With vast differences in problems faced in urban areas globally, just who will have a voice in the upcoming United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, Habitat III, has been a contentious issue. But a recent win by developing countries could see controversial issues like the “right to the city” thrust to the centre of the world’s urban governance debate, which seeks to “readdress the way cities and human settlements are planned, financed, developed, governed and managed”.

After 40 hours without sleep, last Saturday night delegates at a Habitat III summit in New York broke two years-long logjams in negotiations and settled upon a new draft of the New Urban Agenda, which will be released this week.

The first logjam had been about who would have control over implementing the Agenda: developing or developed countries. Developed countries were resisting the call of poor countries that this job be given to the Nairobi-based UN-Habitat organisation, which is the UN’s lead agency on urbanisation, because they know it is a voice for developing countries.

What broke the deadlock was a new proposal for “an evidence-based and independent assessment of UN-Habitat” to be conducted by the UN secretary-general and presented during the UN General Assembly’s 71st session. Work will begin straight away and hopefully be delivered in April or May, followed by the high-level meeting in June or July next year.

The G77 group of developing countries agreed in return that rather than UN-Habitat having total responsibility for the job, it would instead be “a focal point on sustainable urbanisation and human settlements” in the UN system.

The right to the city

The second major debating point has been about the “right to the city”, a concept which aims to prevent anyone being excluded from living in a city and which has gained widespread support, particularly in Latin America.

This is extremely controversial from the point of view of developers and affects anyone concerned about gentrification, forced evictions, foreclosures, refugees, the privatisation of public space and the criminalisation of homelessness.

Civil society groups active in urban social-justice campaigns have insisted that the right to the city be enshrined in international law and have banded under the slogan “cities are for people, not for profit”.

At issue is the power given to local governments to protect all citizens rather than capitulate to private sector interests during this period of accelerated urbanisation across the planet.

The principal has already been adopted by several municipalities in Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and Europe, which have signed onto documents like the Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City and the European Charter for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in the City.

“In some countries and cities, the recognition of the right to the city and/or the adoption of right to the city charters seem to have positively improved the interaction between authorities and inhabitants and led to concrete results,” the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Bahram Ghazi said.

Although it hasn’t been yet confirmed, it is likely that the final version of the text will read:

“We share a vision of cities for all, referring to the equal use and enjoyment of cities, and human settlements, seeking to promote inclusivity and ensure that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, without discrimination of any kind, are able to inhabit and produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, resilient, and sustainable cities and human settlements, to foster prosperity and quality of life for all. We note the efforts of some national and local governments to enshrine this vision, referred to as right to the city, in their legislation, political declarations and charters.”

Along the way, the dilution of the original meaning of the text has been documented by one observer as follows:

“‘We commit’ became ‘we anchor’ and finally ‘we share’. For the countries that already embrace the concept, it was ‘defined as’, then ‘understood as’, then ‘recognised as’ and finally ‘referred to as the right to the city’.”

The New Urban Agenda

The Agenda is about creating a vision of sustainable cities and combating “poverty, growing inequalities and environmental degradation” and will be adopted at the Habitat III Conference next month in Quito, Ecuador, expected to be attended by 30,000 people.

The last draft (minus the above changes) is here.

The Agenda seeks to “readdress the way cities and human settlements are planned, financed, developed, governed and managed”, and includes references to supporting the “local provision of goods and basic services, leveraging the proximity of resources, recognising that a heavy reliance on distant sources of energy, water, food, and materials can pose sustainability challenges”.

The Montevideo Declaration

A related gathering in Uruguay last week also adopted the Montevideo Declaration, which supports a set of protocols around the implementation of open technology standards for smart cities.

These key performance indicators are already being applied by several major cities around the world to encourage the use of open data, with such applications as the management of e-waste and accessibility for everyone regardless of ability to ICT.

This event was part of Green Standards Week, about using ICT to support the transition to Smart Sustainable Cities – which is the theme of the Habitat III conference.

The Sustainable Development Goals

Habitat III will hopefully help us understand better how the UN Sustainable Development Goals, adopted last year, can be applied in cities.

Goal 11 is specific to cities but all of the SDGs have targets directly or indirectly relevant to regional and local government. This is the level of government best placed to link the global goals with local communities.

This process of linking will mean different things in different areas.

For Morten Kabell, the mayor for technical and environmental affairs in sustainable city leader Copenhagen, “the goals … are an incentive to go even further than what we would have been doing otherwise.”

For Johannesburg Mayor Mpho Parks Tau, it’s about starting to legitimise the role of cities at the national level: “A high number of African countries do not have national urban policies that would provide a holistic approach to rapid urbanisation. The lack of systematic urban planning continues to urbanise poverty – with the poor located on the periphery of our cities and towns where basic services such as adequate shelter, water, sanitation, transport and energy remain limited.”

New York City has been a trailblazer here, with Mayor Bill de Blasio releasing a sustainability and equity-focused strategic plan called OneNYC, which is consciously aligned with the SDGs.

United Cities and Local Governments recently published a primer on what local governments need to know about the SDGs as well as a “roadmap” on local-level implementation and monitoring of the goals.

But cities have limited resources. Sandra Ruckstuhl, who works for a technical group appointed by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, says: “They may agree in principle, but how do they do that in an efficient way? This is the common question.

“It’s all genuinely locally driven, but always for different reasons, because cities have different reasons for pursuing sustainability goals.

“Perhaps most importantly, the goals offer a rubric for evaluation – people want data solutions, so that’s a selling point.”

The Network has launched its own guide for city stakeholders, including civil groups, for implementing the SDGs.

Thinking globally, acting locally

Ultimately, “localising” the SDGs is about prioritising a bottom-up approach to urban development by engaging people at the community level.

Although it is UN member states who will adopt the New Urban Agenda, it will be local and regional governments who will implement it. They have years of experience in solving real problems in cities.

To this end, a campaign called #Listen2Cities was launched by the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments last May.

Hundreds of urban experts, members of civil society, and citizens have joined the campaign, and on social media are sharing their ideas using the hashtags #Listen2Cities and #Habitat3.

All eyes are now on Quito to see what will happen next month during the most important global development conference of the year.

David Thorpe is the author of:

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  1. Thank you so much for doing the hard work of bringing information about these vitally important governance and planning protocols for global sustainable development through the UN agencies – I am ambivalent about sharing this on my facebook lest I attract sinister comments about world government conspiracies and dare I say UN agendas – we are in an unfortunate position in Australia with the balance of power being concentrated in the hands of people who are intellectually lazy and seem to have an agenda of their own that is dangerously misinformed and simplistic.