Habitat III: The upcoming UN cities summit is as important as the Paris Climate Conference – but will it deliver?

By Stefan Schurig and Filippo Boselli

It is almost time.  One of the most important international summits is on our doorstep. Next week the UN General Assembly will be gathering in Quito, Ecuador to (hopefully) agree and sign the so called New Urban Agenda, the international urban “constitution” supposed to be guiding sustainable urban development in the next 20 years. Almost 40,000 participants from all around the world have registered. After the successful adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the Paris agreement, expectations on the next UN cities summit are high. The question however is:  will it deliver?

Will delegates agree on a meaningful outcome that ultimately provides guidance for national and local governments? Will it keep up to the promise to be the “SDG implementation summit”? In fact, the goals and principles of the SDGs and the Paris agreement will be confronted with a reality check  – since first and foremost much of their substance will have to be implemented by the cities of this world.

The drafting process the New Urban Agenda remained unclear!

The challenge and ambition of the process in preparation of this conference was to be as inclusive as possible. All voices and needs were heard to create a truly comprehensive and relevant agenda. However, while it is definitely acknowledgeable that great efforts were made in this direction, it is also worth pointing out that this long preparatory processes did reveal a lack of transparency on what and how voices were actually considered for the New Urban Agenda.  At the same time, solving the apparent mismatch of a conference gathering national delegates to discuss cities and municipal matters was also not an easy one. At the end of the day, cities remain observers on the design of a roadmap that they have to implement.  Only nations will sign the document.

Having said this, expectations remain high.

As cities show leadership especially in terms of sustainability and innovation, it is essential that the UN and national governments keep their pace and do not fall behind. The Habitat III is in fact a unique opportunity to see how to improve cooperation and promote a multi-level coordination between the different government levels.  International institutions and national governments are acknowledging and emphasizing the key role of cities and urban development.

In return, cities have to recognize the importance of such an international dialogue and should make of the New Urban Agenda their own guiding document. If not, this agenda risks becoming irrelevant.  While is it true that cities cannot be left alone, it is also fair to acknowledge that efforts need to be mutual. Cities need to connect, reach out, raise their voice and integrate within the international discourse. They cannot isolate themselves and think to drive the transition forward all by themselves. They need to harmonize and integrate with the national and international context of which they are part, especially in an ever-increasing globalized world.

What do we call for?

The World Future Council has been consistently involved in the preparation processes towards Habitat III and in particular, we have been constantly raising two key points that we would like to the New Urban Agenda to bring forward. The first one addresses the ‘what?’. The second one the ‘how?’

First, we need to make sure that the New Urban Agenda suggest a new paradigm for cities – one that goes beyond the term ‘sustainable’. The concept of a Regenerative City could indeed become a new vision for cities. It stands for cities that not only minimize negative impact but can actually have a positive, beneficial role to play within the natural ecosystem from which they depend. Cities have to constantly regenerate the resources they absorb.

While many concepts within the current NUA resonate with the narrative of the Regenerative city, we still hope to see this agenda become even more ambitious in terms of environmental sustainability. We need to tune it up to match the urgent need we have for a shift towards a truly regenerative urban future.

Secondly, we call for National Urban Policy Commissions to fill the gap between the various levels of government, especially between national and local governments. This gap is often emphasized as one of the greatest limiting factors to sustainable urban development, hindering the effective, coordinated and fast transformations we need to see in cities today.

National urban Policy commissions would be cross-ministerial and cross-governmental commissions co-led by national, regional and local governments, which would help to bridge incompatibilities between local and national legislations and hence help the effective and consistent implementation of national programmes within the local context. There are a few positive examples such as The National Urban Development Policy Platform in Germany, which seeks to improve the dialogue and the coordination between National and Local decision-making. The Habitat III will bring together a huge range of stakeholders and actors, ranging from the UN-level down to the municipal level. This is a unique chance to launch and promote with cross-cutting proposals to enable this multi-level governance that we so much need.

More than 80% of all resources are absorbed by cities and more than half of the people on this planet live in urban areas. This means that the Habitat III summit truly embodies one of the very few historic chances to develop and agree on a new paradigm for cities. One that gives guidance for the implementation of the SDGs and the Paris agreement. It now depends on the delegations of each country to embrace that. Let the nice words we expect in Quito transform into action!