Urbanization is set to shape our century. Today, 3.8 billion people – more than half of the Earth’s population – live in cities. In 2050 people living in cities will probably reach 70% and their number will be larger than the current total world’s population. The challenges posed by this phenomenon are immense, as are the opportunities.
When the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (also known as Habitat I) took place in Vancouver in 1976, we were in a much more rural world and perhaps no one would have foreseen such a radical and rapid change. Even though, back then, the modern concept of sustainable development hadn’t been elaborated yet, Habitat I already called for “meaningful and effective human settlement policies and spatial planning strategies”. The conference also led to the creation of the UN Centre for Human Settlements (which became UN-Habitat, a fully-fledged programme in the UN system, in 2002).
Two decades later, the Habitat II conference was held in Istanbul in 1996 under two main themes: “Adequate shelter for all” and “Sustainable human settlements development in an urbanizing world”. The echo of 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit was strong and the issues of urbanization were for the first time addressed in a wider framework embracing environmental sustainability as well as human development. Another milestone was the active involvement of non-governmental actors in the debate. Habitat II adopted the Urban Agenda, a blueprint for urban development for the next twenty years.
The Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000, in an effort of rationalization aimed at identifying clear, easily quantifiable objectives, somehow left urban development aside, choosing to focus on other, more urgent and evident from a development perspective, priorities. Of the 8 MDGs, none was specifically dedicated to the issue, with just two sub-targets of MDG7 relating to access to sanitation and slums.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which replaced the MDGs in 2015, includes instead an explicit goal dedicated to urban areas: Sustainable Development Goal 11 vows to "Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable". There are precise targets related to housing and slum upgrading, transport and green areas, urban planning and air quality. Those, however, are just the city-specific targets, only one part of the picture.
The outcome of Habitat III, held in Quito in 2016, just after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, is the New Urban Agenda (NUA). Along with the SDGs, it has a truly universal scope. Acknowledging that sustainable urban development is a challenge for the whole world, not just parts of it, the NUA talks to the growing megalopoleis in the poorest areas of the world as well as to the increasingly unequal cities of the more economically advanced countries. It refers to those that have gone through the urban transition and those that are experiencing rapid urbanisation. The overall goal is harnessing the positive potential of cities: rather than sources of inequality, fragility, and conflict, urban areas should be drivers of growth and development, innovation, environment protection and social cohesiveness.
The NUA is a broad and comprehensive document, which in a way translates and adapts the 2030 Agenda to the urban dimension. It could not be otherwise: if, as we said, the majority of our Planet’s inhabitants already live in urban areas, if it is there that we produce 80% of global GDP, it becomes evident that cities are crucial for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. It is mostly in the cities that the SDGs will be attained or missed.
The NUA asserts the importance of national urban policies for coordinating the action of sub-national and local governments, also through the creation of inclusive platforms for dialogue among all levels of government and civil society stakeholders. International partnerships among cities, to discuss shared challenges and disseminating best practices are also particularly important. An example is the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact which has been signed by more than 100 cities, committing to cooperate to develop sustainable food systems.
Monitoring progress and addressing emerging issues will be crucial to make sure the New Urban Agenda does not remain on paper. The NUA asks the UN Secretary-General to elaborate a quadrennial report on its implementation. A special relevance will bear the 2026 report, at ten years from its adoption, and ten years before the new conference Habitat IV, which should be convened in 2036.
NUA and the SDGs are a road-map for future sustainable cities and better lives for their inhabitants. While it is remarkable that the international community was able to reach a consensus on these long-term, forward-looking documents, there is hope that governments at all levels, from national to local, will be wise enough to get inspiration from them.