“We need a thorough rethink of the status of cities within the UN System”

The UN building, New York. Image: Getty

Over the past two years, urban issues – from sustainability in the built environment, to inequality in cities – have become an international priority. Cities, in turn, are taking on a more important role in global politics; the growth of city diplomacy has forged hundreds of city networks and thousands of transnational initiatives.

These developments have been disrupting the established political order. Cities are now relating directly to global instruments, treaties and commitments, often bypassing states – as seen in the steps taken by many cities to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change, despite opposition from central governments.

These efforts are being met with growing recognition – not least by the United Nations (UN), which has introduced an urban focus to negotiations and agreements of international significance, such as the Sendai Framework for disaster risk reduction, the universally-binding Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the Addis Ababa Agenda on financing sustainable development.

Perhaps the most relevant development yet, though, was when 170 of the UN’s member states agreed on the New Urban Agenda – a road map to guide the growth of cities over the next 30 years – at the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador in October, 2016.

Yet the process leading up to and beyond Habitat III raised questions as to whether the UN is fit for purpose, when it comes to addressing major global urban challenges. These concerns materialised in the appointment of an independent panel on the effectiveness of UN-Habitat – the agency responsible for the UN’s work on human settlements and urban development.

The panel reported its findings at a high-level meeting of the UN’s General Assembly (UNGA) over 5-6 September, where I spoke for academia, offering my input on the panel’s recommendations alongside numerous other representatives and delegates involved with UN-Habitat.

Time for reform

The discussions made clear that reform is already afoot, and welcome at the highest level of the UN. As UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed said in her opening speech, the organisation now recognises that “the global response to the promise of urbanisation has been inadequate”.

Bold recommendations are needed, as too much of the urban work in the UN system is fragmented across different arms of the organisation. The stakes are high, as the reform of UN-Habitat is seen by Mohammed as a “litmus test for UN reform ambitions” – so far, a key focus for the new UN Secretary General António Guterres, who took office in January 2017.

UN Deputy Secretary Amina Mohammed. Image: United Nations Photo/creative commons.

The panel’s report called on the Secretary General to consider a substantial redesign of UN-Habitat, with universal membership across all 193 UN states reunited in an Urban Assembly (compared with the 58 states currently on the UN-Habitat board). It also called for the creation of a global “trust fund” to enhance urban sustainability efforts, as well as the introduction of a new governance structure, to include a policy board and a committee of local governments.

The report also formalised proposals to establish another UN body – UN-Urban – to act as a coordinating mechanism across UN agencies on urban matters, to be chaired by UN-Habitat. Taken together, these were seen by many as important and valuable steps for the UN to keep pace with the growing global importance of cities.

Rescue mission

Though Guterres already backed the panel’s findings in early August, discussions at the UNGA meeting cast uncertainty over a few core parts of these recommendations. Most member states reiterated the need to reform and strengthen – rather than do away or re-dimension – UN-Habitat. Even with scarce resources and scattered on-the-ground programs, the agency still commands respect for its capacity to convene and represent a variety of global interests around cities.

As such, financing UN-Habitat remains an imperative which most agree on. South Africa underlined common concerns about the dire financial situation of the agency, with Kenya even calling for an urgent “rescue package” to save it from financial failure.

But the UN’s work on cities does not stop at UN-Habitat and the New Urban Agenda, with the World Health Organisation progressively picking up an urban focus and connecting with cities in its efforts to meet the SDGs.

Power play

Reforming UN-Habitat means rethinking global urban governance. Many countries across the globe raised concerns that the proposed management structures – policy board, urban assembly, local government committee – would prove ineffective if not properly backed, coordinated and financed.

In fact, discussion on UN-Urban demonstrated substantial scepticism of the panel’s proposal, with the G77 and China (represented by Ecuador) but also the United States and Russia, emphasising the need to hold off on radical shifts.

These discussions revealed a split emerging between the status quo of some UN member states – which regard the panel’s more radical reforms with suspicion – and an increasingly proactive coalition of cities, civil society groups and businesses, which broadly supports change.

Though cities have evidently played an important role in agreements from Sendai, to Paris and Quito, some states questioned the positioning of cities as key actors in the New Urban Agenda and SDGs. The Russian Federation even suggested that the panel’s proposal was “presenting an erosion of the role of states”.

Open for debate. Image: Michele Acuto/UCL/author provided.

Given the weight of states within the UN system, it seems as though UN-Urban might not see the light of day after all, while cities’ input might be formally confined to the committee of local governments. There is a risk that the proposed reforms could widen the rift between states and cities, rather than opening the door for truly revolutionary shifts in the way the UN engages with local government.

As I noted at the high level meeting – and as evidence from numerous other interventions points out – we need a thorough rethink of the status of cities within the UN System.

The ConversationWhether this key juncture is solved, the road toward reform is still long, and may yet hold unexpected turns. Before the year is over, UN-Habitat is due to appoint a new executive director. In the meantime, the UN Secretary General and his deputy are charged with proposing and rolling out fresh changes within the broader UN reform agenda, from Spring 2018. The verdict on whether UN-Habitat will be able to bear the weight of responsibility for the urban SDGs is still some months away, but we may yet witness a more radical restructure of the UN’s urban capacities.

Michele Acuto is professor of diplomacy and urban theory at UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.