Civil society taking strategic ‘breath’ amid pause on New Urban Agenda


Delegates take part in a World Urban Campaign event in March 2016 that saw
the launch of a major stakeholder report ahead of Habitat III. (World Urban

the global urban movement, the dust is still settling from last year’s global Habitat III summit, the one time every two
decades that the world’s attention turns to its cities.

The October
approval of the New Urban Agenda, a 20-year vision on the
future of sustainable cities, has created a wealth of opportunities for
advocacy and organizing around urban issues. But it’s also a massive
undertaking, and one that relies in part on the convoluted bureaucracy of the
United Nations.

As such, more
than seven months after the summit in Quito, Ecuador, civil society
groups are continuing to work through strategy on how to move forward. Chiefly,
they are seeking to determine the best way to transition from a narrow advocacy
role focused on the specifics of the New Urban Agenda to a broader position
pushing for the implementation of this global agreement. While the Habitat III
process operated on a fixed calendar of scheduled meetings and negotiations,
implementation of the new strategy is far more nebulous — ostensibly finding a
place in any of the planet’s nearly 200 countries and countless cities.

Last month,
however, a regularly scheduled international meeting in Nairobi created an
opportunity for New Urban Agenda advocates, who are spread across the
globe, to converge in one place. The biennial UN-Habitat Governing Council
brought together the 58 countries who oversee the U. N.’s top agency on urbanization
to debate the details of implementing the New Urban Agenda. The meeting also
provided an opportunity for NGOs and networks to meet, update each other on
their progress and hash out strategies for putting into action the voluntary,
non-binding agenda.

For many, the
week-long affair in the Kenyan capital was the first time they had gathered in
person since Quito. Their meetings on the sidelines of the official
negotiations came as countries, too, are continuing to sort out how the New
Urban Agenda’s implementation will be monitored at the global level. With UN-Habitat
currently undergoing a high-level evaluation, no significant action
in this regard is expected until the end of the year.

[See: UN-Habitat reforms will hold up New Urban Agenda

But with
civil society not yet fully organized to rally national and local governments
to change policies for the betterment of cities, the current waiting period may
be a blessing in disguise. “This pause will help us build our capacity to align
with the New Urban Agenda,” said Nuno do Rosário, an architect who works with
the Mozambican Association for Urban Development, an NGO. “It’s a chance to
take a breath.”

and losses

First and
foremost, the civil society groups that lobbied hard for specific provisions in
the New Urban Agenda are still taking stock of their gains and losses. Last
year’s hard-fought negotiations saw a flurry of proposed ideas in the various
iterations of drafts for the New Urban Agenda.

turn, civil society responses to the agreement have been as varied as the
groups espousing them. Key wins are being seen around, for instance, a new
focus on urban planning, an embrace of national urban policies and a call for
enabling legislation that would facilitate municipal finance, among other

[See: After Habitat III, what’s next for the urban movement?

Particularly notable has been an entirely new focus on urban rights, especially
the so-called “right to the city”, which had never before been agreed upon as
language in an international agreement. One of the most contentious points in
the New Urban Agenda negotiations, the right to the city is an academic concept
turned progressive rallying cry that nearly derailed talks multiple times on
the road to Quito. A coalition called the Global Platform for the Right to the
led the lobbying efforts to insert language affirming this right with the
support of the Brazilian and Ecuadorian governments. 

But opposition to the
proposal was skeptical. Some asked if there should be a parallel “right to the
rural”, while others expressed confusion as to whether this idea represented a
new right or a synthesis of existing rights. Many pointed out that the right to
the city is not otherwise recognized by U. N. human rights treaties. 

The final
watered down the first draft’s approach. The language in Paragraph 11
ultimately read: “We share a vision of cities for all” while noting “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”. 

This conclusion initially was viewed as a compromise that kept
the right to the city in the document hanging only by a thread. But upon
further reflection, the advocacy platform’s coordinator, Nelson Saule, is more
bullish. “The essence [of the right to the city] is in Paragraph 13. That was
our strategy. All the elements are there,” he said. 

Paragraph 13 delineates
what “a vision of cities for all” looks like. It hits such hot-button issues as
the social function of land, right to adequate housing, gender equity and
informal economies. Saule called this outcome “a major victory”. Still, Saule
also noted losses, such as the eventual omission of language on “the city as a
common good,” a concept that was ruled a deal-breaker by the European Union in
favor of language describing cities as “competitive”. 

[See: How will Mexico
City pay for its new ‘right to the city’ guarantee?

An umbrella alliance of
longtime players in the human-settlements arena known as the Habitat
International Coalition has a more jaundiced view of the New Urban Agenda as
they wrap up their final analysis of the document to measure gains and losses. 

These advocates, which comprise some 450 member organizations in 80 countries,
are positive about some of the aforementioned elements. They point to the right
to the city and the language on the social function of land, as well as other
points that made the final cut, such as around biodiversity and value capture. 

But their overall impression is more negative regarding the document’s impact.
“In general, [the New Urban Agenda] has dumbed down the discussion of
government commitments and state obligations under law,” said Joseph Schechla,
coordinator of the Housing and Land Rights Network, one of the coalition’s

As an example, he pointed to the right to adequate housing. That term
has already been fully fleshed out under international law, he suggested, and
was not in need of additional discussion in the context of the Habitat III
process. “There are a lot of sour grapes, because the tendency for any global
policy instrument is to adopt a standard lower than the one before,” Schechla

[See: 4 things countries are doing right now to implement the New Urban

In his opinion, the New Urban Agenda set the bar lower than the 1996
Habitat Agenda on the topic of human rights — but also that it is hardly unique
among 21st-century global agreements, where rights language is increasingly
watered down compared to their predecessors. (Read more on HIC’s future
proposals here

Campuses and observatories 

Ultimately, however, the New Urban
Agenda now stands in a finalized form — it was formally adopted by the U. N.
General Assembly in December. Now, the task is for civil society groups to
figure out their next steps. 

One initiative that will see continuity from the
run-up to Habitat III into the implementation phase are so-called Urban
Thinkers Campuses
. These daylong or multi-day events were organized by
universities, activists, think tanks, research institutes and grass-roots
organizations to generate inputs for the New Urban Agenda. Those inputs were
included in a final report called “The City We Need 2.0”; organizers will be
launching a new global campaign for the next several years on measuring,
designing, financing and managing “The City We Need.” 

[See: Unified stakeholder
vision on sustainable urbanization lauded, critiqued ahead of Habitat III

campuses were coordinated by the World Urban Campaign (WUC), an advocacy
platform on behalf of urban issues housed at UN-Habitat. Nearly 80 more such campuses
are planned for this year
, suggesting strong interest in the format. 

For example,
the urban research arm of the Federal University of Pernambuco, known as
INCITI, hosted a raucous campus in Recife, Brazil, in November that coincided
with a heated protest movement against a downtown redevelopment project. With
the imprimatur of a U. N.-backed campaign, said INCITI’s Circe Gama Monteiro,
“The stakeholders felt like they were in the centre of the world — it had an
enormous impact.” 

INCITI will host three more campuses throughout Pernambuco, a
state in northeastern Brazil, taking the concept to more secondary cities and
rural areas in addition to the cosmopolitan state capital. 

But while these
campuses had a concrete purpose in the Habitat III process, their role is
vaguer post-Quito. “The Urban Thinkers Campuses have been ending in a desert —
there is no follow-up,” lamented Didier Vancutsem, secretary-general of the
International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP). 

For that reason,
he is spearheading a new initiative called World Urban Campaign Academies,
which he hopes will “capitalize on the knowledge” being generated by the WUC’s
outreach activities. Through webinars, summer academies and training sessions
at major events, Vancutsem said he hopes that “the academy can be the engine,
the multiplier of all the campuses.” 

[See: Six months after Habitat III, is the
New Urban Agenda gaining political traction?

The Habitat International
Coalition also plans to harness the wealth of research and analysis it prepared
during the life cycle of the Habitat III process, funnelling that into what it
is calling the Human Rights Habitat Observatory. The project, aimed to start
this year, would focus on monitoring the suite of new global agreements — not
just the New Urban Agenda but also the Sustainable Development Goals and the
Paris climate agreement — against the human rights obligations to which nations
are bound under international law. 

The new observatory will coincide with next
year’s planned revamping of the U. N. system of human rights protections. As
such, Schechla believes the time is ripe for a renewed focus on the role of
human rights in global policy. “We are the ones that are going to be monitoring
these constant and standing obligations that were not upheld in the New Urban
Agenda,” he said. 

Advocacy in action 

Finally, the transition from the
negotiation to the implementation of the New Urban Agenda has prompted some
existential questions, especially for an advocacy group that formed
specifically for the occasion of Habitat III. 

For example, the Habitat III
Civil Society Working Group, a collection of stakeholders loosely based in the
New York City-area, met monthly in the run-up to Habitat III in order to report
back from preparatory meetings and even organized an Urban Thinkers Campus.
Post-Quito, they continue to meet, albeit while strategizing about where to
move next. 

[See: New Urban Agenda discussions ‘must translate into useful
action’, New York event told

“There needs to be a strong space in the New York
area, particularly because UN-Habitat is in Nairobi,” said Jan Peterson, a
gender activist who brought the group together. But, she added, the group is
“still exploring where we are going” in the wake of the conference, for example
by attempting to localize the New Urban Agenda in New York City, one of the
world’s largest urban areas.

years ago, the General of Assembly of Partners, or GAP, was created by a
handful of civil society individuals and organizations as an umbrella for
lobbying in the Habitat III process. They quickly established themselves as the
de facto voice for stakeholders, earning regular opportunities to address
diplomats at the United Nations and garnering private audiences with key
negotiators. They were even granted some face time with then-U. N.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during Habitat III itself and were acknowledged
by name in the New Urban Agenda, a signal that the GAP took as a blessing from
member states to continue their advocacy post-Quito. 

More than most, however,
the post-Quito era required a pivot to something else entirely for the GAP.
That decision came last month in Nairobi, when the network’s members approved a
new constitution that formally shifts the organization’s purpose to
implementation of the New Urban Agenda. 

Whether to accept an offer from
UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos of funding and staffing from within the
agency, however, remains undecided. Such a move would make the GAP somewhat
similar, at least in terms of institutional support, to the World Urban

But one civil society member who has been active in both groups,
World Vision International’s Joyati Das, sees the value in distinct advocacy
bodies. “As a civil society partner we believe we need both community- or
segment-based engagement and thematic- or issue-based engagement,” she told
Citiscope via e-mail. 

[See: Habitat III struggled to deliver — but nonetheless,
a new global urban agenda is upon us

This new approach also requires new
strategies. “GAP has moved beyond the traditional forms of advocacy (lobbying
for the recognition of partners’ interests in the New Urban Agenda) to a form
that one might call ‘advocacy in action,’” GAP President Eugénie Birch wrote in
an e-mail. “GAP will localize the New Urban Agenda by bringing it to regions,
nations and subnational jurisdictions. In this way, GAP will begin the
important effort of contextualizing the broad aspirations, goals and
commitments of the New Urban Agenda. This is what we mean by ‘advocacy in

To that end, each of the GAP’s 16 constituency groups has begun to
develop a five-year action plan carrying through the 2022 report on the New
Urban Agenda, as outlined in the document’s section on follow-up and review.
(Countries will be expected to report on their progress toward the agenda every
four years, starting in 2018.) 

[See: 2018 reporting period will prove critical
for New Urban Agenda, advocates say

Birch even envisions strategizing as far
ahead as a possible “Quito+10” mid-term review in 2026. The World Urban
Campaign has gone one further, with a road map that takes its advocacy efforts
all the way to a potential Habitat IV in 2036. 

But with so much up in the air
as the United Nations continues sorting out which direction that the New Urban
Agenda will take, it’s difficult to plan so far ahead. For now, most eyes are
on February’s World Urban Forum 9 in Kuala Lumpur

That’s where Do Rosário, the
Mozambican architect, is focused. “I have faith that after World Urban Forum
9,” he said, “everything will come together for us to move forward.”

* Original source.