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How Habitat III hopes to kickstart a revolution in cities

Habitat III – the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, taking place in Quito, Ecuador this week – hopes to solve the question of how cities can meet the needs of their expanding populations while being inclusive and sustainable.

The “New Urban Agenda“, to be adopted at the event, will provide a road map for urban development over the next 20 years. It will help expanding cities surmount the huge challenges they face in everything from health services and schools to public transport and energy.

Local government representatives including over 200 mayors and delegations from 500 cities met at the end of last week at the 5th United Cities and Local Government Congress World Summit held in Bogotá, Colombia to prepare for Habitat III, moving on to the 2nd World Assembly of Local and Regional Governments on Sunday in Quito.

The Summit issued a demand for cities’ role to be taken more seriously at national and international levels. United Cities and Local Government – the equivalent of the United Nations for cities and an umbrella body for local government around the world – sees Habitat III as an unprecedented opportunity for cities’ needs to be represented at the global level.

They released a manifesto called “A Seat at the Global Table: Local Governments as Decision-Makers in World Affairs,” which argues that, compared to national governments, municipalities are the closest to everyday citizens and know the needs of their cities more intimately than national-level bureaucrats.

They also released a more detailed document called “The Bogotá Commitment”, which further describes how local governments can contribute ideas and play a role in the global debate on a more sustainable urban future.

It states that “the answers generated within urban settlements and territories will pave the way for global solutions”.

Act locally, think globally

The consensus among urban leaders is that dealing with the world’s most complex issues, such as fighting climate change and poverty, requires coordinated solutions at the global and local levels.

Habitat III will finalise the New Urban Agenda, with local and regional leaders wanting their input into the Agenda formally recognised, with their efforts to organise and produce informed inputs acknowledged as part of the decision-making process. They want to see their networks included in the governing structures of international development institutions.

The Bogotá Commitment calls for local and regional leaders to lead the transition toward low carbon, resilient cities and regions, and to develop new capacities and modes of leadership to respond to and take advantage of the host of new opportunities that are opening up for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda.

The right to the city

The Commitment calls upon city leaders to harness integrated urban and territorial planning to shape the future of cities and territories and ensure equal access amongst their populations to quality and resilient infrastructures and basic services. This means putting the “right to the city” at the centre of urban and territorial governance.

If adopted, it will be a powerful tool for citizens to hold local authorities to account.

The Commitment also says: ”Local leadership will only flourish if there is a national enabling environment for local and regional governments with adequate legal frameworks and resources, as well as a transformation of top-down approaches. Moreover, it can only succeed if the uneven decentralisation found in many countries and regions is urgently addressed.”

This would imply that national governments will have to relinquish some of their power and devolve it to the city and region level.

This will require not only finance, but for cities to have improved control of their finances. The Commitment therefore calls for a global fund for infrastructure, basic services and housing to help access finance from banks and markets, particularly in low-income countries, and it calls for action to permit easier access by cities to climate finance for making their infrastructure more resilient to climate change.

The overriding feeling is that national governments are out of step with what is happening at the local level: cities are growing in both population and economic prosperity but in many cases national governments continue to hold power over key aspects of urban development.

“The global governance system is no longer adequate to address the existing challenges the world is facing because these challenges are at the same time more global and local,” A Seat at the Global Table says, so it calls for a “paradigm shift in global governance”.

To help them achieve these goals, cities are therefore advised to make their international relations capacity more professional, while national governments would become “allies” by passing legislation enabling them to do so.

“We’re asking for a true partnership,” said Denis Coderre, the mayor of Montréal.

UN backing

The mayors’ call has the backing of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. At the 2nd World Assembly of Local and Regional Governments, he spoke on Sunday of a “widely recognised need to support and empower local governments”.

“Decentralisation and devolution of roles and responsibilities for local and regional authorities is an important trend,” he added, emphasising to the mayors in attendance that “your role is growing by the year”.

This event brought together over 385 local and regional leaders, representing different global networks of local and regional governments, joined by representatives of local government organisations and partners, who came together to deliver the Second World Assembly’s statement to the Habitat III Conference and commit to contributing to the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

They celebrated the inclusion in the New Urban Agenda of the “right to the city” as part of a shared vision of “cities for all”; and UN Member States’ commitment to ensure many of the above demands, and more; for example to take measures to promote women’s full and effective participation at all levels of decision making in local governments.

They particularly see the New Urban Agenda as a tool to help implement in cities all of the Sustainable Development Goals, not just the obvious one – SDG 11 – which is “to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

Two years’ of hard work has gone into preparing for Habitat III. Hard on the heels of the Paris Agreement and the establishment of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, it promises to signal a step-change in the way humanity responds to the twin challenges of planetary boundaries and social justice.

David Thorpe is the author of:

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