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Proposed ‘UN Urban’ would coordinate global approach to urbanisation

As rapid urbanisation and its links with poverty, inequality, public health, migration, and climate change becomes a pressing concern, the creation of a new UN body to focus on urban sustainability has been proposed.

A global panel of experts has recommended the creation of a first-ever international body focused on urban sustainability. The panel was formed at the behest of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who subsequently indicated his support for the creation of such an entity, being referred to as “UN Urban”.

The proposal, released 3 August, is the topline conclusion of a major report on how to reform the UN’s current lead agency on urban issues, UN-Habitat.

Coming almost a year after the Habitat III summit on the future of cities, the proposal is the clearest signal yet of how the international community plans to grapple with the trend of global urbanisation as Guterres embarks on comprehensive reform of the UN’s development architecture.

The recommendations came as part of the “Report of the High Level Independent Panel to Assess and Enhance Effectiveness of UN-Habitat”.

In April, Guterres convened the eight-member panel consisting of mayors, urbanists, diplomats and activists, and tasked them with evaluating UN-Habitat. In recent years, the agency has suffered from flagging donor confidence.

The panel ended up offering a hybrid proposal, recommending a rejiggering of UN-Habitat as an “urban champion” and creating a new entity, UN Urban, to stimulate an interest in cities across the UN system.

For UN-Habitat, the panel recommended a tighter focus on two key issues: equity in urban development, with a focus on informality, and the setting of urban planning norms through rules and legislation.

In doing so, it encouraged UN-Habitat to reduce its operational work in the field and increase its normative work — something Guterres has argued is a systemic issue at the United Nations writ large.

Despite its name, ‘UN Urban’ must challenge the artificial urban-rural dichotomy and work to mainstream a territorial approach to development across the UN.

Mpho Parks Tau, former mayor, Johannesburg

[See: With Local 2030, the U. N. seeks to turbocharge its engagement with cities]

UN Urban, in turn, would complement UN-Habitat’s operational work by bringing other UN agencies to the table in an effort to ensure that all field work on urbanisation is consistent and coordinated. Precise details on what would be UN Urban’s purview vis-à-vis UN-Habitat were not outlined in the report.

Secretary-general’s support

Last year’s Habitat III summit was supposed to determine UN-Habitat’s future mandate, including its role in implementing the conference’s outcome, a 20-year urbanisation strategy known as the New Urban Agenda.

But that politically sensitive topic nearly derailed negotiations on the agenda, and diplomats eventually agreed that an independent panel would take up the issue in 2017.

After a little over three months of deliberations — which some charged was too short a period for such an intensive task, prompting a month’s extension — the panel concluded that the UN General Assembly should establish a new body.

That entity, under the proposed name UN Urban, would serve as “an independent coordinating mechanism to convene all UN agencies and partners on urban sustainability.”

The proposed body is modeled on similar thematic entities that do not act as full agencies, such as UN-Water and UN-Energy. The panel recommends that it operates with a small secretariat at UN Headquarters in New York.

[See: Is there any hope of aligning the many efforts working on the SDGs?]

“The Secretary-General finds many of the recommendations in line with his own proposals for the reform of the UN development system, particularly the establishment of ‘UN Urban,’” spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said in a statement.

“The Secretary-General considers rapid urbanisation and its links with poverty, inequality, public health, migration, climate change and natural disasters to be one of the most pressing concerns of the United Nations,” Dujarric said.

The proposed new body suggests that the United Nations is finally coming to terms with the importance of cities and the demographic reality that the world is majority urban. One of the panelists, former Johannesburg mayor Mpho Parks Tau, cautions against reading too much into the name, however, as the report stresses the need “for a conceptual shift to a more territorial approach.”

[See: Habitat III struggled to deliver — but nonetheless, a new global urban agenda is upon us]

“Despite its name, ‘UN Urban’ must challenge the artificial urban-rural dichotomy and work to mainstream a territorial approach to development across the UN,” Tau said in a statement.

“We have called for ‘the urban’ to be understood in its broadest sense: encompassing metropolitan areas, intermediary cities, peri-urban areas, and the rural surroundings with which they are inter-dependent.”

Urban turf war

Early reactions to the proposal have been mixed. Over the past week, excitement has built around the idea of a new, UN-wide body that would galvanise global attention around urbanisation, one of the defining trends of the 21st century. But there also is trepidation that such a body could further sap resources from UN-Habitat.

Among the positive camp is David Simon, director of Mistra Urban Futures, a Swedish think tank and advocate for an urban focus in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). (Mistra also has supported Citiscope.)

“The report makes clear and coherent recommendations that have a logical consistency and dovetail well with what many researchers and other observers involved in the Urban SDG campaign and preparation of the New Urban Agenda have been advocating,” he told Citiscope.

Core to achieving this, he said, is the recommendation to establish UN Urban within UN Headquarters, aimed at ensuring “effective integration of the Urban SDG and New Urban Agenda across all UN agencies.”

[See: UN-Habitat reforms will hold up New Urban Agenda implementation]

Still, skepticism of the proposal has also been widespread, focused on multiple aspects of the panel’s vision. Part of that criticism is concerned with how the new body would sit alongside UN-Habitat.

As proposed, UN Urban would not replace UN-Habitat, which for the past 40 years has been the UN’s main shop for addressing urban issues. That’s a topic that it has embraced with gusto under the leadership of its current executive director, former Barcelona mayor Joan Clos, whose term runs out at the end of the year.

Nor, however, would UN Urban as proposed serve as a vehicle exclusively for UN-Habitat’s work. Rather, it is envisioned that staff from a variety of UN agencies with urban expertise — for example, UNESCO’s World Heritage Cities Programme or the UN Development Programme’s Sustainable Urbanization Strategy — would take leadership roles, in addition to personnel from UN-Habitat.

This story was published with permission from Citiscope, a non-profit news outlet that covers innovations in cities. More at

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