Global Response to Growing Cities Inadequate, Deputy Secretary-General Tells General Assembly Meeting on New Urban Agenda, UN-Habitat

With two third of the world’s population projected to live in cities in the next 30 years, the fate of humanity hinged on how Governments addressed the “megatrend” of urbanization, the General Assembly heard today, as it convened a high-level meeting to discuss the implementation of the New Urban Agenda agreed by Member States in 2016.

“The draw of social and economic opportunity that cities possess is the magnet that has led to nearly 1.4 billion more people living in urban areas today than just two decades ago,” said General Assembly President Peter Thomson (Fiji) in an opening address this morning.  While cities generated about 80 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP), many were failing to keep pace with the rapid rate of change and relied on deteriorating infrastructure, inadequate urban planning and services, and outdated legal and environmental protections.  In that context, he said, the Agenda had set a new standard for sustainable urban development.

Joan Clos, Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), noted that today’s meeting also came on the heels of report by a High-level Independent Panel aimed at assessing and enhancing the programme’s effectiveness.  UN-Habitat was one of the first United Nations entities to be assessed in the context of the Organization’s new reforms.  Underlining the Programme’s key role in providing guidance and support on complex urbanization policies, he pointed out that unplanned urbanization often resulted in slums, adding that many complex factors must be addressed simultaneously and integrated to achieve urbanization in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, described cities as hubs of promise and innovation, as well as epicentres of the challenges facing sustainable development.  While cities encouraged their residents to work towards increased tolerance and coexistence, the global response to the promise of urbanization had been inadequate, with inequality increasing and the urban share of global poverty rising.  The ambitious character of the 2030 Agenda required a nimble United Nations, and UN-Habitat could serve as a “litmus test” for the Organization’s reform.  Among other things, the Programme should play a leading role in ensuring strong urban expertise across the United Nations system, she said.

Also addressing the Assembly this morning were the Co-Chairs of the High-level Independent Panel to Assess and Enhance the Effectiveness of UN-HABITAT, who jointly introduced the body’s report (document A/71/1006).  Mpho Parks Tau, President of United Cities and Local Governments and South African Local Governments Association, described the Panel’s broad consensus on the need to acknowledge the “megatrend” of urbanization, as well as to shift away from ineffective, exclusionary and unsustainable socioeconomic development models.  Among other things, the Panel had recommended the establishment of a multi-agency coordinating mechanism — to be known as “UN Urban” — to champion the urban agenda across the United Nations, as well as the enhancement of UN-Habitat’s role as a focal point on sustainable urbanization and reporting.

Rosario Robles, Secretary of Agrarian, Territorial and Urban Development of Mexico and the Panel’s other Co-Chair, said the group had examined UN-Habitat’s evolution and its broader context within the United Nations system, carrying out broad consultations with Member States and stakeholders in New York and Nairobi.  Strengthening the programme was a priority, she said, with the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda serving as its road map.

Following those remarks, the Assembly held two interactive panel discussions, which were moderated by Manish Bapna, Executive Vice-President and Managing Director of World Resources Institute.  They focused, respectively, on UN-Habitat’s normative and operational mandates and its governance structure and financial capacity.  Panellists, representing a wide array of Governments and civil society organizations, responded to questions and comments posed by Member States, especially regarding the High-level Panel’s recommendations.

The Assembly will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 6 September, to hold two additional panel discussions and conclude its remaining work.

Opening Remarks

PETER THOMSON (Fiji), President of the General Assembly, said today’s discussion was particularly important considering the unprecedented urbanization taking place all over the world.  “The draw of social and economic opportunity that cities possess is the magnet that has led to nearly 1.4 billion more people living in urban areas today than just two decades ago,” he said, adding that two thirds of the world’s population was projected to live in cities in just 30 years.  Cities generated about 80 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP), turning the wheels of industry and serving as major catalysts for trade, economic growth and development.

Nevertheless, he warned, many cities were failing to keep pace with the rapid rate of change.  Many relied on deteriorating infrastructure, inadequate urban planning and services and outdated legal and environmental protections, and many suffered dire consequences such as poverty, exclusion, violence and unrest.  Indeed, he stressed, cities today hosted over 1.6 billion people without adequate housing, 2 billion affected by water stress and 2.4 billion without access to adequate sanitation services.  “Our urgent attention is required,” he said, noting that the New Urban Agenda adopted in Quito, Ecuador, in 2016 represented a major breakthrough in efforts to address those issues.

“The Agenda sets the global standard for sustainable urban development, reshaping how we think, plan, manage and ultimately live in our cities,” he said.  It would help build cities and human settlements that were safe, inclusive, resilient and sustainable, assisting Governments and the international community to progress in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change.  In that regard, he urged Member States to capitalize on the enormous social and economic opportunities presented by mass urbanization to lift people out of poverty, drive inclusive economic growth, promote equality, strengthen community resilience and effectively combat climate change.

To achieve those goals, he continued, it would be critical to strengthen strategic partnerships between various stakeholders and leverage them to ensure adequate financing.  The task of harnessing the exponential power of science, technology and innovation was also crucial.  The United Nations system must be able to effectively serve Member States in achieving those universal agendas, with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) strongly positioned to support the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.  In that context, he pledged to present a summary of the present meeting to the General Assembly’s Second Committee (Economic and Financial) for its consideration and action.

AMINA J. MOHAMMED, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, described cities as hubs of promise and innovation, generating more than 80 per cent of global GDP.  But, they were also epicentres of the challenges facing sustainable development, she said, adding that the battle of sustainability would be won or lost in cities.  Cities encouraged their residents to work towards increased tolerance and coexistence, but, sadly, the global response to the promise of urbanization had been inadequate, with inequality growing in the global North and South and the urban share of global poverty rising.

The ambitious character of the 2030 Agenda required a nimble United Nations, she said, adding that UN-Habitat could be a litmus test for the Organization’s reform.  The High-level Independent Panel, through its report, had responded to the Secretary-General’s request for bold recommendations, which he had taken note of in the development of a concrete strategy that would ensure that UN-Habitat was fit for purpose.  She said UN-Habitat must play a leading role to ensure urban expertise was strong across the United Nations system, serving as the right vehicle for the establishment of a new urban coordination mechanism.  The report also called for a greater alignment with regional commissions and for country teams to work with cities and local authorities to implement the New Urban Agenda.  Funding was also addressed in the report.  The future UN-Habitat should focus on leaving no one behind, she said, stating that the Organization was not delivering sufficiently in cities and that she counted on a renewed commitment to lead in urban areas.

JOAN CLOS, Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlement Programme, said the Panel’s recommendations would provide Member States with useful guidance while leading to a revitalized UN-Habitat that was better able to provide support in implementing both the New Urban Agenda and the 2030 Agenda.  “This is a defining moment for UN-Habitat,” he said, noting that it was the first United Nations programme to be assessed in the context of new organizational reforms.  Following the New Urban Agenda’s adoption in 2016, there was an increasing recognition of the strategic relevance of urbanization in the face of new global challenges, including climate change and the widening of inequalities.  “If well conducted, urbanization can be a productive part of the process”, and an important part of the solution to those challenges, he said.

Noting that UN-Habitat would play a key role in providing guidance and support on complex and sometimes counter-intuitive urbanization policies, he said the agency had, in recent years, worked to become leaner, more focused and more strategic.  More countries were requesting its support as today poverty, exclusion and other barriers to peace were affecting both developing and developed nations around the world.  Three quarters of the world’s poor people now lived in middle‑income countries and 75 per cent of refugees and internally displaced persons lived in urban areas — in both developing and developed countries — around the world.  Recent natural hazards related to climate change had affected several countries.  Endorsing the Secretary-General’s focus on prevention, he said it would also be critical to “do more with less” while also ensuring that UN-Habitat had the resources necessary to help nations address the challenges presented by urbanization.

Pointing out that unplanned urbanization often resulted in slums, he said many complex factors must be addressed simultaneously and integrated in order to achieve urbanization that would help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.  That included such disciplines as urban planning, governance, architecture, science and technology and others.  As the main difficulties of implementation often lay with local players, his agency was working to bridge the gap between organizational and normative work, and should emerge from the United Nations reform process as a more powerful instrument to help cities around the world better adapt to the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Report of High-level Independent Panel

ROSARIO ROBLES, Secretary of Agrarian, Territorial and Urban Development of Mexico and Co-Chair of the High-level Independent Panel to Assess and Enhance the Effectiveness of UN-Habitat, introduced her group’s report (document A/71/1006), stating that many of its recommendations were in line with the Secretary-General’s proposals for reforming the United Nations development system.  The Panel examined the evolution of UN-Habitat and its broader context within the United Nations system, carrying out broad consultations with Member States and stakeholders in New York and Nairobi.  Strengthening UN-Habitat was a priority, she said, with the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda serving as its road map, particularly regarding Goal 11 on sustainable cities and communities, focusing on leaving no one behind.

She underscored the need for UN-Habitat to promote the importance of sustainable urban development, with operational efforts linking to normative priorities, working at the local level with a global perspective.  Addressing social inclusion was key, she said, noting that the Panel recommended a more territorial focus on metropolitan areas that avoided an over-simplification of rural-urban dichotomy.  UN-Habitat should also explore and strengthen relationships with local governments, civil society, country teams, regional economic commissions and the private sector.  A commitment must be made to a paradigm shift that imagined a different way of doing things, she said, adding that it was incumbent for everyone to come together on a single agenda.

MPHO PARKS TAU, President of United Cities and Local Governments and South African Local Governments Association and Co-Chair of the Panel, emphasized his conviction, as a local leader, to harness the New Urban Agenda as a framework for sustainable development across the world.  Describing a broad consensus on the Panel of the need to acknowledge the “megatrend” of urbanization, as well as on the need to shift from ineffective, exclusionary and unsustainable socioeconomic development models to more sustainable and equitable ones — sometimes known as the “next great transformation” — he said the future of humanity was contingent upon the way urban and local challenges were addressed around the world.  At the same time, “the urban” must be understood in the broadest sense, including metropolitan areas, intermediary cities, peri-urban areas and their rural surroundings.  “We should challenge the artificial urban-rural dichotomy”, and find a way to mainstream a territorial approach to development across the United Nations, he said.

Calling for a “total change” in the Organization’s approach to development, he said the involvement of non-State actors and local governments must be taken to a different level.  Given the adequate resources and with the full ownership of Member States, UN-Habitat could continue to play a significant role in bridging that gap, he said, recommending that a formal role for subnational governments be established through a Committee of Local Governments and a similar committee for stakeholders.  Meanwhile, a multi-agency coordinating mechanism, “UN Urban”, should be set up to champion the urban agenda across the United Nations, and UN-Habitat’s role as a focal point on sustainable urbanization and reporting should be realized and enhanced.  “The ‘UN Urban’ proposal seeks to contribute to make the United Nations fit for purpose in the achievement of the 2030 Agenda,” he added.

Interactive Panel I

The high-level meeting then held an interactive panel on the theme “the positioning of UN-Habitat in the effective implementation of the New Urban Agenda”.  Moderated by Manis Bapna, Executive Vice-President and Managing Director, World Resources Institute, it featured presentations by Ms. Robles; František Ružička, former Permanent Representative of Slovakia to the United Nations; and Pontso S. M. Sekatle, Member of Parliament, Lesotho.

Opening the discussion, Mr. Bapna said the panel would focus on the normative and operational mandate of UN-Habitat and that agency’s work with Governments and stakeholders.

Ms. ROBLES elaborated on the Panel’s recommendation that UN-Habitat’s focus should be redirected to a more metropolitan or territorial approach, saying that such areas produced the greatest share of GDP in most countries, as well as containing the greatest degrees of inequality.  UN-Habitat’s mandate must be strengthened and expanded in response to a new reality of greater urbanization, with all the complexities that the involved.

Mr. RUŽIČKA emphasized the interlinkage between the normative and operational work of UN-Habitat, as well as the importance of strong leadership and quality resources.  The focus should be on improving the normative and operational aspects of the agency’s work.  He added that, while the United Nations was an organization of Member States, much more involvement on the part of cities was required.

Ms. ROBLES said UN-Habitat must become more proactive.  With road maps like the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda, it could not just react to what Governments asked it to do.  It must have a plethora of proposals on those which dealt with implementing those two agendas.

Ms. SEKATLE praised UN-Habitat’s role in raising Member States’ awareness of rural migrants in cities, a challenge addressed by the New Urban Agenda.  The Panel was under no illusion that UN-Habitat was the only United Nations agency to address sustainable urbanization.  It was further recognized that the United Nations system had yet to define a strategy or mechanism for addressing the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.  UN-Habitat could take a leadership role in supporting Member States, United Nations agencies and others to implement the New Urban Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals, providing guidance and tools for improving work at the country level.

In the ensuing discussion, the representative of Mexico described the metropolitan approach as an innovation that could lead discussion on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals.

The representative of the United States said her country agreed with much of the Panel’s report, adding that the New Urban Agenda was too much of a task for just one entity.

The representative of India referred to the growing diversity of cities and the need for a territorial approach.

The representative of the Russian Federation asked how UN-Habitat planned to work with local authorities towards the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, emphasizing that UN-Habitat should be working with national-level bodies.

Two representatives of civil society, speaking via video presentations, asked about the tools and resources to be used for establishing a normative approach, and how UN-Habitat could enhance relationships and empower local governments in implementing the New Urban Agenda.

Ms. SEKATLE, responding to the Russian Federation’s delegate, said the level of authority of local governments varied from country to country.  However, the United Nations sought to be inclusive, and for UN-Habitat, that meant working with stakeholders at the subnational level.  It was time for local governments to be part and parcel of the agency’s meetings and work.

Mr. ROBLES said it was essential to empower local governments.  Mechanisms for their participation in the United Nations system, and especially in UN-Habitat, needed to be found.  She noted that UN-Habitat could not be the only entity responsible for implementing the New Urban Agenda.  A cross-cutting vision was needed that included the entire United Nations system, with leadership from UN-Habitat.

Mr. RUŽIČKA said diversity and inclusivity were sensitive questions with many nuances.  Platforms needed to be created for the active participation of local authorities and cities, enabling them to share their experiences while taking diversity into consideration.

Interactive Panel II

The Assembly’s second panel discussion, focused on UN-Habitat’s governance structure and financing capability, was also moderated by Mr. Bapna.  It featured four panellists:  Mr. Tau; Dian Triansyah, Permanent Representative of Indonesia to the United Nations; Peter Calthorpe, architect, urban designer, urban planner and founding member of the Congress for a New Urbanism; and Sheel Patel, Founder and Director of the Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres.

Opening the discussion, Mr. BAPNA asked Mr. Calthorpe to describe UN‑Habitat’s governance structure, as well as its main challenges and opportunities.

Mr. CALTHORPE responded that one of the largest challenges was to align UN‑Habitat’s governance structure in such a way that elevated the importance of urbanization and was aligned with the New Urban Agenda.  Key elements of that structure were the Panel’s recommendations regarding universal membership and the establishment of “UN Urban” as a way of integrating various United Nations entities, local Governments, non-State actors and other stakeholders.  Indeed, urbanization was a broad issue that inevitably intersected with social, economic and environmental challenges and opportunities.

Asked to provide more insight into the universal membership proposal, Mr. DJANI said the world was changing to become more interlinked and more inclusive.  Creative approaches were needed to reflect those changes in the governance structures of the various United Nations entities, he said, pointing out that UN-Habitat’s long-standing Governing Council only met every two years.  The new structure would provide for more frequent meetings, while universality would boost countries’ sense of belonging and ownership, he said, expressing hope that it would also lead to increases in funding contributions.

Responding to a question about the role of the “UN Urban” structure, Mr. TAU underlined the importance of focusing UN-Habitat around its specific mandates, and implementation of the New Urban Agenda.  In that context, UN Urban should be viewed not as an agency or programme, but instead as a coordination and collaboration mechanism that would help UN-Habitat — as well as other relevant funds and programmes — enhance its effectiveness.

Ms. PATEL, responding to questions related to the 2030 Agenda’s strong focus on urbanization, said she had long felt that the United Nations had to make urbanization central to its work.  That represented a major challenge not only for UN-Habitat but for the entire United Nations system and many other stakeholders, she said, calling for the establishment of a “common language” in that regard.  Her organization’s stakeholders had lobbied the Organization to address such difficult questions, she said, adding that meetings like the one today would help to lay those foundations.

Mr. BAPNA then asked all the panellists to provide more information about the Panel’s recommendations on financing.  To that, Mr. DJANI replied that entities across the United Nations were in dire need of resources.  “We need to make sure one dollar goes a very long way,” as well as to “make UN-Habitat sexy enough” that Governments would provide financial contributions.  That meant ensuring its structure was strong and closely linked to local governments.  The recommendation to establish a trust fund for urbanization would require strong accountability and transparency, he added.

Mr. CALTHORPE underlined the importance of cost effectiveness, noting that one investment must be able to solve many problems.  Strong cost effectiveness led more donors to invest, and new coalitions came about when several stakeholders all saw potential.

Mr. TAU, emphasizing the importance of increasing non-earmarked funding to UN-Habitat, said a significant proportion of its funding must be directed to normative and operational functions.  The Panel had not made recommendations on the percentage of funding that should go to those areas, as they were closely interlinked and funds must be flexible enough to ensure UN-Habitat produced strong outputs.

Ms. PATEL said the cost of indifference to the challenges presented by urbanization were high.  Expectations and demands must change, as must the funding paradigm.  “You don’t always have to spend a lot of money to leverage a lot of money,” she said, encouraging stakeholders to change the way they thought about financing.  “There is no shortage of money in this world,” she said.

In that context, Mr. BAPNA recalled that discussions about the costs of inaction on climate change had shifted to a focus on the benefits of action, noting that a similar transition could soon take place in urbanization.

As the floor was opened for questions and comments, many speakers agreed on the need to enhance system-wide coordination on urban issues.  However, many voiced concern about the establishment of a new mechanism — namely, UN Urban — for that purpose, as well as about the proposal to universalize UN-Habitat’s membership.

The representative of Colombia expressed support for the transformation of UN-Habitat’s Governing Council, but pointed out that the details of that change were not outlined in the Panel’s report.  While Colombia supported the Programme’s universalization, she recalled that the recent case of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) shift to universal membership had revealed a number of challenges.  The New Urban Agenda must address real concerns related to energy, water and other critical issues.  There was a need for reflection on all of those issues, she said.

The representative of the Russian Federation stressed that UN-Habitat’s reform must be carried out “in an evolutionary way, not a revolutionary way”.  Its existing structure should be improved instead of adding parallel governance structures.  Such a reform was too complex, too costly and would ultimately prove ineffective, he warned.

The representative of Botswana agreed that the proposal to create a UN Urban body could result in a false dichotomy between the urban agenda and the rural development agenda, as it gave the impression that there was more urgency in addressing the former.  In addition, it was unclear what the relationship between UN Urban and the Department of Economic and Social Affairs would be, she said.

The representative of Ethiopia asked whether coordination could be enhanced within a strengthened and reformed UN-Habitat, rather than creating a new structure.  He also wondered why some new structures would be headquartered in New York rather than with the other UN-Habitat offices in Nairobi.

The representative of Finland expressed support for enhanced coordination across the 2030 Agenda, but agreed that the establishment of a new body for that purpose might not be the best way forward at this time.  In that regard, she recommended that a comparative analysis be conducted to identify ways to strengthen interagency coordination within existing structures.

The representative of the United States, seconding many of those comments, said any such analysis must examine all costs and benefits.  Her delegation opposed the expansion to universal membership, which would dilute UN-Habitat’s effectiveness, she said, warning against “putting the cart before the horse” in that regard.

Responding to some of those questions and comments, Mr. CALTHORPE expressed surprise that so much attention, including in the press, was focused on the establishment of UN Urban.  Under that proposal, UN-Habitat would remain the primary structure for all operational work, while a responsive body located in New York would only enhance coordination and provide support.

Mr. TAU said it was encouraging that many delegations supported enhanced transversal coordination in the United Nations urban agenda.  The question now was what kind of structure would best accomplish that goal.  While UN Urban’s “sexy name” might be uncomfortable for Member States, its purpose was simply to boost coordination and cooperation in a manner focused on urban issues.

Mr. DJANI, recalling that 40 United Nations organizations had been involved in the Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in Quito, agreed with other speakers that better coordination systems were needed among those widely varied bodies.  “This is a sort of meeting, not the creation of a new body,” he said, referring to the establishment of UN Urban.  The main idea in creating that mechanism, as well as in establishing UN-Habitat’s universal membership, was to elevate urban issues on the global stage.

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