Urbanization is one of this century’s most critical megatrends. Within the next minute, the global urban population will increase by 145 people. Urbanization is inevitable.

Urbanization is an essential part of growth and expedites economic development. but it also brings challenges that need examination and treatment. Some of the crucial challenges include insufficient urban services, ageing infrastructure, informal settlements, poverty, increasing inequality, resource scarcity, social insecurity and environmental degradation.

To respond to the challenges faced by cities the UN General Assembly convened the Habitat III conference, the third in the series of UN conferences on housing and sustainable urban development, in Quito, in October 2016. Global leaders embraced the New Urban Agenda and united commitments to rethink how cities will plan, manage and sustain the demands of rapid urbanization.

The agenda will guide the efforts of nations, city and regional leaders, funders of international development and the UN’s programmes for the next 20 years to achieve sustainable urban development.

The agenda’s focus is all about enhancing people’s lives and wellbeing and creating a shared vision for a sustainable future. It is universal and developed under a long-term, people-centred vision, but how much have we accomplished in the two years since its launch?

The progress so far

Urbanization dynamics have advanced over time and challenged cities with changing development needs. Global agendas have launched at regular intervals as depicted in figure 3 and guided nations to sustain their cities’ urban growth. It is fair to say that these frameworks have helped cities to make decent progress, however, a holistic transformation could not be achieved and it remains uneven across regions and countries.

The New Urban Agenda has multiple connections beyond itself and contributes directly to achieving the targets set out in the Sustainable Development Goals, Paris agreement, Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, Addis Ababa Action Agenda and several other international frameworks and agreements.

Harnessing Public-Private Cooperation to Deliver the New Urban Agenda
Harnessing Public-Private Cooperation to Deliver the New Urban Agenda
Image: World Economic Forum

Two years after its adoption, the implementation of the New Urban Agenda presents opportunities to celebrate and reflect on the essential challenges and lessons learned. Its successful implementation entails integrated efforts at all levels of government (regional, national and local), awareness and advocacy, availability of financial resources, capacity development, innovation and engagement. The progress achieved so far, at different levels, is as follows:

  • At the city level, local governments have started orienting their urban transformation strategies to implement the New Urban Agenda objectives and guidance. For example, host city Quito has enhanced its strategies and vision for 2040 by including components of the New Urban Agenda. Other cities like Jakarta, Madrid and Durban are also integrating New Urban Agenda transformation guidance into city development plans and linking these to the other global agendas;
  • At the regional level, action plans and frameworks are gradually recognized as the crucial delivery mechanism and are making the New Urban Agenda mainstream in urban decision-making while building links to other global agendas. Urban Agenda for the European Union, the Regional action plan for implementation of the New Urban Agenda in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Arab strategy for housing and sustainable urban development and the regional framework for Africa are all examples of coherence between regional agendas, the New Urban Agenda and global agendas. At the regional level, action plans and frameworks are gradually recognized as the crucial delivery mechanism and are making the New Urban Agenda mainstream in urban decision-making while building links to other global agendas. Urban Agenda for the European Union, the Regional action plan for implementation of the New Urban Agenda in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Arab strategy for housing and sustainable urban development and the regional framework for Africa are all examples of coherence between regional agendas, the New Urban Agenda and global agendas;
  • At the national level, countries are placing emphasis on engaging local government right from the inception stage to the execution stage. As per recent report findings, more than 50% of the countries that have so far developed progress reports as a part of voluntary national reviews for the SDGs, have included local and regional governments the process. Another set of 33% of countries has included local and regional governments in high-level decision-making and consultation mechanisms. Emphasis is also placed on strengthening the urban governance system, with Argentina, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Ghana and Kenya providing examples.

A vital achievement in the implementation of the current Habitat agenda is the focus on effectively tracking and making the monitoring mechanism a central part of the entire programme. Though thinking is moving in the right direction, much work is required to establish an integrated and streamlined monitoring and evaluation process.

The New Urban Agenda is receiving positive investment sentiments and funds, such as the Green Climate Fund, the Global Environment Facility and the Adaptation Fund, are facilitating investments in urban development projects. Large financial institutions like the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank are showing keen interest and support for developing financial frameworks for investments in cities.

Innovation is at the forefront for the majority of cities when it comes to solving problems. Cities like Johannesburg are using augmented reality and youth engagement approaches to design a public space strategy. Elsewhere, poor, urban families in Malang, Indonesia, are funding their own health insurance by trading recyclable waste.

A decent start with opportunities for improvement

Though multiple cases suggest evidence of decent progress, there are still implementation challenges that have limited the uniform adoption of the New Urban Agenda. These include:

A lack of measurable indicators: The New Urban Agenda does not have a list of indicators against which its progress can be measured, unlike the SDGs. It is left to the discretion of the local government to decide and freeze indicators that will enable tracking and measuring the progress of the implementation.

Capacity building: Effective tracking and monitoring entails collaboration among multiple stakeholders and requires capacity, capability and skill levels for anchoring national level programmes. Streamlining data collection processes and methods, adopting uniform definition and approaches, oversight and evaluation requires specialized skills, time and concerted actions. Strengthening national and local capabilities is therefore critical to enabling and building systems that support the collection, analysis and distribution of urban data for monitoring purposes.

Some examples of capacity building have been seen in Asia and Europe with ADB setting up a City Development Initiative for Asia and Germany Agency for International Cooperation focusing capacity building for implementation in 90 cities. However, the best practices for sharing and scaling mechanisms have to be established to facilitate a ripple factor.

Institutional frameworks: Clear assessment, division of responsibility, accountability, framing a clear governance structure, fast-track decision-making, proper regulation and coordination mechanism at all levels is needed to ensure smooth implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

Local ownership: Though national governments have started engaging local government early in the planning process, there is a big scope for improvement in relation to ownership, sufficient authority and decision-making power.

Limited private sector engagement: Governments at all levels don’t realize the complete potential of the private sector and the contribution they can bring to the entire urban development value chain. The urban transformation approaches required today necessitate constant engagement and consultation with the private sector, academia and civil societies. To ensure the desired outcomes of the New Urban Agenda are achieved, it is essential for the public sector to co-create with civil society, knowledge institutes, citizens and, especially, the private sector.

The implementation of the New Urban Agenda thus far has been encouraging and presents multiple best practices and motivations that can be shared among regions, nations and cities to foster learnings and co-creation and to build coherence.

In order to continue the momentum, further work is needed especially in building internal and external capabilities, institutional frameworks, collaborations and defining uniform data collection processes and methods. Good examples of data collection mechanisms, such as crowdsourcing, community-generated and private sector data are picking up and need to be replicated fast. Through the collaborative efforts, it is possible to set the right standards, urban definitions and monitoring mechanisms that can produce and analyse the right data at all the levels and accurately report the exact performance and implementation status of the New Urban Agenda.