A meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on 5-6 September is expected to approve the creation of a first-ever official international body focused on urban sustainability – UN Urban.

It signals that the UN is finally getting to grip with the fact that the world is now more urban than not, and rallying itself to address its sustainable development efforts accordingly.

The reorganisation follows last October’s adoption of the New Urban Agenda at the Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador by UN member states. This agenda sets a new global standard for sustainable urban development and aims to help the world rethink how to plan, manage and live in cities.

The new body will reform the UN’s current lead agency on urban issues, UN-Habitat, the body tasked with making human settlements more sustainable, but which has lately been struggling.

The proposal for the body represents part of UN secretary-general António Guterres’ drive to bring up to date the UN bodies concerned with development issues.

This, it is hoped, will rekindle the confidence of member-nation donors to finance its efforts.

Earlier this month, a report by a high-level independent panel was published – requested by Guterres – designed to assess and enhance effectiveness of UN-Habitat.

The report made several recommendations. At the top is a transformed governance structure for UN-Habitat that includes universal membership. The transformed UN-Habitat will continue to help member states implement the New Urban Agenda and incorporate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into their development operations by providing guidance and tools for strengthening urban work at the country level.

But to help it, the new UN Urban body will be established. This will be “a coordinating mechanism similar to [other thematic UN bodies] UN-Water or UN-Energy, as part of the system-wide UN reform”.

It will have a small secretariat based in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs in New York and “convene all UN agencies and partners on urban sustainability”.

UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said “the secretary-general considers rapid urbanisation and its links with poverty, inequality, public health, migration, climate change and natural disasters to be one of the most pressing concerns of the United Nations”.

A new global Urban Assembly

Therefore, next year, according to the report, the world will see the establishment of a universal “Urban Assembly”, under the presidency of the UN General Assembly, to which UN Urban will report. All member states and their local governments will be eligible to participate. Together, this gathering will define a new set of institutional, financial and citizen engagement strategies.

The need for such an effort is paramount. An unprecedented amount of sustainable infrastructure, building and housing is required around the world as the world urbanises.

Providing this is core to the priorities of the SDGs. Cities are being helped to move towards achieving the 17 SDGs by 2030 by the establishment of platforms for city-to-city learning.

These are called Local 2030 Hub for Sustainability Solutions.

Plugging the data gap

Working out whether cities are making progress in realising the SDGs depends on the provision of accurate data and here there are huge gaps, especially in Africa. Cities also need access to finance and to sustainable energy sources.

All three topics are supported by Local 2030 Hubs. The Local 2030 project, involving 25 UN agencies, is encouraging cities to create their own hubs.

There are plans to create a global data hub in Toronto, as well local and regional hubs in Buenos Aires, Cambridge (Canada), Dubai, Haiphong (Vietnam), Johannesburg, Los Angeles, Makati (the Philippines) and Minna (Nigeria).

The World Council on City Data (WCCD) is among the groups behind the initiative. It seeks to harmonise city data so that cities can compare their performance. It is working with the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and has just released a major report mapping ISO indicators to the SDGs.

This massive 546-page report is the world’s first attempt to standardise data collection in cities everywhere. It optimistically points to a post-2030 future in which all cities have achieved the 17 SDGs, and in which these achievements can be verified and compared.

Cities in the WCCD network highlighted in the report use standardised indicators from ISO 37120 (Sustainable development of communities: indicators for city services and quality of life) to compare their performance, exchange knowledge and share solutions with other cities.

The 38 participating cities include Brisbane and Melbourne, London and Amsterdam, as well as Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), Buenos Aires, Johannesburg and Taipei. They have built a numeric reporting system for cities to embrace the SDGs at local level and monitor their progress to 2030.

Many of these cities are rich. Cities after all represent 80 per cent of global GDP. Some have already achieved all of the SDGs. But most cities in the world are far from rich and have a way to go. The successful cities have a responsibility to help the poorer ones and they are doing so. It is this process that the UN hopes the new UN Urban and the Urban Assembly will encourage.

Urban includes rural too

But UN Urban won’t only focus on cities. One of the panellists who produced the report, former Johannesburg mayor Mpho Parks Tau, explained that “UN Urban must challenge the artificial urban-rural dichotomy and work to mainstream a territorial approach to development across the UN”.

“We have called for ‘the urban’ to be understood in its broadest sense: encompassing metropolitan areas, intermediary cities, peri-urban areas, and the rural surroundings with which they are interdependent.”

To this end, the new body will be staffed not just by personnel from UN-Habitat but staff from other agencies with urban expertise, such as UNESCO’s World Heritage Cities Programme and the UN Development Programme’s Sustainable Urbanization Strategy.

The expert panel recommended two priority areas:

  • promoting inclusion in urban development so “no one gets left behind”
  • a focus on the urban planning, legislation and standards, along with environmental sustainability and economic robustness.

It will mean there will be a greater emphasis – budgets allowing, and particularly in developing countries – on training programs, policy guidance, promotion of good urban management governance, and the compilation of research and data on global trends in urban and human settlements.

Looking beyond the daily headlines in the news of war and terrorism – which, though significant, are short-term compared to the immense global challenges the world faces – you could say that the world is slowly growing up and, like any growing individual, unless it does so it will not survive. The above efforts represent attempts by the UN and its allies to accept responsibility for this process.

 David Thorpe is the author of Energy Management in Buildings, Solar Technology and The One Planet Life.