The Role of the Habitat Process in Defining a Global Urban Development Agenda

UCL: City Leadership Laboratory
February 21, 2018
Gender and the Prosperity of Cities
February 21, 2018

Available for downlaod here.


Susan Parnell, University of Cape Town


The UN’s recent endorsement of a stand-alone urban Sustainable Development Goal and the immanent formulation of Habitat III marks a watershed in global development discourse on cities. The New Urban agenda, currently under debate, is located in its’ historical context to reveal who the major actors and institutions were that defined global urban policy; what the shifting normative positions on cities are and why the increasingly complex process of the global policy environment makes defining a universal agreement on urban development so hard. At stake in UN  negotiations are fundamental issues about the centrality of urban pathways to sustainable development.


  1. Introduction


The September 2014 General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) in New York affirmed that cities should be profiled more explicitly in global development priorities, endorsing a dedicated urban sustainable development goal (SDG) that commits the world to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” for ratification in September 2015.[2] Even in its most minimal interpretation, the pro-urban sentiment has huge implications for the forthcoming debate on the ‘New Urban Agenda’, to be signed off in 2016 at another of the UN’s landmark meetings, Habitat 111, which is the first of the UN’s cycle of conferences on the post 2015 development agenda. The substance of agreement reached in both of the UN led processes will define the next decades of sustainable urban development thinking at the global scale, making the precise formulation of the global agenda a matter of the gravest intellectual and policy concern.[3]


It is easy to take for granted the growing consensus that there can and should be, not only a dedicated focus on the sub-national scale of sustainable development practice but also the possibility of agreeing to a universal urban agenda. Those involved in the urban SDG campaign understand that reaching this point has been a complex and demanding task and that considerable work has yet to be done in refining the details of the goal, targets, indicators and the means of their implementation.[4] For the organisers of Habitat III, the likelihood of a stand alone urban SDG (henceforth Goal 11) creates both opportunities and constraints, as there is an obvious imperative to align the emphasis of the high level agreements not only in a single urban goal, but in common targets and indicators. There is also the challenge of how much further Habitat III can push the centrality of cities, beyond agreements reached with Goal 11, in the overall post 2015 agenda.


Negotiating what Habitat III is billing as a “New Urban Agenda” is an ambitious task that will occupy stakeholders all over the world in the months leading up to the UN convened meeting on human settlements in 2016.  Some hope that the Habitat III Agenda will build on Goal 11 and provide the first truly global urban paradigm and not just define the means of implementation of specified targets and indicators.[5] The nature of urban development means that implementing the global commitments will inevitably spill beyond Goal 11 and the narrow domain of human settlements and must cut across the work of the UN, but the question is how much prominence to give the urban question beyond that of Goal 11.[6] In other words, the fundamental issue remains of how the post 2015 agenda will locate cities in the overall sustainable development agenda. At issue is the tension between seeing cities as one of many sites for sustainable development (alongside oceans, forests and farmlands); seeing cities as the new centres and most important locations in which distinctive challenges of sustainable urban development must be supported or, even more radially, framing cities as the absolute drivers of sustainable development in what amounts to an urban anthropocene[7] or planetary urbanism. To some extent the debate on the extent to which cites are pathways of global change will be settled in the detail of the specific targets and indicators of the entire suite of SDGs, not just those of Goal 11. Habitat III however provides a further opportunity to refine a global position on how and why cities feature in the post 2105 sustainable development agenda, an issue that has hitherto received significantly less attention from urbanists who have been preoccupied with the battle to get a stand alone urban goal approved. Not only is Habitat III almost upon us, but it it’s the formal UN home of past, present and future global urban concerns, and hence the focus of the rest of the paper.


Unlike much of the other urban material being circulated to inform the SDGs,[8] the emphasis of the discussion here is less on the current state of cities or the future role of cities in sustainable development, but more on unpacking the Habitat process itself and the emergent positions of the various stakeholders in the lead up to the Habitat negotiations. The first task of this paper is to interrogate just how and why the global urban agenda, as opposed to national or city based positions on sustainable development, has evolved as it has over time. This historical casting is important as it acts as a ground clearing exercise as urbanists gear up to finetune the post 2015 development agenda under the rubric of Habitat III. Setting out where we have come from may also bring a younger generation of stakeholders (including participants from local government, civil society, the professions as well as those in the formal UN negotiating forums) up to speed with what has already taken place, build consensus on what has been achieved in advancing an urban agenda and equip lobbyists and negotiators to engage more effectively in the critical next phase of global deliberation about the urban future. Finally it is useful to have some awareness of the extent to which the various role players within the movement for a new (global) urban agenda hold variant, even conflicting positions that will be absorbed in the Habitat III negotiating process, which like all UN resolutions will reflect a global compromise.

Noting the massive material and ideological changes that have taken place in and through cities because of urbanization and globalization over the last century, my aim in the paper is to distill and periodise the evolution the existing ‘ global urban agenda’ using the device of a review of the Habitat process that starts from the pre Habitat 1 meeting in Vancouver in 1976 and moves to the proposed Habitat III meeting in 2016.[9]  The parts of the historical argument are simple – there was not always a global development agenda; consensus that nations should push for minimum targets on poverty, development and environmental sustainability did not initially speak comprehensively to urban issues and then, when an urban agenda was first mooted it was unevenly absorbed into global development praxis and the sustainable development agenda did not have anything like the emphasis on the urban nexus that it does now.


Formulation of the ‘New Urban Agenda’ will reflect both the maturation of a global urban position and include aspirational statements about where the international community would like to be in twenty years time. The endorsement of Goal 11 underscores, at minimum, that UN members now acknowledge cities as legitimate sites of sustainable development action. What Habitat III is likely to do in 2016 is to set out that cities are not just simply another site of development, instead spelling out the centrality of cities in the implementation of all of the SDGs. What the Habitat III partners could do is go further, to set out how and why urban pathways will determine the world’s future and, depending on which views prevail, Habitat III will weight the social, economic or environmental determinants of cities in and from global change. Whatever the final position on the relative importance of cities, the UN through Habitat III is obliged to lay out what the global community believes are the critical steps and instruments for shifting urban development trajectories over the next two decades. In precise ways, that are still to be decided, Habitat III will seek to shift the global urban agenda into new terrain and introduce ideas and practices not advocated in the earlier Habitat generated positions. The importance of the Habitat III moment for how we think and act collectively in, on and through cities should not therefore be underestimated for development thinkers and practioners.


The rest of the paper unfolds in three parts. First, I trace the emergence of different stakeholders in the global debate about cities over the last century, giving attention to both individuals and organizations who gained prominence and influence on urban issues at key meetings in 1976, 1996 and now 2016, in what has become known as the Habitat process. The overarching points in this section are that key individuals had significant influence and that there is surprising continuity in the Habitat agenda to date. However, in the next section I show that the process itself has become more complex and the stakeholders have expanded, making both consensus and focus more difficult to achieve moving forward.  For those interested parties, like United Cities and Local Government (UCLG) hoping to influence the urban agenda from outside of the formal UN structures, I explore how non-member states must use various preparatory processes and the Major Group system to lobby members in advance of Habitat III. The more coherent and consensual the stakeholder positions in the Major Group are on what Habitat III should contain, the more likely it is member states will fall in and endorse the new urban agenda, but the wider range of stakeholder interests now involved in Habitat III makes a radical departure in global urban policy unlikely. Third, ignoring the critical issue of what position the nation states hold on the urban question, I try and distill the disparate agendas of the different non-nation state constituencies as they may emerge in the formal deliberations of the Habitat III Major Group process, pointing out possible points of debate and contestation facing the urban community in general and organized local government in particular. I argue that the lines of division that can be expected from the expanded group of urban policy stakeholders in the Major Groups derives first from the question, already highlighted, of the relative importance they each ascribe to cities in the overarching trends of global change. I suggest that further secondary dissent (even among the most pro-urban constituencies) is enviable because of the varied weights given to the social, economic and environmental imperatives contained in the broad sustainable development agenda.


In conclusion I suggest that some stakeholders will be happy that with Goal 11 cities are more visible than before and they will use Habitat III to debate the relative importance of social, economic or environmental priorities within the new global urban agenda.  For others, the key issue for a new global urban agenda is more fundamental than calibrating the tripartite goals.  The imperative of articulating a new (global) urban agenda that does more than speak narrowly to Goal 11 flows from the more radical view that cities are key pathways in every aspect of sustainable development and not merely vehicles for the promotion of social, economic or environmental objectives.[10] For this group the Habitat III agenda’s central problematic, working from the premise that city futures are integral to achieving global sustainable development, is to define appropriate actions are that will lead the world into the urban anthropocene in the post 2015 era.


  1. The genesis of a global urban agenda – a longer view[11]


It is important to recall that there has not always been a global consensus, or mechanism for reaching international agreement on urban issues. This does not mean that the supra- or trans-national commitment to values of human development only became evident in the mid-late twentieth century with the creation of the UN. Some of the first development debates on cities took place before the approval of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 under the rubric of international discussions on the technical details of colonial policy. These debates on how modern science impacted colonial policy are now regarded as the antecedents of contemporary international development thinking.[12] Using a sophisticated system of international committees – colonial powers undertook an extensive process of research-based policy reflection, to some extent foreshadowing the format and intent of the UN’s unfolding developmental agenda.[13] Ideologically, the ultimate objective of protecting imperial assets and investments is readily visible in the limited scope of the topics taken up in the inter war period, but there is also evidence of efforts by scientists and policy makers to improve the conditions of all people, including colonized subjects living in conditions of urban and rural poverty.[14] In the early twentieth century imperial powers tended to focus on rural areas and ignore or exclude cities from their development remit, depicting urban areas primarily as places of colonial settlement and control.[15] Insofar as there was international attention to the urban question, the challenges of rich and poor nations were never equated.  The urban imperatives of colonial contexts that did draw the attention of global bodies focused narrowly either on settler interests or on sharing lessons on cost effective housing and basic service solutions for workers[16] or securing basic public health (especially containing infectious disease).[17] In short the global urban agenda, insofar as it can be seen to exist as a cohesive whole, did little to advance the interests of the urban poor and it was in no way comprehensive or universal. Rather, the international communities’ collected expression of urban policy served primarily to reinforce the interests of elite communities and colonial powers. It is little wonder therefore that global urban policy was not seen as a progressive instrument of urban development once the massive waves of urbanization took hold in the poorest parts of the world in the mid twentieth century.


In the years leading up to and immediately following the Second World War there was muted debate about urban welfare across Western-held colonial territories, a lacuna only partly explained by the fact that indigenous urban populations were small.[18]   Relative to the issues of post war urban reconstruction in Europe the emergent cities of Africa, Latin America and Asia were not given high priority in international deliberations on the focus of the Marshal Plan or the Bretton Woods agreements. The wave of independence movements of the 1950s and 1960s reinforced an emphasis on nation building and so local government, urban management and the questions that are now at the forefront of the new urban agenda slipped even further down global development priorities. Not withstanding the heyday of modernization theory, the 1960s and 1970s saw almost no international consensus on urban development for what we now think of as the ‘global south’, leaving the deleterious social and material conditions of the now burgeoning cities of Africa, Asia and Latin America without much global reflection or intervention.


It is however also possible to trace the activities of a few key individuals[19] to reveal how the Habitat process, with its first meeting in Vancouver in 1976, became the vehicle that both defined and institutionalized the evolving influence of the urban agenda globally. Alongside the structural pressures associated with urbanization and the influence individual thought leaders it would be remiss not to note the importance the institutional maturation of the UN system and its agencies in the molding the evolving global urban agenda.


2.1 Key individuals and institutions that shaped the Habitat Agenda

Urban problems of the developing world regained prominence in the international imaginary in the early 1970s, possibly in response to the first major oil crisis but arguably also as a result of the World Bank having shifted its geographical focus away from Europe to extend loan facilities that favored costly urban infrastructure for the poor in countries without access to their own financial resources.[20] Paradoxically, despite critiques premised on the fact that the World Bank and others like the IDB made money out of lending on urban infrastructure for the poor, it has been suggested that a global commitment to sustained interventions to reduce poverty only got rolled on a global scale once the Bank, under Bob McNamara, took on the cause and gave poverty a global institutional home.[21] Making the connection between poverty generally and urban poverty has, ever since then, been a painfully journey within and beyond the Bank,[22] not least as anti urban sentiments gained traction in development circles[23].


Under the leadership of the World Bank urban services were a major emphasis of the 1970s roll out of anti poverty programmes across many nations; the argument is always made that this was a largely a-spatial concern, that drew more from the imperative of high budget lending that infrastructure projects afforded than it did with any commitment to changing the urban structure, economy or mode of city operation that might produce positive developmental outcomes. Whatever the critique of the Bank, and there were extensive arguments about the impact it and other Bretton Woods institutions had on global poverty, especially urban poverty because of the negative consequences of structural adjustment programmes;[24] there is no question that the World Bank spearheaded global scale action in the urban development arena focused on issues of poverty.[25] With many other international donors, the Bank subsequently became an active and influential participant in Habitat deliberations that, with the UN’s global mandate, were able to draw together more divergent stakeholders and bring the global urban conversation into the UN using the Habitat process. Caroline Moser, who was working at the time at the World Bank was heavily involved in the Istanbul meeting. She recalls launching a book that was overtly critical of Structural Adjustment and focused instead on the lives and assets of poor urban households,[26]  a theme that was to become increasingly influential in urban policy debates foreshadowing Habitat’s focus on southern urban realities. Michael Cohen, also at the World Bank at the time of Habitat II where he set up a large urban division, speaks of an international preoccupation with responding to the overall growth of the poor urban population. Arguing that this ‘demographic paradigm’ is problematic, he suggests that a radical departure is now needed to shift the global urban agenda away from a largely unchanged concern with absorbing poor urbanites into well functioning cities. In his view and that of other leading voices such as Aromoar Revi, reaching the tipping point of a global urban majority has finally brought the issue of city management to the forefront of the sustainable development debate in the UN, but this is not enough to move the urban agenda forward and onto a sustainable pathway.


The evolution of the Habitat agenda cannot in any way be reduced to the voice of any single stakeholder, no matter how powerful. In 1976 the influence of academic activists like Schumaher, Illich, Turner, Mead and others like Barabara Ward (many of whom were at the Vancouver meeting), were evident in the first Habitat Declaration that highlighted basic needs and sustainable development.[27]  Ward, a Fabian who not only enjoyed the confidence of Mc Namara and other global leaders, but who was known for her outspoken commitment to ecological concerns and social justice,[28] played an especially important role in brokering the involvement of civil society in Habitat 1. In her capacity as President of the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) she brought a new generation of activists into the Habitat process, including David Satterthwaite, who was one of the organizers of the civil society gathering in Vancouver and who remains an influential actor in global urban debates.[29]


By Habitat II the global urban community was much larger and better organized to engage the UN system. By now the system of Major Groups introduced by the UN following the Rio meeting of 1982 was in operation. In addition to civil society there was an active involvement of private companies (IBM in particular). The donor community, notably the Europeans who were supportive of urban development (especially if it had a strong gender, poverty or environment emphasis), played a critical role in sponsoring side events at Istanbul. Taking their lead from a new generation of progressive development planning academics, like Moser, Chalmers and Sen whose influential ideas ensured that there were important new political debates about poverty, gender and the livelihoods and capabilities of the urban poor. Eventually the Istanbul conference confirmed a universal commitment to the right to adequate housing, and reaffirmed the global governance regimes’ commitment to both participation and the increased role of local authorities in human settlements.[30] The global consensus on cities articulated by Habitat II was, however, still not only largely sectoral (and then primarily on shelter), it was also focused essentially on the global south. Since then the call for the global agenda on cities has moved somewhat from simply highlighting cities as sites for sustainable development action – the message of Local agenda 21. Led by the global science communities there are new positions on cities and sustainable development emerging: one that focus on the interconnected systems of cities that necessitates an orchestrated response of the global community in specific cities in order to protect the collective sustainable development trajectory and one that is associated with the planetary urbanism/urban anthropocene argument that cities, as the human nexus, can create or mediate tipping points of global ecological integrity.[31]


2.2 Notable shifts between Habitat Agreements

In looking to the future, as the Habitat III process does, it is often helpful to understand the legacies on which current policy assumptions about urban development rest. Reflection of the Habitat 1 and II Conference deliberations and agreements suggest for example that there has been a long-standing engagement with urban environmental issues, decentralization, and civil society participation, suggesting that the international community recognized, but was not able to fully action these issues and that implementation might usefully be given more attention in 2016.[32] The longer view also helps reveal shifts and changes that are otherwise masked in the detail of policy niceties, especially those of the UN where there is a tendency to use inclusive and accommodating language to ensure as wide a buy in as possible. For Sattherthwaite the most important problem here is the lack of focus on how nominal commitments to urban poverty eradication are to be achieved, for Michael Cohen, long time head of the Urban Division in the World Bank and now at the New School from where he engages actively with the SSDN is preparations for Habitat, the problem is the inattention to fiscal detail and the interface between urban finance, participation and planning.[33]  For UCLG the detail of decentralization will may be the issue to tag. It is not yet clear how the geographical regions will prioritise their views leading up to Habitat III, but as a universal position is to be mediated, some accommodation of the vastly different urban realities must be anticipated.  How the competing imperatives implied in SDG 11 will be addressed in Habitat III is taken up in the next section, but for now it is worth tracing shifts in the normative basis of the global urban policy process to date.


Despite the surprisingly long history of Habitat’s engagement with ideas of multi-scale government, mutli-actor governance and multi-sectoral or integrated development, it is possible to discern clear progression in the global communities’ thinking on how to tackle urban development. Next Practice’s overview, that periodies the evolution of the global urban agenda though successive UN meetings (Table 1)[34] was prepared for a Habitat III discussion in Bonn hosted by ICLEI and funded by GIZ. It provides an excellent starting point for understanding the macro shifts in UN policy on cities and sustainable development over time. In this interpretation we see a shift from seeing cities as being local problem points or sites in the 1980s to key strategic nodes of intervention by 1996.  For Habitat III by contrast, cities are being presented (by some) as an integrated part of a whole global environmental system; indeed the system is itself described as an urban system. Two other things Table 1 also usefully highlights are 1) the link between the changing conception of cities and the kinds of activities and inputs that emerged from the different policy positions and 2) the fact that the UN has acknowledged, in some form or another, decentralized or local action for over 30 years.



Table 1: The Evolving Urban Agenda in International Policy Forums (source: Next Practice, 2014)

Factual assertions about urban regions & trends


Theories about how to change factual realities in urban regions


Ways to practically apply new theories about urban change in a concerted, scaled fashion


Ways to establish the target outcomes

UNCED 1992

(recognition of ‘the local’)

§   Cities and urban growth as problems; sustainable urban and rural development §   Local authority and local stakeholder engagement and collaboration

§   More integrated local planning

§   Local Agenda 21 (i.e., urban sustainability planning)

§   Integrated (Development) Planning

§    ‘Major Groups’

§    Coalition of national associations of local government/Curitiba Summit

§    Local Government Awards Programme

Habitat II 1996

(cities as strategic sites in a globalizing economy)

§   Cities as growth centres–as ‘half the world’s population’

§   Focus on ‘mega-cities’

§   Inclusive Cities

§   Good Urban Governance

§   Public-Private Partnerships/ Privatisation

§   City Development Strategies, Cities Alliance

§   Cities Without Slums

§   Best Practices & Benchmarking


§     UN Habitat Best Practices Programme/Dubai Award

§    UN Habitat Global Urban Observatory

§    World Water Forum


Rio +20/ Current & Next

(the world as an urban system)

§   Cities as centres of economic, social and ecological productivity in a global city system

§   ‘City as Opportunity’

§   Cities as ‘innovation spaces’

§   ‘Cities as Development Agents’

§   Cities as Leaders of Climate Action

§   Regional (Rural-Urban) Integration

§   Green Urban Economy

§   Transition Theory/ Regenerative Cities

§   Cities for Life (equity and social justice)

§   Urban Nexus

§   Smart Cities initiatives

§   Initiative for an Urban SDG

§    Global Town Hall

§    Stakeholder Forum



UN Habitat’s own comparative temporal assessment looks forward rather than backwards, noting as have others that whereas Habitat II was an agenda for the global south, Habitat III aims to provide a global agenda for both the developed and developing world. UN Habitat’s view of how Habitat III might move forward from the agreements of twenty years ago is frank about the highly political nature of shift away from cities as sites of developmental intervention to cities as vectors of change (Table 2 – emphasis added). Noteworthy shifts implied in this depiction of the Habitat III agenda are the move away from the emphasis on shelter, a focus on inequality and not just poverty and the clear signal of the imperative of stronger states and not just stronger civil society; these, unlike the suggestion that Habitat III take a less negative stance on migration, are unlikely to be contentious. More generally what the content of Morrales’ text reveals is the strong social awareness in UN Habitat. Significantly, the UN Habitat ‘proposal’ as set out in Table 2 is silent on macro environmental issues such as cities and climate change or cities and biodiversity or economic issues of global finance and cities. Before returning to this and other potentially divisive or tricky issues in the final section we shift now to look at exactly how the substantive agenda of Habitat III is organized. As noted earlier this is important because much of the work in defining or populating the New Urban Agenda will be very far advanced by the 2016 meeting (as of end 2014 a venue had yet to be announced), making it imperative to make effective use of all channels of influence before Habitat III.[35]


Table 2: Shifts in the political implications Habitat Agendas over time[36]

Habitat II, 1996 Habitat III, 2016
·         Goal on sustainable urban settlements

·         Inequality was not part of the agenda

·         Agenda focus on poverty

·         Promotes gender equality & gender sensitive institutional frameworks

·         Human rights and freedoms

·         Poverty and HR

·         Connects rights to participation

·         Rights and land (evictions)

·         Promotes and enable environment that resulted in the deregulation of housing market

·         Migration was considered as a negative aspect of urbanization

·         Cities were considered as “platforms”

·         Connects sustainable urban dev. to sustainable development

·         Inequality is being integrated into the development agenda

·         Agenda on poverty and inclusion

·         Programmatic mainstreaming of gender

·         Adoption of Human Rights-Based Approach

·         Promotes a regulatory mechanism and stronger presence of State and civil society

·         New Urban Agenda promotes policies to foster migration to enable the poor to move to more dynamic areas

·         Cities are considered as vectors of change.


  1. The Process of Setting a Global Urban Agenda


The overall point of this sub-section is that, in order to lobby nation states and to secure their vote in favour of the urban SDG in the General Assembly and their endorsement of the New Urban Agenda at Habitat III, non-state actors have to work very hard behind the scenes to define their message and package it for national states’ endorsement. As noted in the introduction, advancing a new (global) urban agenda entails traversing the extended committee structure of the UN, focusing on the nodal points of the Habitat summits to define and endorse urban policy shifts for the international agencies as a whole. Before setting out the UN process through which a global urban agenda will be forged, three disclaimers are necessary. First, the UN membership is through nation states and does not engage other levels of government – a structure that inevitable impacts on the form and content of what is agreed and implemented, a point we will return to in the discussion of the wider participatory process and in the conclusion when the issue of decentralization is discussed.


Second, even at the global scale the UN is not the only regulatory processes to have direct developmental impact at the city scale. Other non-state based global bodies, such as the World Trade Organisation, have significant sway in what happens in cities. Corporate regulation and international law have also emerged as powerful global forces for urban change – not always positively. One thing that sets Habitat III apart from earlier meetings is the enhanced participation of the private sector, which is interested in the construction of new cities but also in the business opportunities of urban consumption and smart city management. Global social movements such as labour bodies or religious organizations also shape cities through action at the supra national scale. The UN process, where these constituencies each have designated ways of engaging, offers a forum for all parties to debate a normative position on questions of global human settlement and urban development.


In summary it would be fair to say that while the UN cannot define the parameters of a new global urban agenda alone, no other body is as powerful in setting out the normative base or systems of implementation for urban change. There are a number of examples of where, as intended, nations have drawn directly on the UN’s international policy positions in crafting national and local legislation and practice and the influential (if problematic) global system of reporting though the UN on progress in meeting the MDGs is scheduled to be extended to the SDGs. De facto the UN will define the ideal of the urban future for many policy makers.


The third clarification is to note that talk in the UN of an emergent global urban agenda should not be conflated with the current scholarly discussion about global urbanism.[37] This later concept is fundamentally concerned with the way cities, especially cities the south or beyond the powerful circuits of international power, are inappropriately depicted in dominant urban theories and practices and not, as we are here, with the formal policy consensus on cities at the global scale.  There are obvious connections between the two concerns, especially given the current drive to ensure the UN’s traction in rich and poor contexts, which means that the SDGs need to be universal and not be limited to the developing world, as the MDGs were perceived by many to be. Implied in this is the imperative to design a single urban agenda, expressed cogently in the urban SDG and spelt out in more detail in the Habitat agreement on the New Urban Agenda to have legitimacy everywhere and in all cities. The urban SDG, and the subsequent Habitat III agenda, with which it must resonate, thus has to embody both a universal value base for cities and it has to be signed off by all parties who agree to dedicating global resources of the UN to its implementation. It would be helpful for students, practioners and the informed public if the alignment of priorities in the scholarly debate and the UN’s policy debate were clearer or if critical points of divergence were made explicit as ideas from the academy can hold as much sway among the public as those of the UN. Understanding how these differences of starting point, interpretation and ideology among stakeholders might play out in the deliberations of Habitat III forums is made simpler if the institutional arrangements of non-state engagement, with the UN system are spelt out.


There are multiple formal conduits through which the campaign for a new urban agenda has been channeled thus far. The first is from within UN Habitat itself[38], both as a global body working out of Nairobi and through its’ regional structures. The second is from within the UN recognized Major Groups and a third is from the SSDN, a newly created UN structure tasked with providing support to the Rio + 20 process.[39] The intense engagement leading up to the adoption of a stand alone urban SDG involved some confluence of stakeholder dialogues, with possible knock on implications for Habitat III preparations as parties engage across designated representative boundaries, often using social media as well as formal meetings to communicate their message.[40]


UN Habitat is the host agency for Habitat III, so it therefore leading the internal international preparatory work for the New Urban Agenda. This entails extended international engagement – for example participating in the SDG process, liasing with urban stakeholders like UCLG, ICLEI or Cities Alliance, donors and other internal activities designed to build the general positioning or intellectual framing necessary for Habitat III.[41] In addition, there are extensive consultations with member states and Major Group representatives that are coordinated by UN Habitat’s regional offices. These continental or sub continental deliberations are dedicated to ensuring that all member states are included and briefed, that area specific issues surface for inclusion in the new urban agenda, that there is feedback on substantive proposals and that those tasked with implementation are fully involved in the details of the final deliberations. What makes things more complicated for Habitat III is the fact that some regions, like Africa, have recently adopted their own new urban agendas[42]– ideally to feed into, but possibly foreshadowing, the substance of Habitat III’s conclusions.


Although national votes remain the only conduit through which a global policy is endorsed, the limits of this state centric formulation are clear and widely accepted, even by the UN. The principle that there should be wider consultation, beyond governments, was agreed to at Rio in 1992 as part of Agenda 21. Following that meeting and the milestone commitment there to enhancing participation in all governance arrangements to do with sustainable development, a system of Major Groups was approved. Major Groups are drawn from clusters of civil society and organized to allow stakeholder access to the UN’s Open Working Group structure. The nine Major Groups include the Scientific and Technological Community, NGOs, Women, Children and Youth, Business and Industry, Indigenous Peoples, Local Authorities, Farmers, and Trade Unions and Workers.[43]


Notwithstanding the cumbersome machine that is the still the UN, a number of individual and institutional stakeholders deem advancing the global urban agenda a sufficiently important initiative to make the time to engage in the Major Group deliberations. Designated groups of well-organized constituencies, often with full time staff that liaise with the UN’s Economic and Social Commission, making high-level representations in New York through the Open Working Group structure. However, the system is not without its critics. The composition of the Major Groups has, somewhat controversially, remained static since their formation thirty years ago (there is for example no environmental caucus despite the massive expansion of this as a sectorial interest). Interestingly too, there is no differential weighting in time allocated to the Major Groups, thus on an issue like the urban SDG local government and the disabled have equal time to make their points. Also, within the Major Groups there is a process of self-selection (or elite capture depending on your view) based on who volunteers or is able to contribute to the UN discussions. For example in the SDG debates the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), rather than the International Council of Social Science Unions (ISSC) became the de facto voice of the professions[44] – no doubt impacting on what were the tabled areas of concern.[45] The fact that the UN is in New York creates an obvious geographical bias in who from civil society is able to engage in the Open Working Group meetings. For constituencies as large and regionally diverse as organized local government, ensuring that there is an agreed to position that is timeously and effectively brought into the UN system is a critical problem. Because the UN process is so complex the reality is that a small coterie of informed and expert insiders typically mediate non-nation state inputs into the Open Working Groups. One effort to overcome this problem of complexity is the creation of the SSDN. To ensure that the SDG process was transparent and consultative the UN established the SSDN.[46] The SSDN is a new structure that has held periodic meetings, run social media and generally lobbied for the urban agenda with support from various donors. If the civil society side event was the platform that infused Habitat 1 then the SSDN campaign for an urban goal, led by Aromar Revi of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, has been the key intellectual energy behind the push for an urban SDG and the impetus that has drawn together participants from across the Major Groups in support of the urban agenda within the UN system. Whether this newly formed urban cohort will continue into the Habitat III process is not yet clear. It would be reasonable to expect that, having defeated the common enemy of anti-urbanism, fractures are likely to emerge as stakeholders push their particular interpretation of how important cities are for sustainable development and what aspect of urban change the want prioritized by Habitat III.


  1. Competing priorities in the new global urban agenda

Because global policy positions, especially those endorsed by the United Nations, are formative in National Urban Strategies and City Development Strategies – what gets said and done under the auspices of the MDGs, SDGs or UN Habitat sponsored agreements is really important; some argue potentially distorting of national and sectoral practices,[47] though just how influential the final agreement is in global development agency practice is debated.[48] Given the potential impact of a consensus on urban policy there are surprising gaps in the most basic information about how the embryonic global urban agenda we have now was reached over the last decades, who was involved it is design, how effective it was – and how it might, learning from the past, be sharpened post 2015. In this limited effort to help begin to fill that historical gap the picture that emerges of the Habitat process is both complex and drawn out; this is not unexpected. By definition the UN draws in about 200 national governments and interest groups of many kinds predictably surround these formal representatives both in New York and in their home countries. Policy formation takes place in several languages, over multiple years and all continents. Opening UN deliberations up to participation from non-member states has added further layers of complexity to what has always been an opaque policy process. Indeed, the inherently inclusive wording of UN policy positions that depend on consensus is the reason that the fixed (inflexible) targets and indicators are seen as the most influential (and potentially dangerous) element of the global process as here, with largely quantitative data, there is less room for interpretation and more room for unintended impacts.[49]


It is true that it is not until policy implementation, with the associated allocation of budget and operationalization of real projects, that nuances hidden beneath the embracing policy discourse are revealed. The architects of Habitat III, mindful of the imperative to move swiftly to action, will be keen to avoid both overly vague and internally contradictory expectations. This means finding clarity and consensus on the substance of the new global urban agenda soon. If the consolidation of a global urban agenda was a convoluted and disparate process twenty and forty years ago we can only expect that, with the heightened importance of cities and with much stronger and wider participation by stakeholders in the UN process, that reaching consensus on the New Urban Agenda at Habitat III will be harder than ever. The next year and a half, as the very complex urban issues of our time are foregrounded, are likely to be intense, even contested.


Common sense suggests variance in the urban interests and expectations of newly active Habitat constituencies like business, who have only recently discovered cities and are unselfconsciously promoting a smart urban agenda to expand markets,[50] and long time constituencies of the Major Group process like local government, that has an obvious interest in promoting decentralization as an essential reform to improve urban development.  Divergent interests need not be conflictual and the complexity of the urban agenda demands that Habitat III accommodate a range of urban development principles and actions. But there are hard choices that will have to be made. For example, the views of indigenous peoples on cities in general or Goal 11 in particular have not yet been presented with any clarity. However, the unfettered management of the tribal land that is increasingly found in urban areas by traditional authorities unaccountable to outside bodies will be contested, not only by woman’s groups but also by local government and business.  Other points of conflict are not hard to imagine.


Cleavages within the Major Groups should in theory be resolved before the Habitat engagements, but the contradictory nature of the urban agenda is likely to surface ongoing tensions for some. For organized local government in particular this moment of policy realignment, with its dedicated focus on cities not just nations, represents a watershed which will not only make the sub-national scale of government more important and visible, but will bring into focus the efficacy of their actions in the wider struggle to achieve sustainable development priorities: an undoubted opportunity but potentially also an additional burden for those who will be tasked with implementation? The issue of how decentralization or sub national devolution is cast lies, with the issue of unfunded mandates, at the heart of the New Urban Development Agenda, but it will not be the only complex theme that must be tackled.


Other known points of potential cleavage include:

  • Participation – who is in the Major groups and are they the correct/indefinite representatives on the urban question?
  • Urban complexity – have the right triggers/tipping points/drivers of urban change been identified and appropriately targeted in the SDG, both Goal 11 and others?
  • What is the most effective agency for implementation of the global urban agenda, UN Habitat or Habitat plus other agencies? What changes will be necessary in these and other organizations in order to secure the vision of the New Urban Agenda?


What else, beyond anticipated conflict issues and a general sense of dissonance based on the anticipated self interests, can we expect the hard negotiations of Habitat III to have to contend with?  Table 3 sets out two primary axes of dissent that are likely to infuse the Habitat III deliberations.  The first line of contestation that Habitat III will confront is not new, though it has particular urban resonance, it relates to the proportional focus given to the three pillars of sustainable development, social, economic and environment (the y axis of Table 3). What will make Habitat III negotiations difficult is that not all who want to position cities as the fundamental drivers or linchpins of the post 2015 agenda will want to do so for the same reason. The fact that distinct and arguably contradictory bodies of academic literature and policy instruments and frameworks exist to promote inclusive cities, smart cities and resilient cities highlights the range of normative positions that underpin the champions of urban drivers of change.


The second general area that will divide stakeholders is the relative importance ascribed to cities in global change (the x axis). Having won a dedicated urban goal the issue post Goal 11 is that not all parties will want to ascribe the same political or fiscal importance to urban development. As pointed out earlier, if the paradigm is one that the SDGs are there to respond to population growth and its spatial concentration in cities then all that is needed is to acknowledge cities as sites of sustainable development. In a different reading, some constituencies (local government and even business) might agree that because what happens within cities impacts nations economically, socially and ecologically, Habitat III has to position cities as the focus of all development (including shifting national development finance to cities). This ‘cities as driver of development’ position is already evident in the African New Urban Agenda and is widely promoted by Cities Alliance, but it is unlikely to be taken up by many of the NGOs and will be resisted by those national governments who continue to promote a rural or spatially neutral sustainable development vision.





Table 3: Axes of dissent that might inform Habitat III

Social Economic Ecological
Anti urban positions across the social, economic and ecological arguments remain in evidence from some nations (e.g. the UK or Austrialia in the SDG discussions) and many African representatives in regional Habitat preparations.
CITIES AS NEW AND DISTINCT SITES OF SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT The minimum gain achieved by the approval of SDG 11. Prompted by the demographic evidence of a global majority.

Apparent support from across the Major Groups.

CITIES AS THE EPI-CENTRE OF SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT Will be seen in the detail and implementation of SDG 11 and possibly urban scale reporting on other SDGs, with the balance in social, economic and ecological indicators tbc.
Civil Society – interested in increased participation in and influence on city scale power Most business – interested in urban markets

Unions – urban work conditions are dominant

Climate and biodiversity adaptation lobbies

(but environment NGOs are not represented in the Major Groups)

Local government – sustainable development is not possible without effective city control of power and money to make social, economic and ecological interventions.
CITIES AS THE DRIVERS OR PATHWAYS OF GLOBAL CHANGE AND THEREFORE THE PRIMARY OBJECT OF SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPEMENT Some academics – inclusive cities Some academics – smart cities Some academics – resilient cities
Some in local government see cities as increasingly dominant hubs of global power
Some business – interested in promoting new agglomeration to sustain global GDP growth and expand markets


In addition to getting the Major Groups to speak with one voice about cites and sustainable development, inherent problems of getting all the country representatives of the UN to agree to proposals in the designated time frames for Habitat III mitigates against clear and decisive action and generally makes the adoption of a new well targeted policy direction difficult. The question of how cities are represented in the UN’s own processes and developmental aspirations has become a higher profile issue over time. It is not just that UN policy has become more sensitive to the urban imperative, or even that anti urban sentiments are abating, but that the UN is acknowledging what scholars and urban representatives have long argued, which is that cities are now catalysts of almost every aspect of the global system. Ambiguous wording from the World Urban Forum in Medellin in 2014 manages to elide the issue of urban led sustainable development versus sustainable urban development and simply presents the Habitat III agenda as “harnessing urbanization as a positive force for present and future generations, and advancing the quest for equity and shared prosperity.[51]The detail of the New Urban Agenda may need to be more specific to be effective.


  1. Conclusion

A historical view of the Habitat process reveals that it is possible for those with strong convictions to change the normative base and mode of working on urban issues. Looking back over the decades of international debate on development priorities shows not only that there is now greater acceptance of the importance of defining and agreeing to ‘an urban agenda’ but that global policy on urban and regional issues has indeed evolved – as much and more than nationally and locally generated urban policy making over the same period.


The UN’s global urban agenda has, not before time, crystalized as sustainability and development challenges become increasingly centered in cities. The mistake now is to think that securing the stand alone urban SDG is enough and that Habitat III will have done its job if it simply affirms the urban nexus of sustainable development. Rather, the challenge for the global urban community in 2016 is to set out an appropriate response to the urban vortex, mindful that not all parties are equally committed to an urban led sustainable development agenda. Habitat III’s core task is to deal with the issue of global leadership on cities, setting out a normative base, highlighting priority interventions that will shift the urban trajectory, provide a reporting structure that incentivizes good collective urban practices for current and future generations and addressing the imperative of securing adequate financing and support for poor countries who face the biggest urban challenges. But it is up to individual stakeholder organizations and nation states to provide the detailed evidence and experience on which the New Urban Agenda will rest.[52]



[1] I would like to thank the South African National Research Foundation, ICSU and Mistra Urban Futures for support, the views expressed are my own.

[2] For a brief overview and explanation of key terms See “The “urban SDG”: an explainer” accessed September 20th 2014 from

[3] Eduardo L. Moreno,  Director, Research and Capacity Development for UN Habitat, speaking at the UN in New York in Sept 2014  out the following objectives for Habitat III: To undertake a critical review of the implementation of the Habitat Agenda; To identify constraints to the implementation of the goals and objectives; To develop a shared perspective on human settlements and sustainable urban development; To tackle new challenges and opportunities that have emerged since Habitat II; To outline a new development agenda, to achieve inclusive, people-centred and sustainable urban development, To engender a collective agreement on the role that sustainable urbanization can play to support sustainable development. Source Power Point Presentation to the General Assembly 2014, New York.

[4] Peirce, N. (2014) Finding a place for cities in the UN’s “Sustainable Development Goals” , City,  Accessed on 05 October, 2014 from;

UN-Habitat, UCLG, ICLEI, Cities Alliance, Metropolis, SDSN (18th September 2013), Why the World needs an Urban SDG? Accessed on 12 Feb 2014 from; Building Integrated Approaches Into the Sustainable Development Goals A Declaration From the Nexus 2014: Water, Food, Climate And Energy Conference In the name of the Co-directors Held at the University Of North Carolina At Chapel Hill, March 5th to 8th 2014 Submitted To the UN Secretary‐General On the 26 of March, 2014.


[6] For deliberations of the Economic and Social Council of the UN on Sustainable Urbanization see ; Stockholm Environment Institute (2014) Cross-sectoral integration in the Sustainable Development Goals: a nexus approach, Discussion Brief, Stockholm.

[7] The urban anthropcene is an epoch in which humans, living in cities, are the dominant drivers of global environmental change as opposed to planetary urbanism where everything that happens, at all scales can be attributed to back to an urban way of life. The latter is a condition in which everything is urban and there are no urban boundaries, the former is a condition where the manner in which urban life takes place triggers global environmental shifts, like climate change, beyond the city limits.

[8] c.f. content/uploads/2014/09/UrbanSDG_press_statement_mayors_conclave-22_sep_2014.pdf; Revi, A and Rosenzweig, C. (2013,) The Urban Opportunity: Enabling Transformation and Sustainable Development, Background Research Paper, Submitted to the High Level Panel on the post 2015 Development Agenda; New York.

[9] For a chart that tracks events along this journey see

[10] Skype interview with Michael Cohen, New School, October 2014; Revi, A.   Simon, D.; Parnell, S. and  Elmquist, T (2014) Consultation on the UN Open Working Group on the SDGs’ Urban SDG Goal 11: Targets & Indicators, Unpublished Report of Meeting at Royal Holloway, London; Revi, A and Rosenzweig, C. (2013,) The Urban Opportunity: Enabling Transformation and Sustainable Development, Background Research Paper, Submitted to the High Level Panel on the post 2015 Development Agenda; New York

[11] This section draws on unstructured interviews with Michael Cohen, Caroline Moser and David Sattherthwaite who were both active in earlier Habitat related meetings and who have both written extensively on related global urban development issues. Any errors of content or interpretation are my own.

[12] Cooper, F., & Packard, R. M. (Eds.). (1997). International development and the social sciences: Essays on the history and politics of knowledge. University of California Press;

[13] Tilley, H. (2011) Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950, Chicago University Press.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Mamdani, M. (1996). Citizen and subject: Contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism, Princeton University Press.

[16] Home, R. K. (2013) Of planting and planning: The making of British colonial cities. Routledge, London.

[17] F. Demissie (ed.) Colonial Architecture and Urbanism in Africa: Intertwined and Contested Histories, London, Ashgate.

[18] For an African reflection on the scale of settlement mid twentieth century see Pieterse, E.  and Parnell, S (2014) Africa’s Urban Revolution in context, in Parnell , S and Pieterse, E. (eds) Africa’s Urban Revolution, Zed, London, 1-18.

[19] I am in no way suggesting that individuals single handedly and without regard to their own or other organizational structures created a global movement or urban agenda. Rather that they occupied (along with others not detailed here such as Jeb Brugman fro ICLEI or Michael Cohen who started the first major Urban Unit in the World Bank) pivotal seats in rooms where the articulation of a global urban development was debated. Nor am I suggesting that these individuals always concurred with the outcomes or expressions of the Habitat agenda c.f. critical reflections on Habitat 2 from Cohen and Sattherthwaite: Cohen, M. A. (1996). Habitat II: A critical assessment. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 16(4), 429-433; Sattherthwaite, D 1997 Can UN Conferences promote poverty reduction? A review of the Istanbul Declaration and the Habitat Agenda, Paper presented to Woodrow Wilson Workshop on Examining the Legacy of Habitat 11 Workshop, Washington DC.

[20] Finnemore, M. (1997): Redefining development at the World Bank, Cooper, F., & Packard, R. M. (Eds.). (eds). International development and the social sciences: Essays on the history and politics of knowledge, University of California Press, 203-227.

[21] Ibid.

[22] See Mitlin, D., & Satterthwaite, D. (2013). Urban poverty in the global south: scale and nature. Routledge; Wratten, E. (1995). Conceptualizing urban poverty. Environment and urbanization, 7(1), 11-38.

[23] The influence of Lipton’s Beyond Urban Bias is widely accepted.

[24] C.f. Riddell, B. (1997). Structural adjustment programmes and the city in tropical Africa. Urban Studies, 34(8), 1297-1307; Potts, D. (1995). Shall we go home? Increasing urban poverty in African cities and migration processes. Geographical Journal, 245-264; Simon, D. (1992). Cities, capital and development: African cities in the world economy (pp. 21-29). London: Belhaven Press.

[25] World Bank: Urban Policy and Economic Development: An Agenda for the 1990s, World Bank Policy Paper (Washington DC, The World Bank, 2001); Pieterse, E (2008) Urban Futures, Zed, London.

[26] Moser Interview, and Moser, C. O. (1996). Confronting Crisis. A Comparative Study of Household Responses to Poverty and Vulnerability in Four Poor Urban Communities. Environmentally Sustainable Development Studies and Monographs Series No. 8. The World Bank, 1818 H Street, NW, Washington, DC 20433.

[27] Sattherthwaite interview

[28] Sattherthwaite, D. (2006) Barbara Ward and the Origins of Sustainable Development, IIED, London.

[29] Satherthwaite was Coordinating Lead Author with Aro Revi of the IPPC Working Group 2 on Urban areas, he is a shadow author of numerous policy overviews and prolific author on urban poverty and the global development agenda.

[30] Habitat, U. N. (1996). Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements accessed on 29 September at

[31] These are the core messages of the IPCC and CBO reports: Revi and Satterthwaithe (2013) IPCC WGII AR5, Elmqvist, T., Fragkias, M., Funeralp, B., Marcotullio, P., McDonald, R., Parnell, S. Sendstad, M., Seto, K., Wilkinson, C. (Eds.) (2013) Global Urbanisation, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Springer.

[32] Cohen, M. A. (1996). Habitat II: A critical assessment. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 16(4), 429-433.

[33] Aromar Revi, A.   Simon, D.;  Parnell, S. and  Elmquist, T (2014) Consultation on the UN Open Working Group on the SDGs’ Urban SDG Goal 11: Targets & Indicators, Unpublished Report of Meeting at Royal Holloway, London.

[34] Next Practice (2014) Unpublished Preparatory Document for ICLEI/GIZ Workshop on Habitat 111, Bonn

[35] To follow this process see

[36] Extracted from Eduardo L. Moreno, Director, Research and Capacity Development for UN Habitat, speaking at the UN in New York in Sept 2014

[37] See Roy, A and Robinson, J (2014) Development and Dialogue Symposium on Global Urbanisms and the Nature of Urban Theory, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, in press ; Parnell, S. and Oldfield, S.  (2014) A Routledge Handbook of Cities of the South, Routledge, London


[39] SSDN

[40] UN-Habitat, UCLG, ICLEI, Cities Alliance, Metropolis, SDSN (18th September 2013), Why the World needs an Urban SDG? Accessed on 12 Feb 2014 from See also; and

[41] World Urban Campaign created to spearhead this work see

[42] For example: Meeting of UN Habitat, New African Urban Agenda”, December, 2013 in Nairobi

[43] Major Groups

[44] The current organizing partners for the Science and Technology Major Group are the International Council for Science (ICSU), the World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO), and the International Social Science Council (ISSC).

[45] UN member state statements on Sustainable Cities at the 7th session of the UN General Assembly Open Working Group on SDGs on 6-7 January 2014 is presented at:


[47] Smith J, Taylor EM (2013) MDGs and NTDs: Reshaping the Global Health Agenda. PLoS Negl Trop Dis 7(12): e2529. doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0002529

[48] Both Cohen and Sattherthwaite make the point that no actual increases in fiscal flows to urban poverty can be linked to agreements forged at Habitat 2.

[49] Smith J, Taylor EM (2013) MDGs and NTDs: Reshaping the Global Health Agenda. PLoS Negl Trop Dis 7(12): e2529. doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0002529


[50] Most prominent in this regard are the large consultancy firms like Monitor whose reports on cities and the importance of expanding markets of the new urban middle classes have attracted much attention. But Siemens, IBM and others push the whole smart city big data agenda. C.f. Parnell and Pieterse (2014) Africa’s Urban Revolution, Zed, for a discussion of the rise of business interest in African Cities

[51] 7th World Urban Forum Declaration accessed from

[52] Global Task Force of Local and Regional Governments have already made detailed representations to the Co-Chairs of the OWG of the 13th Session of the General assembly on the SDGs,  Letter from Joseph Roig Secretary General UCLG to Co-Chairs OWG, 10th July 2014.

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