The New Urban Agenda:  A Necessary Urban Balance

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The New Urban Agenda:  A Necessary Urban Balance

Category:Climate Action,Climate Change,Helen Santiago Fink,Resilient Cities,Sustainable Cities Tags : 

Author: Helen Santiago Fink

Quito, the capital of the ecologically rich country of Ecuador, recently hosted the Habitat III conference, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, where the New Urban Agenda was adopted by 170 countries. But what does that really mean for the sustainability of our cities and our world? In the shadows of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris Climate Agreement, the New Urban Agenda addresses many of the same issues as these other agreements, yet lacks the political leverage, and a resource commitment by national governments to sub-national authorities for implementation remains to be seen.

Having participated in Habitat II in Istanbul twenty years ago, it seems like the discussions on the ‘right to housing’ and now ‘the right to the city’, urban indicators, equity for all, among other issues continue at Habitat III and are now being complemented by a new focus on urban resiliency, disaster risk management and low-carbon and green infrastructure. These issues provide strategic opportunities for programmatic and policy synergies with the SDGs and the Climate Agenda for holistic and sustainable implementation. And yet, among the dialogues in Quito, particularly the Wednesday evening (Oct. 19) Urban Talk among scholars and the UN Habitat Executive Director, outlining future urban concepts and current trajectories to contribute to the Quito Papers, which are intended to complement the New Urban Agenda, the importance of cities developing in harmony with natural ecosystems and the urgency of striking a social-ecological systems balance for legitimate urban sustainability was disappointingly bypassed.

Instead we heard of the dangers of land grabs by multi-lateral entities, the need for porous cities, and a dismissal of gated communities. Clearly these are important issues in their own right, but as the future of urban environments trend towards greater land and resource use, higher population agglomerations and accelerating climate risks, the prioritization of the valuable role of nature and need for behavior change among societies and individuals to attain that delicate balance for urban sustainability and global climate stability is fundamental.

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Habitat III provided the forum for dynamic ideas and cross-disciplinary exchange as well as highlighted the need for greater research and science for cities to better comprehend the social, biophysical and structural impact of urban environments. Below are outlined just a few key messages from select sessions that underscore some of the valuable work underway and the challenges and opportunities the New Urban Agenda can help catalyze and advance to ensure equity and efficacy in the use of our natural capital, provision of urban services and development of sustainable built environments.


The UN-Habitat III Conference took place in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016 © HSF

The UN-Habitat III Conference took place in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016 © HSF


“Planetary health underpins the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda” and is a cornerstone for climate stability. The work of Peter Head at the Ecological Sequestration Trust,, is a pioneering initiative to put people and the planet at the center of a sustainable (urban) development agenda whereby ‘collaborative human, ecological, economic resources (CHEER)’ enable local and metropolitan systems integration for the delivery of public service infrastructure. A demonstration project in the Greater Accra Metropolitan Area will make use of multiple data sets and technologies to run scenarios of water and wastewater services and outcomes under varying conditions. Such a systems integration platform supports the three pillars of sustainability and is an instrumental vehicle for identifying financial revenue streams and gaps.

“Happiness is the goal” and basis of a good city and quality of life, according to the rebelliously charismatic Enrique Peñalosa, Mayor of Bogota.  Several visionary mayors outlined their plans and challenges in governing a city with a long term vision of equality and sustainability, including Manuela Carmena Castrillo, Mayor of Madrid, who underscored the importance of inclusivity and participatory outreach to identify and prioritize specific public projects.  Maurcio Rodas Espinel, Mayor of Quito, underlined the importance of a “human city” where nature is embraced for its valuable services and support of human well-being, while the need for a change in human and cultural attitudes for a sustainable quality of life was articulated by Federico Gutiérrez Zuluaga, Mayor of Medellin.

“National legislation has not kept pace with Barcelona’s Solar Ordinance” and thwarted cities in developing their own distributed energy generation systems, announced Janet Sanz, Deputy Mayor of Barcelona for Urban Planning and Mobility, at the RE-Energising Cities Forum, organized by The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Similar was the position of Tony Vasquez, Mayor of Santa Monica, California, who stated the city had passed its first solar regulation in the 1980’s, which has been strengthened over time to include water and energy targets in its drive towards carbon neutrality. Yet, the local utility is not very supportive of carbon neutral power generation despite the advocacy of political leaders and the community. Such challenges highlight the critical role the national governments must play to put forth policy frameworks to facilitate and empower sub-authorities and cities to implement energy efficiency practices, renewable energy systems, and low-carbon infrastructure to contribute to national climate commitments and sustainable development goals. Citizen engagement is increasingly becoming all the more important to pressure political leadership towards sustainable trajectories and climate action.

The New Urban Agenda is now ready for implementation. The European Union is among the first of governments to lead this effort with its new International Urban Cooperation Programme, aimed at supporting the goals of Habitat III as well as those of the Paris Climate Agreement and SDGs. Other governments, particularly those with the largest carbon and ecological footprints and confronting high rates of urbanization must step forward and take action towards a sustainable local and global future.

Helen Santiago Fink at Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador © HSF

Helen Santiago Fink at Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador © HSF



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