UN-Habitat: The New Urban Agenda in 1000 Words

Photo credit: Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Chances are that you have never heard of Habitat I, II or III. That is not that surprising as the Habitat summits take place only once every 20 years. Habitat I took place in Vancouver in 1986, Habitat II in 2006 in Istanbul. So what is Habitat? Habitat is short for the “United Nation’s conference on housing and sustainable urban development”.

UN-Habitat 3 – Quito

The Habitat III Summit will be held on October 17–20, 2016 in Quito, Ecuador, and will bring together governments, indigenous organisations, the private and not-for-profit sectors and civil society from all over the world. Issues addressed at Habitat III include poverty, climate change, public safety, infrastructure and housing, health and quality of life, and economic, social and creative advantages provided by cities.

The New Urban Agenda

It is not like everyone will be sitting in Quito with a scratchpad on their knees, thinking what to discuss. Leading up to the summit, there have been  years of input, ‘zero drafts’ and national reports on what should be in the agenda. All this information, combined with discussions across the globe, lead to a draft agenda. After lots of debate, including national pet peeves and concerns about for example the definition of ‘family’, the agenda was finalised early September 2016 in New York. This  agenda is called “The New Urban Agenda”.

Canada’s National Report to UN-Habitat

“Yoga on the Hill” place making on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada – Screen Grab from Google Images
What is Canada proposing in the Habitat Framework? Let’s have a look at the six chapters:

Urban Demographic: older workers and seniors, persons with disabilities, indigenous people and women

Land and Urban Planning: planning a sustainable Canada together and addressing urban mobility challenges

Environment and urbanisation: transportation and climate change, housing and climate change, air pollution and disaster risk reduction and relief

Secure Communities: Poverty reduction strategy, safety for women and safety for indigenous communities

Urban Economy Job: Investing in infrastructure, creating equality of opportunity, youth, older workers and seniors, persons with disabilities, immigrants, indigenous people, women and cities of innovation

Housing and Basic Services: affordable housing programs, strengthening and improving to housing finance, homelessness, national housing strategy, housing for indigenous peoples and improving basic services for indigenous peoples

What is in this ‘New Urban Agenda’? Mostly high level language. A link to the document can be found at the bottom of the page, but it boils down to a long list (24 pages, if you are short of time, read the first 5 pages) of commitments reflecting – in my own broad strokes- UN support and commitment for a sustainable, fair and safe world for everyone.

Canada’s country side is getting emptier. Immigrants stay in the big cities so the pressure on and influence of cities is getting bigger. Photo: HansontheBike
There is a strong focus on the use and access of land, from protection against flooding in coastal areas to compact cities to improving health by promoting walking and cycling. Cycling is mentioned no less than five times.

More Power for UN-Habitat

The big question is: how to implement a non-binding agreement?  Operational follow up is often the weak point in such agreements. It looks like the UN is not sure either, so the Agenda’s last five points (of the 175) ask for an evidence based and independent assessment of UN-Habitat itself. The result of the assessment will be a report “containing recommendations to enhance the effectiveness, efficiency, accountability and oversight of UN-Habitat“. It further asks “to look into the mandate, the governance structure, work with the stakeholders and financial capability of UN-Habitat“. That to me suggests that they’d like to give UN-Habitat more power in following up on the operational side. That would be a good thing.

Follow Citiscope

Independent urban news website Citiscope has an excellent special section dedicated to Habitat III. I am copying a few paragraphs:

Habitat III will be the first major U. N. summit after both the climate and SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals – Hans) processes concluded. While this timing is not necessarily by design, the overlap in these three agendas — climate, development and cities — is so powerful as to now offer major complementary energy to each process.

Certainly those involved in urban planning, transport and local-level governance, as well as those “urbanists” who follow the related discussions, will find the debates leading up to Habitat III to be vital.

Yet so too will a broad cross-section of international development practitioners and scholars, including those working in applied technologies, clean energy, health, education, gender, microfinance, governance and more. Those involved in the significant changes currently taking place within foreign aid, including the rise of private sector financing and public-private partnerships, will likewise have much to learn from and contribute to this forum.

For similar reasons, much of the Habitat III agenda, as well as the debates around setting that agenda, will be of key interest to broader civil society. Those that should be gearing up to follow the discussions and make their voices heard include environmentalists, sustainable agriculture proponents, legal advocates, labour and rights watchdogs, housing proponents, immigration workers, even historians and anthropologists, and many others.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a key opportunity of the Habitat III process could be a strengthening of the role of local-level governments in the future urban agenda, including through direct engagement at the international level. As such, the evolving discussions leading up to the Quito conference will be of particular interest to mayors, village heads, local development administrators, board commissioners and others.


You too can help change the world: liveable and resilient cities are created by people like you and me: volunteers who work with city staff to make Ottawa bike friendly.

Local Leaders

Apparently, the mayor of Montreal will be in Quito. As are the mayor of Vancouver and Kitchener. Local leaders are supposed to play an important role in The New Urban Agenda. So the next time you ask your city councillor for road safety improvements, know that the United Nations have your back.

Some useful links:

  1. Citiscope Habitat III website with backgrounders and comments: here
  2. UN-Habitat III website: here
  3. The New Urban Agenda, final draft september 10 2016: here
  4. Canada National Report to Habitat III: here
  5. Website for Canadians with discussion forum (discussion is closed, but answers still available: here For actual discussion page, go: here

Photo credit top of page: Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay

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