Top 10 ingredients to make the New Urban Agenda work

by Gino Van Begin, ICLEI
Monday, 17 October 2016 08:00 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

This week, nations are coming together to the UN Habitat III conference in Quito to discuss and approve the New Urban Agenda (NUA): a document that should guide national and international efforts on sustainable urban development for the coming decades.

After the approval of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement, there was much anticipation around the New Urban Agenda. As the largest network of local and subnational governments committed to sustainability, ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability hoped it would provide a strong framework for urban sustainability by more strongly connecting existing international processes and translating them into a recipe for national and local action.

The New Urban Agenda text does contain advanced – albeit not really new – language on sustainable urban development. However, the document does not touch the issue of how, and by when, nations will implement these advanced concepts. We are only now entering a two-year UN-led process that is set to discuss how to monitor progress on sustainable urban development.

Why is this important? Because without enabling national frameworks, advanced local action on urban sustainable development cannot be scaled up as rapidly as is necessary to address the many challenges that lie ahead – from rapid urbanization and climate change to inequality and demographic shifts.


Take the case of Recife. This beautiful city is situated in northeast Brazil, with a unique tropical environment that happens to be also among the most vulnerable to climate change.

When Mayor Gerardo Julio and his administration first set out to develop a crosscutting strategy that linked climate change mitigation and economic development, Recife’s officials realized that the National Policy for Climate Change did not yet provide structured guidelines or incentives for them to use in developing their climate action plans. Recife tapped into resources outside Brazil, using guidance and implementation tools provided by ICLEI to bring the climate change agenda into the core operations of the city administration.

The national framework in Brazil has since changed and recognizes the importance of engaging local governments in tackling climate change. Our hope is that the Brazilian government will now put in place framework conditions that allow more cities like pioneering Recife to implement effective climate plans that help Brazil meet the goals of its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) – the national climate action plan submitted under the Paris Agreement.

Many local governments like Recife are already making plans to realize their vision for sustainability. But in order to continue down this path and for many others to join them, local governments need strong national frameworks - or sub-national ones, where that's the case, as in federal countries- to support them.


But what do we talk refer to, when we talk about "enabling national frameworks"?

To establish the necessary framework conditions, we need national policies that:

1. Put multi-level governance, co-creation and subsidiarity at their core. National policies should put into effect genuine modes of collaboration between national and local actors. Local governments aim to be participatory and inclusive, engaging many stakeholders in key development decisions. The same principle should apply to the national level.

2. Apply a diverse set of solutions. Applying a mix of tools allows for greater chances of success and gives local governments the opportunity to pick those that best fit their specific context and needs. Possible tools might include: awareness campaigns and behavioral change, use of the tax regimen as leverage, incentive-based solutions, innovative funding schemes, the introduction of new local and national legislations or the revision of existing ones.

3. Are fact-based and solutions-oriented. The first step in laying down a strategy is to appraise the status quo, use available statistics, gather new data. If urban transport contributes significantly to national emissions, then national policies should be informed by concrete data and input from city leaders on what supportive actions would target the specific needs of this sector.

4. Analyze, replicate and scale up success. This means establishing systems that allow for proper monitoring of programs, methods and tools that may merit replication or rollout at a larger scale.

5. Are flexible and allow for variable change. Flexible national frameworks with embedded feedback loops from local governments are well positioned for strategic adjustments and strengthening.

6. Include mechanisms and organizational forms that allow crosscutting and holistic approaches.
Any national policy must be designed to respond to the synergies and tradeoffs among various sectors.

7. Leverage long-term revenue sources. A common weakness of national policies is that, once the first political impulse is over, funds might be diverted to other pressing issues. Counting on a mix of long-term revenue sources ensures that complex multi-year programs have all the funds needed for as long as they are needed.

8. Ensure long-term administrative consistency. Political priorities might shift, but programs and policies aiming for sustainable development must have a longer implementation horizon.

9. Encourage and facilitate locally developed solutions tailored to specific contexts. Each local government has different needs, depending on size, geographic setting, socio-economic context and pre-existing levels of commitment to sustainability. No one-size-fits-all solution should be devised nationally. There should be room for a variety of approaches and tools, also developed by civil society at the local level, to maximize chances of success and citizen's engagement.

10. Include indicators-based monitoring and evaluation with a periodic review cycle. A good national policy is one that periodically reviews its premise, assesses success and failure and recalibrates priorities, approaches and tools.

This list of 10 elements of a good national policy is a distillate of what we have observed in our 25 years as a network for and by local and subnational governments committed to sustainability. It is also how we think new and existing national frameworks should be assessed to ensure that all levels of government are adequately equipped.


There are already some good examples of national frameworks that move in this direction. None of them is perfect, but each one contains a nugget of wisdom on how to govern processes of such complexity.

For instance, Ecuador has created a series of coordinating ministers, who aim to tackle issues that are structurally disconnected but clearly linked in reality and effect. In the case of Ecuador's minister for social sector, for instance, this means looking at the synergies between child malnutrition, sex education, preventive healthcare, education and micro-criminality. Coordinating ministers bring together several ministries, vetting policies and approving budgets in a coordinated manner.

Ecuador’s is of course only one approach – each country can and should have its own way to deal with the need for holistic and cross-cutting policy-making.

Brazil, meanwhile, has institutionalized an approach that encourages the development of local plans, providing overall guidance.

In early 2015, the Brazilian government enacted the Statute of the Metropolis, outlining general guidelines for planning, managing and implementing public policies in metropolitan areas. The Statute gives Brazilian cities a three-year period to deliver their Integrated Urban Development Plans (PNDI), which should specify guidelines for strategic projects, actions and investments, as well as zoning guidelines. These development plans are up to the discretion of the cities but must meet the standards of the Statute.


We will soon have a New Urban Agenda, agreed upon by the overwhelming majority of national governments. It will be advanced in language but lacking in practical tools for policy-makers and local leaders.

However, the efforts of ambitious local governments need to be scaled up both in size and scope if we want to address the challenges ahead. The only way this can happen is if the local, national and international levels work together to cook up a recipe that enhances urban life and the safeguards the planet’s equilibrium.

Let us make Habitat III not the end of the line, but the start of another more fruitful process. In two years' time we will know whether the New Urban Agenda will be a practical document that nations can use to devise their own national frameworks in conjunction with their local counterparts, or else it will be just another list of inspiring ideas and words.

We are ready to help make the first scenario a reality, and our mayors and administrators are too. What about nations?

Gino Van Begin is the secretary general of ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability