20 July 2016
The New Urban Agenda and the SDGs: Synergies and Challenges Ahead
Photo by IISD/ENB | Sean Wu
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The New Urban Agenda will provide key guidance in planning for sustainable development in cities worldwide.

un_headquartersPopulation growth and urbanization are projected to add 2.5 billion people to the world’s urban population by 2050, with nearly 90% of the increase coming in Asia and Africa. This trend illustrates why cities have become one of the most challenging and important areas in which to implement sustainable development policies. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities.” The New Urban Agenda, a document currently under negotiation as part of the upcoming UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), will provide key guidance in planning for sustainable development in cities worldwide.

In September 2015, after years of work, the UN’s Member States adopted 17 Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs) that are to be achieved by 2030 and cover areas from poverty to education and cities. With the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, of which the SDGs are a part, governments have set out a roadmap to implement sustainable development in every country. This overarching sustainable development framework has implications for cities as well as the New Urban Agenda.

Habitat III will take place in October 2016, in Quito, Ecuador, preceded by the World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders in Bogotá, Colombia. The World Summit will place strong emphasis on promoting implementation on the ground, and it will include a main plenary on the theme of ‘Links Between the 2030 Agenda and the New Urban Agenda.’ In light of the current attention to these synergies, this policy update takes a close look at how they relate to local and regional governments’ role in spurring implementation of the SDGs more effectively on the ground.

Localizing the SDGs: Role of Local and Regional Governments

Cities are test-beds for implementation of the SDGs, and a successful New Urban Agenda will create an opportunity to enhance the Goals’ effectiveness. Though the 17 SDGs and their 169 targets are often described as aspirational, cities are where they become tangible to regular citizens. SDG 11 aims to make “cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” Hence, achieving this Goal depends in part on the level of engagement of local stakeholders, regional governments, community-based organizations, academia and the business sector, as well as on adequate synergies between national and local policies. The linkages between the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda may seem apparent, but there are open questions regarding: implementation and monitoring at the local level; the importance of “localization” and the connections between political leadership and technical solutions; and the means by which local governments can find solutions at the nexus of the New Urban Agenda and the SDGs.

Some argue that “localizing” the SDGs is a good way forward. Localizing refers to accounting for subnational contexts in order to achieve the 2030 Agenda, as well as prioritizing a bottom-up approach to urban development. That is, the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda provide a policy framework within which bottom-up action from local authorities can provide support. United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), an organization representing the interests of local governments on the world stage, has advocated for localization, arguing that successful implementation of the SDGs depends on the strong involvement of local and regional governments. All SDGs have targets that are directly related to the delivery of basic services, which means that all SDGs have implications for the responsibilities of local governments. Among the areas of relevance for the average citizen’s quality of life in an urban setting, the SDGs aspire to overcome poverty, gender inequality, combat climate change and insecurity, and provide high quality public goods, including education, health care, water, energy, clean air, housing and the conservation of natural resources. While the SDGs are global, their implementation is local.

Localizing the SDGs is a political process, as well as a technical one. Local governments can be held accountable by citizens if they fail to lead local development, and such democratic accountability could become a powerful driver of achieving the SDGs at local level.

Habitat III as Opportunity to Foster Citizen Engagement

During the negotiations in the lead-up to Habitat III, local and regional governments have advocated for greater recognition of their role and capacity as partners to implement the SDGs. Such recognition, they assert, will empower citizens with greater ownership over sustainable urban development, to ensure that citizens are not passive receivers of the SDGs, but unique actors who can proactively participate in development decision making and problem solving. To this end, local governments have expressed a desire for national governments to place the SDGs at the center of policy planning, while recognizing that local ownership of such strategies is vital for the successful achievement of the 2030 Agenda.

However, several challenges still haunt the effective participation of citizens in decision making for sustainable development. If local and regional governments have the task of engaging ordinary citizens, they often lack the human capacity and institutional strength to facilitate such an interaction. Many recognize that in countries around the world local governments are simply agents of the central government, deprived of power, resources and competencies.

The Habitat III negotiations convening in Surabaya, Indonesia, on 25-27 July (PrepCom 3), are being anticipated as a key opportunity to strengthen the decentralization agenda and promote innovative forms of governance, identified as multi-level and multi-stakeholder. Local and regional governments will closely monitor the negotiations with the aim of developing tools and road maps that could translate achievement of the SDGs into their local development agendas.


HABITAT III Informal Hearings with Stakeholders (2016) http://enb.iisd.org/habitat/3/stakeholders/html/enbplus231num3e.html

United Nations adopts SDGs, cities in greater focus (2015) http://unhabitat.org/united-nations-adopts-sdgs-cities-in-greater-focus/

Roadmap for localizing the SGDs: implementation and monitoring at subnational level (2016) https://www.uclg.org/sites/default/files/roadmap_for_localizing_the_sdgs_2.pdf

Habitat III: The best chance to make the SDGs count? (2016) http://citiscope.org/habitatIII/news/2016/05/habitat-iii-best-chance-make-sdgs-count

From the MDGs to the SDGs and Habitat III (2016) http://pubs.iied.org/10778IIED.html

The Sustainable Development Goals: what Local Governments need to know (2015) https://www.uclg.org/sites/default/files/the_sdgs_what_localgov_need_to_know_0.pdf

Setting the Scene in Asia for SDGs implementation at local level (2016) https://www.uclg.org/sites/default/files/negombo_peer_learning_note.compressed_1_1.pdf

World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders (5th UCLG Congress): https://www.bogota2016.uclg.org/en

Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments: http://www.gtf2016.org

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