How a Former Mayor Became the World’s Urban Planner

After leading Barcelona’s design-forward renaissance, Joan Clos has a once-in-a-generation chance to put cities on a sustainable path forward.

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This story originally appeared in Citiscope and was republished via the Habitat III Journalism Project.

As cars and taxis whizzed by on Second Avenue, Joan Clos hunched over a curb. He reached out to touch the steel coating on the curb’s concrete corner, something you see on sidewalks all over Manhattan. “If you put in this metallic protection, it’s a very good investment,” Clos said, ignoring the loud traffic as his shock of silver hair nearly scraped the sidewalk. “You protect the stone and it can last for much more time.”

Clos is a former mayor of Barcelona. For the last six years, he’s been head of UN-Habitat, the United Nations agency that handles issues related to urbanization — a post that makes him something like the world’s urban planner. Touring the streets near his UN office, dressed in a pink dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up and peering through neon-green framed eyeglasses, Clos was full of precise observations and lofty insights into how best to design and manage a city.

At a busy corner on 39th Street, Clos went on more about sidewalks. In long strides, he measured out the width of the walkway, with such determination that office workers on their lunch breaks swerved to avoid bumping into him. He wanted to show me New York’s uniform standard of roughly five-meter wide sidewalks — a good size for accommodating heavy pedestrian use, in his view. Clos further pointed out that street commerce on this block — in this case, a mobile cart piled high with bananas, oranges and apples — was aligned with the gaps between a honey locust and a gingko tree, so as to not disrupt the pedestrian flow.

Clos doesn’t love everything about New York. Near a smelly heap of garbage bags piled on the sidewalk, he shook his head. Barcelona, he boasted, has moved the mess underground into below-grade trash collection systems. After we rode down Second Avenue from his office with help from New York’s bike share program, he offered a blunt assessment of the city’s street infrastructure: “very bumpy.”

But in general, Clos admires the way New York mixes all of life’s needs in close proximity, making walking easier than driving. At a corner on 33rd Street, he nodded approvingly at a two-story building, home to a Chipotle restaurant, Coffee Bean java house and New York Sports Club gym. In front was a small plaza with cement stools and planters holding shrubs in full summer bloom. Next door to the squat retail complex stood a 40-story brown brick apartment building. “Here you have residential, commercial and even a public space in just 20 meters,” he said in a thick Catalan accent. “That makes the combination very, very productive.”

During our short journey, Clos frequently quoted Jane Jacobs, the self-taught critic of modernist master planning who rose to prominence with her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Writing at a time when western cities were going out of their way to accommodate cars, Jacobs celebrated walkability. Human connections on sidewalks were more important than moving traffic on streets. Invoking Jacobs has been orthodoxy among North American and European planners for several decades.

Now, Clos is trying to bring Jane Jacobs to the rest of the world. Next week in Quito, Ecuador, heads of state and ministers from around the world will convene for the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development — known simply as Habitat III. The dignitaries are set to adopt a manifesto on urbanization that Clos, more than anyone else, is responsible for shaping. This “New Urban Agenda” strongly reflects his views on cities with its calls for compact urban cores, transit-oriented development, reining in sprawl and robust public space.

Although the agreement will be non-binding, Clos hopes it will create momentum for better urban planning around the world. Especially in Asia and Africa, cities are growing at a breakneck pace. By 2050 more than 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. Far too often, unplanned urban growth produces informal settlements on the metropolitan periphery, choking traffic congestion, unchecked pollution and severe inequality.

All of this, Clos hopes, will begin to change in Quito. The UN’s Habitat conferences take place only once every 20 years. Clos sees this moment as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the global conversation about the future of cities. He wants mayors to come away from Habitat III inspired to take urban planning and efficient local administration more seriously than ever. And he wants national leaders to adopt coherent urban strategies that see well-planned cities as one of the essential ingredients of a more prosperous future.

“Taking care of the city,” Clos said, “is good business for a country.”

“Everything on the street”

Pushing cities as the solution is a harder sell than it sounds. In many countries, urbanization is seen primarily as a problem: the cause of poverty, malnutrition, air pollution, infant mortality and low life expectancy. Historically, the UN’s worldview has a rural bias — think of the dusty African villages pictured in fundraising pitches for UNICEF or the World Food Programme. Forty years ago, at the first Habitat conference in Vancouver, the whole subtext was that urbanization was basically a hazard to be avoided. “It is of paramount importance,” the 1976 Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements stated, “that national and international efforts give priority to improving the rural habitat.”

It’s a big leap from that view to the central premise of Habitat III — that the future is urban so let’s make better cities. Sixty-seven-year-old Clos isn’t the first global figure to come to that conclusion. But his role as the leader of both UN-Habitat and of the multi-year process leading up to Habitat III has given him the world’s largest stage to make the case. If history judges Habitat III to be a success or a failure or something in between, that assessment will reflect largely on Joan Clos.

As a reporter covering the Habitat III beat for the past 18 months, I’ve heard Clos address audiences in Cuenca (Ecuador), Mexico City, Montréal, Nairobi, New York, Prague, Surabaya (Indonesia), Tel Aviv and Toluca (Mexico). This account is based on interviews I conducted with him at several of those meetings.

There are some points he came back to again and again. The first is that a successful city needs “rules and regulations” in the areas of planning, legislation and finance — what Clos calls the “three-legged approach.” The result, he said repeatedly in private interviews and public speeches, is urban development that pays for itself. That is to say, if local governments are empowered to collect revenue in well-planned cities that operate under the rule of law, they will easily recoup investments in infrastructure.

The second is that spatial planning matters. Too often, he says, discussions about development priorities — such as where to place schools or health care facilities, for example — take place in a vacuum. It’s as if it doesn’t matter where these things get built, whether the people who need them can walk or take public transit to get there, or whether development makes urban life better or worse. This disregard, he believes, drives cities to sprawl outward, what Clos calls “bad urbanization.” By contrast, he likes to say, urbanization done right can be “a tool for development.”

But after our walk and bike ride in New York, Clos framed the issues in a way I had never heard in his usual stump speech.

He made an analogy between the New Urban Agenda and the Athens Charter, the 1943 urbanism manifesto published by the Swiss modernist Le Corbusier. The document called for cities to be segregated by building type — high-rise housing in one district, commerce in another — with private automobiles zipping along highways in between. The Athens Charter had an outsized influence on post-World War II planning, from the bulky tower blocks that sprang up in a rebuilding Europe to U.S. urban renewal schemes to the master-planned capital of Brasília.

Clos respects Le Corbusier and his cohort at the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne​ for their ability to stake out new intellectual ground boldly and decisively. (Ironically, Le Corbusier and his disciple, Oscar Niemeyer, designed the UN’s compound in New York.) “The Charter of Athens was the utopian vision of the time,” he said. “The car was the star. That was the utopia of individual mobility.”

But like many contemporary urbanists, Clos vilifies the results. “We need something as disruptive and transformative as the Charter of Athens,” he said, “but of course much better. Because the Charter of Athens and the modern movement has been proven a failure.”

The Corbusian vision of the city is often summed up in the phrase “tower in the garden.” I asked Clos what four words could neatly encapsulate his vision for the New Urban Agenda.

His response: “Everything on the street.”

“The tower in the garden, it’s an isolated icon,” he said. “You live in a flat and you don’t interact. Then you take the car and you go away. The problem is that has destroyed street life, the dream of Jane Jacobs.”

The challenge Clos faces is that for many of the 193 UN member states, the idea of building skyscraper tower blocks and highways remains plenty appealing. The West did it, after all. And it’s good for the booming business of real estate developers, construction companies and car manufacturers. So why not them?

Clos makes his case forcefully, with a vision sharpened from his years running Barcelona. But the style that made him an effective mayor does not translate seamlessly to the realm of global diplomacy.

“He has his own approach on cities that comes from his experience in Barcelona, and it seems as if he wants to extrapolate it to the world,” Arab Hoballah, a high-ranking official at the United Nations Environment Programme told me. Hoballah was UNEP’s delegate to the New Urban Agenda negotiations. “You cannot extrapolate this to the world.”

Catalan Roots

The world’s urbanist-in-chief grew up on a farm. Clos was born in 1949 to parents who raised dairy cows and also farmed wheat, corn and potatoes. They lived in the inland village of Parets del Vallès, 14 miles (23 kilometers) north of Barcelona over the Serra de Collserola mountains. Now a 16,000-person bedroom community, back then it was an agricultural town. “My infancy was totally rural,” Clos remarked. “I am not ignorant of rural life.”

He and his three brothers labored on the farm as children. The oldest died in a car accident 20 years ago, and the other two remain in Parets, working in architecture and construction. The farm was sold off, “swallowed by the expansion of Barcelona and the metropolitan area,” in Clos’ words — and, to his mind, an example of his firsthand knowledge of the issues at play in the urbanization debate.

Later in his childhood, Clos attended a Catholic boarding school in Barcelona. But it was hardly an opportunity to explore the big city — students were allowed out just three hours per week, and always with a chaperone. As a young man, he came of age at the end of the Franco regime in Spain, and took part in several anti-dictatorship marches. His political awakening came about in the city, not from his upbringing. “The political uprising and demonstrations, they were always urban,” he said.

Clos studied medicine at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and went on to practice anesthesiology professionally. He liked the social side of medicine — dealing with patients one-on-one. But he also grew interested in public health at a more macro scale: “If you improve the sewer system or if you vaccinate, you affect populations,” he said.

The revelation that he could go from treating single patients to treating society was fundamental, spurred by the social ferment of the anti-Franco movement. The dictator died in 1975. Clos was 26. “For me this was when my life changed,” he said.

Clos began pursuing graduate work in epidemiology. In 1977, with savings from his medical practice, he enrolled in a public health master’s program at the University of Edinburgh. Clos returned to Barcelona in 1979, still not quite 30 years old, and took a job with the city as Director of Public Health.

That year he met his wife, Angels Bitria, a nurse, to whom he is still married. They have two sons, an economist and an engineer. Although Clos hasn’t practiced medicine for decades, he remains “Dr. Clos” to many who know him in Barcelona, as well as his staff at the UN.

The Pull of Politics

After four years gaining experience in municipal government, Clos won a seat on Barcelona’s City Council. He represented the old city, Ciutat Vella, a district that includes Barcelona’s most visited tourist attractions: the bohemian Raval neighborhood, the medieval warren of the Gothic Quarter, the iconic Las Ramblas pedestrian mall.

But Barcelona in the early 1980s was a far cry from the sun-splashed destination that attracted nearly 9 million tourists last year. Then, it was known as the Manchester of Spain. “It was a gray city,” Clos recalled. “It was industrial, with the façades of the buildings always dark from the soot and smoke of the city.” Following the 1979 oil crisis, local unemployment and national inflation alike hovered at an untenable 22 percent.

Clos described his early efforts to improve Ciutat Vella as an extension of his public health work. “It began as a sanitation improvement,” he said, “but it ended up being a social rehabilitation.” While representing the district, he focused on creating jobs, renovating public spaces and working with neighborhood groups. By all accounts, his efforts were successful. Some might say too successful — many locals now complain that Barcelona attracts so many visitors that tourism is hurting their quality of life.

“The city is a political construction. It’s about people living together and creating coalitions to defend their own agendas.”

Four years as a city councilor turned the public health specialist into a political animal. Clos disavows the medical metaphors that crop up in the urban planning literature. He says people are being naïve when they compare parks to a city’s “lungs,” or streets to a city’s “veins,” or describe small interventions as “urban acupuncture.”

“The city is a political construction,” he explained. “It’s about people living together and creating coalitions to defend their own agendas.” That mindset hardened during his career with the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), which governed Barcelona for more than three decades. PSC’s politics are social democratic — center-left by Catalan standards, and opposed to independence from Spain. Clos remains a federalist to this day.

In 1990, Barcelona’s legendary longtime mayor, Pasqual Maragall, appointed Clos as deputy mayor of finance and budgeting. The job came during what was arguably the most important time in Barcelona’s recent history: the run-up to and execution of the 1992 Summer Olympics.

Today, hosting the Olympics has become almost synonymous with bloated budgets, corruption and controversy. Yet Barcelona ’92 stands out as a model for how the Olympics can catalyze an urban renaissance. As the city emerged from a long slumber under Franco, Barcelona leveraged the games to make huge investments in roads, sewers and parks. A construction boom sparked big gains in employment.

“Not only did Barcelona react well to the Games,” says Ferran Brunet an economist who has studied the era. “It succeeded in maintaining the growth generated, on a scale never seen before.”

As the city’s finance director, Clos was right in the middle of it all. In his former district of Ciutat Vella, old industrial buildings along the waterfront were knocked down to create a sandy beach that became popular with locals and tourists alike. Over time, factories that produced chemicals, textiles and food products yielded to a stylish destination for conventions, music festivals and medical care.

“We decided to transform the city into a post-industrial city,” Clos said. “The games were the excuse in order to get the investment from regional government and the central government.” According to a 2004 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Barcelona came out of the Olympics about $3 million U.S. in the black.

I spoke to several Barcelonans who watched this period closely. Their praise for Clos’ handling of the city’s finances was unanimous.

A Catalan journalist who preferred to remain anonymous because he continues to cover local politics called Clos “an excellent financial manager.” Josep Roig, the Barcelona-based head of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), an umbrella organization for local government associations around the world, called Clos’ accomplishments “obscure work but very important.” Clos was president of UCLG’s sister network of major world cities, Metropolis, during his mayoral tenure.

Ramon Seró, a business administration specialist who was one of five experts called in to help Clos revamp Barcelona’s finances, told me the the city previously had “historically bad accounting.”

“That was the innovation: professionalizing the management of the city,” Seró explained.

Leading under a long shadow

In 1997, Maragall stepped down before the end of his fourth term to take a teaching position in Rome. He handed the keys to Clos, who Roig called “not an obvious successor because he was less of a politician.” Nevertheless, with the Olympic tailwind behind him and the support of the PSC — which by this point had a machine-politics grip on city hall — Clos was elected outright in 1999 and reelected in 2003.

Clos continued Barcelona’s post-industrial transformation. In another aging industrial neighborhood, Poblenou, he helped establish 22@Barcelona. Old cotton mills were torn down or converted into airy lofts, while edgy architecture gave the skyline a postmodern sheen. Train tracks were buried and pedestrian-friendly streets took their place, all served by a tramline. The area, which covers 115 blocks, has drawn 4,500 new companies since 2000, roughly half of them start-ups. It’s become one of the world’s leading examples of what Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution calls an “innovation district.” Clos considers it his greatest legacy as mayor.

But Clos also presided over what became Barcelona’s biggest post-Olympics flop. The 2004 Universal Forum of Cultures was conceived as a 141-day “cultural olympics” to further burnish the city’s growing reputation as a global trend-setter. It attracted a range of speakers to address topics such as sustainable development, globalization, freedom, security, human rights, cultural diversity and peace. But the event was plagued with problems and controversies.

One was the displacement of a poor Roma community from the neighborhood that was redeveloped for the Forum. Another was the prow-shaped building constructed for the event, which had to be temporarily shut down because parts of the ceiling collapsed.

More fundamentally, the business model did not work. The frenzy of corporate sponsorship that is an accepted part of the Olympics formula was viewed at the Forum as a sinister effort by multinational corporations to latch onto culture and social justice. Greenpeace boycotted the event as “an attack” on the Mediterranean coast. Amnesty International pulled out, and French anti-globalization activist-farmer José Bové declined a speaking invitation.

The event, which cost an estimated €2.3 billion, fell at least 30 percent short of its projected 5 million visitors. “It was a disaster,” the Catalan journalist told me. “Clos lost support in the Forum.” Roig agreed that the Forum “hurt his public image.”

Clos himself admitted that the Forum became mired in politics — between the Olympics and the Forum, the national government had been taken over by a center-right party that only increased the acrimony when problems began. “Culture is much more politicized than sports,” Clos proffered.

Despite the criticism, he believes the Forum paid long-term benefits. The site continues to host the annual rock music festival Primavera Sound; a convention center and five-star hotel were built there atop a water treatment plant. The urban planner in him was proud to see the project extend Avinguda Diagonal to the sea as the city’s monumental boulevard was originally envisioned in the 19th century. Although for an admirer of Jane Jacobs, the projects also represented a lot of the sort of top-down city-hall driven planning that Jacobs would have rejected.

Roig described Clos’ mayoral style as “managerial” and called him “pragmatic” and “efficient.” But Roig agreed with a common view among the Barcelonans I spoke with: After 15 years of charismatic leadership from Pasqual Maragall, Mayor Clos had a hard time escaping his predecessor’s long shadow. When I asked Roig in Spanish if Clos had his own identity as mayor, Roig paused for a moment and sounded like he was still thinking about it as he let out an elongated ‘s’ sound before concluding, “Sí.”

Ramon Seró told me Clos “was always loyal to Pasqual Maragall.” This became a bit awkward in 2003, when Maragall returned to politics as president of the Catalonia regional government. Maragall’s office on the Plaza de Sant Jaume sat directly across from City Hall.

“They had to look at each other across the plaza,” Seró said. “It was very difficult to mark his own style …. Maragall had a grand grand grand image that Joan didn’t have.” Josep Rull, the current Minister of Territory and Sustainability in the Catalan regional government, is more blunt: He told me Clos “was a great number two, but not a great number one.”

While Clos spoke at length in our interviews about his time under Maragall, he was generally muted about his own administration — when the subject first came up, he couldn’t remember if he had taken office in 1996 or 1997. But he mounted a spirited defense of the Forum as “very important” because it “was a continuation of the Olympic Games to extend the transformation of Barcelona onward from what we could rehabilitate for ’92.”

In 2006, with his support eroded, Clos left office before his term expired to become Spain’s Minister of Industry, Commerce and Tourism. According to Roig’s interpretation, the cabinet — once again socialist — needed a Catalan for political balance, and the region is known for its industrial know-how. Two years later, Clos got his start in diplomacy when then-President José Zapatero sent him to Ankara as Spain’s ambassador to Turkey, and later Azerbaijan. In 2010, he was nominated by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to take over UN-Habitat.

New focus in Nairobi

Within the UN system, UN-Habitat has long been a runt in the litter of agencies. Based not in New York or Geneva but in Nairobi, Kenya, UN-Habitat was only elevated to “programme status” — roughly akin to a cabinet-level agency — in 2002. With a core staff of 400, the agency has less than half the headcount of its Nairobi neighbor, UNEP, and less than half the budget of UNICEF, much less any of the PR firepower supplied by celebrity UNICEF ambassadors like Katy Perry and David Beckham.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second from left) swears in Joan Clos as the new executive director of UN-Habitat in 2010.(Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten)

As UN-Habitat’s Executive Director, Clos has made a concerted effort to change the agency’s focus. Traditionally, UN-Habitat has pursued a “sites and services” approach, meaning that it would simply go into a town, village or urban neighborhood to help with a discrete project — to build public housing, say, or fix a sanitation problem.

A prime example comes from its own backyard, the Nairobi slum of Kibera, where UN-Habitat sponsored toilets, and later facilitated a government plan to transform shanties into high-rises. Raw numbers — how many people now have access to indoor bathrooms — have mattered more than bigger questions about what the city looks like.

Clos has reoriented the agency around implementing his three-legged approach to cities. He created three new divisions: Urban Legislation, Urban Planning and Urban Economy. “It was very hard to believe,” he said, “but when I arrived there was no urban planning department.”

Now, UN-Habitat is thinking more at a city scale. The agency under Clos works almost like a consulting firm to assemble a multidisciplinary team that aims to shore up a city’s overall urban management.

For example, Kisumu County, Kenya’s third largest urban area, came to UN-Habitat with a request for assistance on waste management. Clos used it as an excuse to help the county prepare a whole new urban plan. In the city of Nacala, Mozambique, the agency is pushing the municipal government to capture more revenue from its bustling port, planning entirely new neighborhoods and drafting new regulations for buildings and streets.

“We are jumping out of the sectoral approach,” Clos explained. “If you need a lawyer you take a lawyer. If you need an economist you take an economist. If you need an engineer you take an engineer. People on the team come from different sectors.”

At the same time, Clos ramped up the agency’s urban research work. To more traditional studies like the agency’s regular report on the world’s cities, Clos added more innovative research partnerships. For example, a joint endeavor with New York University and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy drawing on historic maps and the latest digital cartography tools created stunning visual portraits of how cities grow over time.

The transition from the fast pace of city hall to the slower pace of diplomacy did not come naturally for Clos. Hoballah, the UNEP official, told me Clos “doesn’t look for consensus. He’s very much, ‘I have an idea, I go for it.’” Clos himself doesn’t dispute that assessment. “I am not a typical diplomat because I believe in delivery,” he said. “As a mayor I’ve been trained on delivery. You cannot be just talking and talking. There is a moment where you need to take a decision.”

Within UN-Habitat, there’s been pushback against Clos’ style, which some see as brusque. While no current employees agreed to speak on the record for this story, an unspecified number of aggrieved staff filed a misconduct report against Clos in January. The allegations include “abusive behaviours, abuse of authority, harassment and discrimination,” noting that staff “have remained quiet because of fear or reprisals.”

As head of the agency, Clos may be the flashpoint for some internal friction not entirely of his own making. One Western employee I spoke with who spent several years working out of the Nairobi office attested to long-simmering tensions between European staff, who can come across as imperious know-it-alls, and African staff, who feel a certain protective ownership over the agency and its mandate to improve housing conditions in poor countries.

And unlike city hall — where the mayor gets his way — UN rank-and-file can push back more substantively. When I asked Clos about the allegations, he said they were “not true” and that the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) had informed him the complaint was dismissed. As of press time, Clos’ office said that he had not received the final report clearing him. OIOS told me it does not comment on ongoing or completed investigations.

One thing that’s clear is that Clos gets out of Nairobi as much as possible. When I asked him what it was like to live in the city, which suffers from abysmal traffic and security risks for Westerners, he tried to bite his tongue. “Don’t ask me this question,” he said, the only time he attempted to refuse to answer a question. His tongue got the better of him. He continued, “The beauty of the nature is fantastic. The friendship of the people, it’s also fantastic. Urbanization, it’s weak.”

“Power is dispersed”

In public, Clos can be an impassioned, convincing speaker who marshals an encyclopedic command of contemporary trends in urbanization. But he has a tendency to repeat his points ad nauseum and overstay his welcome on stage. At a panel talk in Surabaya, Indonesia, in July, the moderator called on speakers to deliver “tweet-length” final statements. Clos spoke for more than 15 minutes. When nudged to halt, he digressed into a story about his taxi ride from the airport, which led to a riff about the future of cars and technology. Someone in the audience turned to me and asked, “Have you ever heard him speak for less than three minutes?”

In English, Clos sometimes lapses into a bureaucratic monotone. He is most comfortable when speaking in Spanish, and assumes an engaging, professorial style. In both languages, he has had plenty of airtime. When Clos’ office released the first draft of the New Urban Agenda in May, he had already traveled to 40 countries over two years to drum up interest among mayors, ministers, academics, civil-society groups and grassroots organizations. As one of his aides told me when I asked where Clos spends most of his time: “He lives in the air.”

The draft of the New Urban Agenda endorsed Clos’ three-legged approach, with repeated paeans to urban planning, a call to strengthen municipal finance, and a commitment to national-level urban policies. The document gave ample mention to public space, including streets and sidewalks. Then, diplomats representing UN member states took over. After several rounds of negotiations from May to September, they delivered a 24-page final text that they believe their governments can adopt at next week’s summit in Quito.

For Clos, this process was largely out of his hands, as diplomats don’t appreciate meddling from UN leadership during tense negotiations. But Clos told me pointedly at a press conference in Surabaya in July — by which point the text was nearly finalized — that his talking points had survived the diplomatic wringer.

“There is a high consensus on the content of the New Urban Agenda,” he said. “What I perceive from member states is that there’s a very public recognition of the role of urban planning, design, financing and legislation. On the thematic issues there are, to a degree, consensus.”

Indeed, it’s safe to say that Clos got most of what he wanted. His principles are clearly outlined in the New Urban Agenda’s 174 paragraphs, cementing his vision of urbanization at the international level for at least the next 20 years.

But some worry that Clos’ short-term focus on the text isn’t matched by a long-term strategy to ensure its implementation. The challenge ahead is to convince national governments to take action on a voluntary, non-binding agreement. That’s not impossible at the UN. Two of this decade’s biggest global deals — a plan to end poverty called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate change — are voluntary, legally speaking. Yet both are clearly impacting public policy and private-sector actions around the world.

Felix Dodds, a longtime UN lobbyist who followed the Habitat III process closely, thinks Clos failed to elevate the New Urban Agenda to the same status. “I don’t think the New Urban Agenda is a document that will be quoted or used in the future,” Dodds said. “By not linking the New Urban Agenda to the SDGs and climate change outcomes in a more meaningful way, the relevant ministries won’t be paying attention to it.”

That criticism came early from some UN member states when the first draft was released. Dodds attributes this failure to Clos’ leadership style during the preparatory process. “He doesn’t lead by building a team. That team is the UN family and stakeholders,” he said. “Clos tried to keep this as the UN-Habitat conference, not the UN family conference. That is a huge mistake.”

Clos has supporters as well. At the UN in May, I met with Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, whose father held Clos’ job 40 years ago in the leadup to Habitat I. Peñalosa was effusive in his praise, calling Clos “fantastic” and complementing the “great job” he’s done at UN-Habitat. “He’s trying to get Habitat III out of the traditional UN language, which is so anesthetic, and trying to put it into more practical terms of the challenges that cities face,” he told me. “If Habitat III is only able to influence a few things, this can make the lives of millions of people better for hundreds of years.”

Putting a document into practice, however, is much easier when running a city than working in a complex bureaucracy like the UN As Roig pointed out, “The mayor has the power to make changes. In the UN, no one has power. Power is dispersed.”

Diplomacy isn’t the only challenge. So are politics at the national and regional levels, as well as local culture and attitudes toward urbanization that may prove hard to change.

For the most part, sub-Saharan African countries — even though they are among the world’s fastest urbanizing — remain entrenched with a rural mindset. Large, rich and mainly urbanized countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States feel they have room to sprawl. China worries that anti-sprawl provisions would prevent the creation of new cities. Federated countries like Brazil and Germany are leery about setting urban policy at the national level. Authoritarian governments like Russia and Egypt don’t like the goal of empowering local governments.

As it turned out, the final sticking point in negotiations was the role of UN-Habitat itself. The developing-countries bloc, known as the G-77, wanted UN-Habitat to have primary responsibility for implementation of the New Urban Agenda. Richer countries that foot most of the bill for UN-Habitat’s budget resisted this call, arguing that the New Urban Agenda should be a shared effort among all UN agencies. Negotiators ultimately decided to put off the issue to next year, when the Secretary-General is to present an “evidence-based and independent assessment” of UN-Habitat. Next year is the final year of Clos’ term at the agency.

The first time Clos stood up at the UN to make the case for urbanization as a solution to development challenges, he told me, “A lot of the faces that I saw were faces of incredulity.” Countless speeches later, Clos believes he has succeeded in changing minds. And he’ll have his biggest stage yet to change more minds next week in Quito, when he shares the podium with Ban Ki-moon and a host of world leaders who will endorse his vision. As Clos likes to point out, it will be the first time in the history of the United Nations that cities will be recognized as a potential force for good.

This piece is part of a series of reported articles and op-eds that Next City is publishing related to preparations for the United Nations’ Habitat III conferencein Quito, Ecuador, in October 2016. With a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, we’re covering the critical issues at stake on the road to creating a “New Urban Agenda,” and hosting events at PrepCom III in Surabaya, Indonesia, in July 2016, and in Quito.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Gregory Scruggs is a Seattle-based independent journalist who writes about solutions for cities. He has covered major international forums on urbanization, climate change, and sustainable development where he has interviewed dozens of mayors and high-ranking officials in order to tell powerful stories about humanity’s urban future. He has reported at street level from more than two dozen countries on solutions to hot-button issues facing cities, from housing to transportation to civic engagement to social equity. In 2017, he won a United Nations Correspondents Association award for his coverage of global urbanization and the UN’s Habitat III summit on the future of cities. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

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