A brief analysis of the Second UN-Habitat Assembly
AGAINST a backdrop of global crises that are having particularly severe effects on cities, the Second Session of the UN-Habitat Assembly (UNHA2) convened around the theme of a sustainable urban future through inclusive and effective multilateralism. This theme was operationalized into five sub-themes addressed by the Assembly: universal access to affordable housing; urban climate action; urban crises recovery; localization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); and prosperity and local finance.
The Assembly was tasked with identifying key issues and areas of focus for UN-Habitat’s work, reviewing major trends related to human settlements and urbanization, examining global norms and standards regarding both, adopting resolutions and other instruments to provide strategic vision and political guidance to UN-Habitat, and recommending strategies for coherent implementation of the urban and human settlement dimensions of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the New Urban Agenda (NUA).
This brief analysis explores how the Assembly’s themes were elevated over a week of negotiations, high-level dialogues, and informal exchanges, and if the events and actions that unfolded fulfilled the responsibilities of the UNHA. In doing so, it examines how this relatively young governance body is positioning urban issues in a crowded multilateral space and how UN-Habitat is developing its vision for influencing future directions of the sustainable development agenda post-2030.
The Challenges We Face
By 2030, 3 billion people—40% of the world’s population—will be living in inadequate housing.
Up to 60% of those displaced by conflicts and disasters seek shelter and refuge in cities. – UN-Habitat
Cities and urban areas are already home to more than 55% of the world’s population. By 2050, the world’s urban population is expected to nearly double, making urbanization one of the twenty-first century’s most transformative trends. Populations, economic activities, social and cultural interactions, as well as environmental and humanitarian impacts, are increasingly concentrated in cities, and these pose massive sustainability challenges in terms of housing, infrastructure, basic services, food security, health, education, decent jobs, safety and natural resources, among others.
To address these challenges, the NUA, a collection of principles, policies, and standards, was adopted in 2016 and has served as UN-Habitat’s North Star within a larger landscape of cross-cutting and overlapping agendas and frameworks, such as the 2030 Agenda. However, the NUA has been critiqued as aspirational, without clear strategies and measurable pathways and milestones to guide its implementation. This perhaps explains why, seven years after its adoption, only 40 countries have voluntarily submitted NUA implementation reports.
UN-Habitat has sought to translate the NUA into more concrete actions, but it faces several challenges, including lack of funding and organizational capacity. Furthermore, in recent years it has had to be more reactive than proactive as challenges multiply due to the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. Complicating matters is the nature of the urban agenda itself: the issues are local, yet the people “sitting at the table” in the Assembly represent national governments.
The Assembly’s Response
A sustainable urban future is within our reach. We need bold action and collective effort to create thriving cities. – Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director, UN-Habitat
UNHA2 acknowledged adequate housing as one of the most pressing problems of the 21st century, calling for accelerated action in the remaining seven years of the 2030 Agenda “to build the foundation for a transformation meeting the needs of today’s estimated one billion slum and informal settlement dwellers.” While UN-Habitat and partners launched a global action plan towards this end in 2022, discussions also acknowledged that preparations for urban transformation must be done “on a war footing,” as stressed by economist Mariana Mazzucato.
With cities responsible for more than 70% of global carbon emissions, climate change was another big issue on the agenda. The readiness of cities to take responsibility for tackling the climate crisis has been demonstrated in recent years by such initiatives as the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions’ Cities Race to Zero Campaign. UN-Habitat is carving a clear niche in these discussions, notably with its nomination to convene the UN Secretary-General’s Task Force on the Future of Cities, which aims to strengthen multilateral and multi-level action in response to global crises. Among other multilateral initiatives led by UN-Habitat, the UNHA2 outcome documents recognize the convening of the first Ministerial Meeting on Urbanization and Climate Change at the 27th meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP 27) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
So, did this Assembly session succeed in demonstrating a stronger case for UN-Habitat’s role in a crowded multilateral space, increasingly filled with multiple UN agencies, city networks, and civil society actors eager to represent the voice of cities? To a large extent, Member States acknowledged proposals contained in the Executive Director’s report, for example, the creation of a new organizational structure to deliver “integrated urban solutions” and enable the agency to advance the New Urban Agenda. They also welcomed declared actions and other commitments made by diverse actors at recent sessions of the World Urban Forum, as well as localization efforts driven by issue-based and multi-level networks and coalitions, such as Local2030, or the Sustainable Urban Resilience for the Next Generation (SURGe) initiative, launched at UNFCCC COP 27.
Regarding funding for such initiatives, the UNHA2 Ministerial Declaration calls for an “urban action funding window” to mobilize and streamline funding for implementation of the 10 resolutions adopted at the Assembly. As stated in plenary interventions and bilaterals, it’s not the number of resolutions, but rather how realistically they can be implemented—or financed. One of the proposals put forward in the Ministerial Declaration is to reallocate unspent balances of earmarked project contributions “with the permission of the donor.” But whether such funding will actually materialize is another matter. This, however, may be partially addressed once UN-Habitat succeeds in creating the Sustainable Human Settlements Foundation (SHSF), the proposed vehicle to create an endowment, with UN-Habitat as the sole beneficiary, to which private donors and sovereign wealth funds could support the UN-Habitat agenda.
Unless we act now, the 2030 Agenda will become an epitaph for a world that might have been. – UN Secretary-General António Guterres
With SDG 11 among the global goals to be discussed in depth at this year’s High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, UNHA2 offered an opportune moment to reflect on how to leverage UN-Habitat’s position and progress on sustainable urbanization. Despite UN-Habitat’s potential, several observers questioned the limited attention to reviewing global progress towards SDG 11, its targets and indicators at UNHA2, not to mention a lack of messaging for the SDG Summit in September 2023 and the 2024 Summit of the Future.
As noted by one diplomat, the substantive agenda of UNHA2 was akin to an academic conference or series of side events, rather than a high-level decision-making forum. Even though UNHA2 managed to gather approximately 90 ministers and vice ministers, as well as numerous municipal leaders, it may have missed an important political opportunity. UNHA2, as some suggested, should have sent a robust political message from local political leaders—and those ministers making crucial day-to-day decisions on urbanization policy—to the greater multilateral system.
Some have pointed to the need for bolder, higher-profile leadership from UN-Habitat to place cities more prominently on the global stage, while others lauded how far it has come under its new governing structure and leadership. As one civil society delegate noted, while adoption of the 2016 NUA at Habitat III was an important milestone that underscores the diversity and complexity of urban challenges, it has failed to capture the public imagination, now seven years since its adoption. This, according to another delegate, illustrates the fundamental “marketing” challenge that UN-Habitat faces in trying to distil the urgency of the NUA into clear and accessible language to inspire action on sustainable urbanization.
But, according to insiders, such comparisons may be unfair as UN-Habitat faces more than just a communication challenge. Urbanization is a complex convergence of social life, economic opportunity, and the environment playing out in global data trends and deeply local contexts and individual stories. This is difficult to reduce to a simple idea to galvanize change, one observer noted. This is especially challenging for an understaffed and under-resourced Secretariat with a massive mandate.
For example, does UN-Habitat have the capacity to help cities transition from fossil-fuel dominated transport systems and streets clogged with private vehicles, to more sustainable, inclusive and integrated urban transport systems? Can UN-Habitat help cities transform slums and informal settlements into more formalized settlements, tackling land tenure and supporting the provision of basic services? These aspects have long been a part of UN-Habitat’s core work programme, albeit against a backdrop of unprecedented slum growth across the world. Despite the gravity of these challenges, as one observer noted, these efforts and guidance are better addressed “with, not for” the communities they serve, underscoring perhaps a role for UN-Habitat as a convener of actions to improve cities, rather than as an implementation agency.
The Road Ahead
The world is not black and white, we can create a brighter urban future for all. – UN-Habitat
The Executive Director’s background paper on the UNHA2 special theme concludes that while the multilateral system has advanced in terms of agenda-setting to support sustainable urbanization, the gaps in progress on SDG 11 are indicative: “stronger and more innovative participatory delivery mechanisms are needed to transform policies into action and allocate funding for implementation to the regional and local levels.”
The launch of the SURGe initiative at COP 27 is one example of a concrete response to the call for effective multi-level governance by building more strategically on cities as allies to help deliver the targets of the Paris Agreement and the SDGs. This is in line with UN-Habitat’s stated intention to “signal a paradigm shift” through its current Strategic Plan, which includes implementation of five flagship programmes that aim to foster people-centered, resilient and inclusive cities and communities.
The enduring question is whether UNHA2’s resolutions, decisions, and Ministerial Declaration have done enough to move beyond rhetoric and towards effective and sustained action across multiple levels for a more concrete implementation of the NUA and the urban dimensions of the SDGs. Perhaps the answer to this question will begin to emerge at the upcoming HLPF and subsequent global summits—particularly where urban actors will have to compete with a cacophony of other voices to be heard.