potential of zero- and low-carbon growth to generate jobs along with very substantial development co-benefits.

We are pleased that the confluence of climate mitigation and development benefits is signalled briefly in the New Urban Agenda text:

“54. We commit to the generation and use of renewable and affordable energy and sustainable and efficient transport infrastructure and services, where possible, achieving the benefits of connectivity and reducing the financial, environmental, and public health costs of inefficient mobility, congestion, air pollution, urban heat island effect, and noise. We also commit to give particular attention to the energy and transport needs of all people, particularly the poor and those living in informal settlements. We also note that reductions in renewable energy costs give cities and human settlements an effective tool to lower energy supply costs.”

However, the development potential of low emissions action is far broader and more exciting than indicated in the New Urban Agenda. A new series by the Low Emissions Development Strategies Global Partnership (LEDS GP) outlines, with compelling evidence, how mitigation action can deliver significant strides in employment, trade and industrial competitiveness and also in public health, road safety, economic productivity and poverty reduction.

The New climate economy  reports have already made the case conclusively that  that, without action to mitigate and adapt to climate change, global growth may stall completely. The World Bank’s Decarbonizing Development project sets out clearly how developing and developed countries alike need to investment immediately in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to find a path to zero net global emissions – and to avoid delaying such investments as later action will be more costly. “That starts with planning for the future by investing today in the research and technology that will be needed decades from now and by avoiding decisions that can lock in high-carbon growth patterns and infrastructure investments that will become obsolete in a low-carbon future,” say the report’s authors. A more attuned New Urban Agenda would have emphasised the dangers of locking in high carbon investments and the beautiful opportunities presented by visionary, scaleable zero-carbon and low-carbon actions in cities now.

CDKN’s contribution to sustainable cities

CDKN has gained considerable experience in working at the city level during the last six years (see more here). The New Urban Agenda can provide further useful guidance for countries in the implementation of their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) as cities will be necessary and effective partners in delivering both adaptation and mitigation goals and in increasing their ambition. To achieve SDGs and NDCs, countries should actively pursue mainstreaming climate compatible development at the city level (see key conditions for success here).

CDKN can support its partner countries particularly with support related to (1) governance and planning for inclusive climate compatible development in cities (incorporating  social, gender and health aspects); (2) knowledge management and communications for inclusive climate compatible development in cities; and (3) mobilising innovative local, national and international resources for implementing climate compatible investments in cities.

Read Maria Jose Pacha’s article on the New Urban Agenda in the context of Latin American cities (in Spanish).

Image: credit UN Habitat

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