Background

At its last session, HLCP had taken up a new agenda item on the contribution of urbanization to sustainable development. It had been acknowledged that, in preparation for the Third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) to be held in 2016, the UN system should develop a coherent approach to urbanization and agree on the main characteristics and principles of a “sustainable city”. The Committee had recommended, and CEB subsequently endorsed at its first regular session of 2014, the establishment of an ad-hoc time-bound HLCP Working Group on a New United Nations Urban Agenda. 

The Working Group has been tasked with: (a) developing a coherent United Nations system input to Habitat III in the form of a Policy Paper on “Urbanization and sustainable development: towards a new United Nations urban agenda”; (b) ensuring policy coherence through a system-wide framework for cooperation on the implementation of the sustainable urbanization dimensions of the post-2015 development agenda derived from the aforementioned policy paper; and (c) showcasing the work of the United Nations system on urban issues.

It had been agreed that a first draft of the Policy Paper was to be presented to HLCP at its twenty-eighth session, with a view to presenting the final version to the Board at its second regular session of 2015. The Chair invited the representative of UN-Habitat to introduce the first draft of the Policy Paper prepared by the Working Group.

The Principal Adviser on Policy and Strategic Planning of the Office of the Executive Director of UN-Habitat, Mr. Naison Mutizwa-Mangiza, recounted the process to form the 24-member Working Group and described the consultative drafting process that produced the draft presented for the Committee’s consideration. He noted that the text was still a work in progress and that an annex of UN system activities in the area of urbanization was also being compiled. Outlining the content of the Policy Paper, he drew the Committee’s attention to the eight guiding principles and nine levers of change identified by the members of the Working Group. The representative of UN-Habitat noted that an additional principle on taking advantage of the agglomeration economies of cities and addressing their negative externalities was to be incorporated. He also pointed out the complementarity between the principles contained in the paper and the five elements of sustainable development that HLCP had earlier identified in the context of the CEB’s discussion on fit for purpose. He concluded by emphasizing that the proposed agenda was not a blueprint, but rather an approach that was adaptable to different settings. He also welcomed the Chair’s earlier proposal that sustainable urbanization be a "prototype" platform for applying the five key elements of the post-2015 agenda and supporting fit-for-purpose efforts.

Discussion

In the ensuing discussion, members of the Committee expressed appreciation for the consultative approach undertaken to produce the paper and commended the Working Group for a strong first draft. Urbanization was seen as an issue of system-wide importance that presented an opportunity to showcase a variety of relevant work by UN organizations. While acknowledging the good progress, the Committee recognized that the draft could be further developed, in particular taking into consideration the earlier discussion on making urbanization a priority area for HLCP. Some questions were raised, including on the ultimate purpose and scope of the paper, with a view to ensuring it was framed correctly and that the language was in line with the purpose; and whether there would be a report of the Secretary-General prepared for Habitat III and, if so, what its relationship would be to the policy paper being developed by HCLP.

There were a number of suggestions on content that could be strengthened in the next iteration of the paper. It was proposed that the challenges associated with urbanization be amplified. A more people-centric approach focused on the well-being and rights of current and future urban residents would be appreciated. It was suggested that the cultural aspects of urbanization were critical and should be reflected in a new guiding principle. The urgency of mobilizing the system as a whole to protect the most vulnerable city dwellers should be better demonstrated.  The paper should make a strong call for Habitat III to improve the spatial configuration of cities, recognizing the link with gender. The role of stakeholders should be expanded, including highlighting the need to involve coalitions of diverse actors early in city planning processes. The UN system’s role in facilitating urban civil society’s contribution to sustainable development ought to be strengthened. Climate change and disaster risk reduction needed to be more prominent. The contribution of demographic, social and economic components to factors such as urban inequalities, resource use, emissions, conflict, etc., should be clarified. On data, it was observed that more work was required with statistical commissions and other stakeholders who are gathering and using data about cities. In order to demonstrate its relation to and synchronicity with Member States’ deliberations, reference to relevant intergovernmental processes ought to be incorporated in the paper. The paper would also benefit from illustrative case studies, as often more innovative things were happening in cities than at the national level.

Additional subjects that were proposed to be introduced or strengthened in the next version of the paper included forcibly displaced persons, children, social issues (e.g., health, education, social protection), the rural-urban nexus, and humanitarian-development linkages. As a means of illustrating some key points, it was proposed that the paper would benefit from the inclusion of examples of city-level actions. A reference to rule of law and transparent justice systems should be added to the second guiding principle. The intent to incorporate content on agglomeration economies and negative externalities of cities was welcomed, with the additional suggestion that the importance of special economic zones and of policies that promoted the clustering of productive activities with the educational sector should be highlighted.

On the larger question of the scope of the paper, the Chair suggested that the group reflect upon whether it should be termed a "policy paper" or whether it was, rather, presenting a perspective through which to understand the urban agenda and anticipate its relationship to the post-2015 agenda. If the latter was the case, then the nomenclature might be reconsidered. Additionally, it may be more appropriate to refer to it as an “evolving” United Nations urban agenda, rather than as “new”. He also invited further thought on how the work on the Urban Agenda might be deepened as one of the HLCP focus areas / issue-based platforms in the context of the larger discussion on the post-2015 development agenda and consideration of the UN system's fitness-for-purpose.

There was an exchange of views among members of the Committee about the timing of the submission of the paper to CEB. Some felt that it would be beneficial to finalize it at CEB’s first regular session of 2015 so that it would serve as a timely input to negotiations on the outcome of the Habitat III conference as well as on the post-2015 development agenda. Others emphasized the need to wait for Member States to decide on the substance of the sustainable development goals, preferring, instead, to have HLCP review progress on the item at both its twenty-ninth and thirtieth sessions, with a view to submitting a final paper to CEB for endorsement at its second regular session of 2015. As the Committee did not arrive at a conclusion on this point, the Chair asked that UN-Habitat, in consultation with others in the working group, prepare a short note-to-the-Chair, summarizing the mid-point issues and recommending a timeline for the way forward, taking into consideration the sensitivity of the timing vis-a-vis Member States' negotiations and decision-making on Habitat III and on the post-2015 development agenda.

Action

The Committee:

Invited the Working Group to propose a revised way forward for work on the Urban Agenda in light of the varying views expressed by Committee members and the Committee's decision to use this as a prototype platform to showcase practical application of the fit-for-purpose efforts.