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Rise of the Urban: Will the international agenda really make a difference in terms of resource management and access to basic utilities?
The international community now seriously takes into account the urban dynamics. The adoption of a Sustainable Development Goal number 11 specifically dedicated to cities, the Paris Agreement – a decisive step for the future of cities exposed to climate change –, or the upcoming Habitat III conference in Quito in October 2016 (this large UN conference will set the urban agenda for the next 20 years to come) are proofs of this increased interest in the urban phenomenon.
What will be the new role of cities, principal actors of basic utility management? To what extend can Habitat III’s New Urban Agenda help accelerate the implementation of international programmes (SDG number 11 and Paris Agreement)? What will be the next steps to localize these global agreements and improve resource management and access to services in developing cities?
The debate will be facilitated by Marie-France Chatin, RFI journalist.
This Morning Conference was organized in partnership with ADP Villes en développement.
Although cities cover less than 3% of the land surface of the Earth, they were already concentrating 56% of the world’s population in 2015; 3 billion urban dwellers today. This figure should reach 60% by 2030 (5 billion urban dwellers) and 70% f the 10 billion humans forecasted for 2050. Out of the 2 billion new city dwellers expected in 2030, 58% will be Asian and 27% African.
The urban as an international matter – a brief history
The first Habitat conference was held in Vancouver 40 years ago, in the aftermath of the very first conference on sustainable development in 1973. It was followed, 20 years later, by Habitat II in Istanbul and in 2016 Habitat III in Quito.
In 1996, in a time of booming urbanization, the Istanbul conference focused on housing rights and right to public services. Faced with State governments that failed to plan and provide sufficient levels of services, Habitat II called for a decentralized action of local authorities to manage urban expansion. The battle led from Habitat II onwards was to raise awareness around decentralization (transferring competences from State to local level governments) and the notion of local government networks.
United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), a network that Cités Unies France (French United Cities) is a member of, was created in 2004 by merging the two largest international federations of local authorities, those of the so-called free world and Non-Aligned movement.
Habitat III is held one year after the great events, decisions and commitments of 2015, that redefine what sustainable development means at the global scale and provide a roadmap for the 21st century and the 50 years to come.
The main achievements from 2015
The urban question
Urbanization related issues – migration flows, poverty reduction, provision of public services, marginalization of informal settlements, densification of transports, economic pressure on the real estate market, climate change impact, etc. – are rising and moving much faster than the rhythm of Habitat conferences held every 20 years.
The world never showed such a strong interest in urbanization issues, calling for a real global regulation and a stronger emphasis on the local scale. Mayors have a stronger voice than ever on the international stage and have been particularly proactive on the climate change challenge. Through these thematic conferences (Rio, Beijing, etc.) is being drawn the map of the new battlefield. The United Nations are creating a stronger civil society and have lesser say in the actual decision making process.
However, if the climate change issue seems to have found its place in the public debate, the urban issue is struggling to find its way and its international forums.
Actors and structures do exist: NGOs, enterprises, researchers, political leaders, financing bodies, local authorities, but they are faced with a serious problem of leadership.
Besides, financing urban development remains a key stake, whereas funding is not oriented towards the real needs: planning and building the city.
Urban challenges are probably too broad and complex to allow for clear, firm, detailed and quantified decisions.
193 countries were represented in Quito to deliver the New Urban Agenda, with the aim to structure the urban community after two years of preparatory negotiations.
The New Urban Agenda is a reference document that will support actors, institutions, local authorities and anyone active in the urban sector. It redefines some very simple principles: the city must fight poverty, a theme that France strongly supported as a priority, must be prosperous for all and resilient (capable of protecting itself and its inhabitants from disasters).
France supported three main priorities for the rollout of this agenda: stronger governance capacity, with increased power for local authorities, an emphasis on integrated planning and on the financing modalities (capacity building and strengthening, technology, etc.)
Habitat III also strongly advocated to reposition cities as key institutional actors within the United Nations system. However, although a few potential solutions were initially identified, the conference failed to identify 4 to 5 champion countries that could support this ambition and turn cities into a real subject of negotiations.
The right to the city, an essential question, was also harshly debated but did not yield the desired outcome. The right to the city is mentioned in the New Urban Agenda, but raises significant issues in terms of implementation. In particular, it requires a strong engagement from State and local governments to support citizen integration strategies.
Quito conference was a success in terms of participation (20,000 participants) content and activities. However, the conference did not fulfill its potential to give cities more voice and power within the international system. This would have been a truly instrumental contribution to the delivery of the Sustainable Development Agenda.
After the Paris Agreement success, Quito’s outcomes are much more ambivalent given the limited participation of Head of States and UN Habitat’s lack of authority. The UN agency in charge of cities struggles to assert its mandate.
Quito conference was also somewhat ambiguous due to its hesitation between three directions:
Finally, it was decided to hold a meeting every 4 year to reflect the pace of urban development better than the 20 year conference rhythm.
The African city and its challenges (the Douala example)
Douala city is faced with a twofold challenge. The city was built without managing to control its expansion, and is still under the process of developing and absorbing new territories.
At the origin of cities, in the 1910s, people were not allowed to live in cities if they were not working there. Cities were reserved to an elite and were profoundly dual: they were divided between the colonial city and the indigenous city.
How can we, today, develop the inclusive city when local authorities keep promoting the competitive city?
Projects implemented in Douala, based on a hectare ratio, would require over 90 billion CFA francs to reclaim the informal and precarious settlements of Douala. Beyond the financial challenge, this situation raises a real issue of narrative (“How do we integrate and accept the informal city?”) and of strategy (“How to proceed with the redevelopment? Do we deal with future neighborhoods first? Do we extend utility networks or do we first fix the existing ones?”).
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