Insights and Analysis

5 Takeaways from Quito and the New Urban Agenda

October 26, 2016

By Mark Koenig

After a stimulating four days, the Habitat III conference held in Quito, Ecuador, ended last week with the adoption of a New Urban Agenda (NUA)—a set of global guidelines that lays out a vision for achieving sustainable urban development.

Habitat III

The pavilion of the Habitat III conference in Quito. Photo/Mark Koening

I was one of 10,000 international participants from 167 countries (in addition to 20,000 volunteers and participants from Ecuador) taking part in networking events, panel discussions, lectures, and lots of talks in the hallway. Here are five takeaways that I found most relevant to Asia’s cities:

1. The New Urban Agenda sets a goal line, but does not chart a path to reaching it. The sentiment in Quito was largely that the NUA presents a vision that is important both for the specifics of its content, as well as its potential to rally actors to resolve critical issues facing cities. However, it was also widely acknowledged that questions remain as to how cities will meet those goals. Every city has to chart its own path to the standards set in the NUA while making choices and trade-offs along the way. Exactly how to prioritize and sequence positive transformations will be a complicated challenge for each city to work out. So the document should not be looked to for specific actionable strategies, but rather be seen as a rallying call to generate collaboration and build momentum to help cities overcome the constraints and obstacles that are preventing progress.

2. Urban governance issues are featured in the NUA but some key elements were not resolved. The centrality of governance to any urban transformation was recognized in the NUA (see clauses 85-92), specifically mentioning governance priorities, including increasing capacity, encouraging citizen participation, strengthening policy frameworks, and improving planning, budgeting, and monitoring processes. The prominence of governance is important, but two key governance challenges were not fully articulated in the NUA. First, the role of politics in driving or obstructive change is not a focus of the document, but many in Quito recognized its importance. Given the long-term vision needed to transform a city, the short-term cycles of politics can be constraining, and the complicated interests around any change can block action.

Second, the NUA is ambivalent on the split of roles and responsibilities between national and local governments in leading urban development. The NUA (which was negotiated by national delegations, not city delegations) acknowledges the importance of local governments but does not firmly declare the leadership role that local governments play in the transformation in our cities, a viewpoint expressed by many speakers in Quito. As happens frequently in the Asian context, overlapping mandates between city and national governments create confusion and redundancies, and constraints placed on city governments can be exceedingly restrictive. As negotiated, the NUA does little to help resolve such conflicts, and does not clearly articulate a need for decentralization or deconcentration.

3. Municipal finance will be critical to achieving the goals, but important to start with the basics. A range of financial figures were provided for addressing the current infrastructure gap in our cities—the ADB estimates that $8 trillion will be needed by 2020 to fill that gap in Asia alone. While many speakers focused on innovative financing mechanisms, even more voices reminded us that cities need to get the basics of public financial management right before focusing on more advanced financing options. A case in point was that the investment gap is caused less by a lack of sources of finance, but rather, a lack of bankable projects. This means that investors see the perceived risks of possible urban infrastructure projects as too high, or potential for returns too low, to offer affordable financing options. That means that we need to focus efforts on two things: First, the capacity for cities to plan financially sound (bankable) investment deals around their core infrastructure needs. Second, getting the public financial management basics right. This starts from good planning and building a strong revenue portfolio, which for cities, often means getting property valuation and taxation right (developing Asia has the lowest tax revenue to GDP ratio in the world—with revenue from property tax being critically low in many cities). Furthermore, accounting and budgeting capacity and transparency is vital, as some cities in Asia still do not even have the capacity to do basic double-entry bookkeeping. The NUA recognizes some of these needs (see 135, 151 for example) but this should be a focus for all actors supporting urban development.

4. Social inclusion and gender hold prominent roles. The NUA agenda calls for active inclusion policies and emphasizes the need to both promote gender equality, as well as address the specific needs of women and girls. In many Indian cities for example, gender violence in public spaces severely limits women’s urban mobility, while lack of services in unplanned settlements across Asia disproportionately affect women who bear a large portion of the household responsibilities. The NUA recognizes a number of specific needs to make cities more livable for men and women, including the importance of gender responsive housing and urban planning, the challenge of addressing gender-based violence and harassment, and the need for greater gender-responsive mobility. The needs of persons with disabilities, the youth, and the elderly in urban development are also featured prominently in the document. Perhaps the biggest disappointment for those desiring a fully inclusive NUA were late changes that removed a reference to the LGBT community by name, which could have been the first direct reference in any negotiated UN document.

5. “Right to the city” is growing in recognition but remains controversial. The concept of a right to the city—which gives all people the right to occupy, engage, and use the city for economic opportunities—was prominent in discussions at Habitat III. Clause 11 of the NUA acknowledges a watered-down definition of this right and suggests that countries follow the example of Brazil, which in 2001 wrote the right to the city into federal law. But the NUA stops short of declaring this a universal human right, and limits the definition to focus on the broad concept of inclusion. The growing support for this right was apparent in Quito, but skeptical voices were also present. Some speakers questioned the ability of cities to implement this right given its collective nature and vague implication. Others noted tensions it could create for governments desiring to limit urbanization and reduce informality, and some saw the right as a potential inhibitor of growth and investment policies. While the right to the city has mostly grown out of movements in Latin America, we can expect to hear more about it in Asia going forward.

Mark Koenig is associate director of The Asia Foundation’s Program Strategy, Innovation and Learning (PSIL) unit. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


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