Is an International Agreement for Sustainable Urbanization Possible?

Talking to urban advocates about why the New Urban Agenda matters — and why getting world leaders on board is proving difficult. 

Surabaya, Indonesia (Credit: UN-Habitat)

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Diplomats and representatives of 100-plus countries gathered in Surabaya, Indonesia, this week to finalize the New Urban Agenda, a United Nations-brokered agreement that would guide urban development in nations across the world over the next 20 years, encouraging more sustainable and equitable policies. After three days of intense negotiations, however, diplomats failed to deliver an agreement.

A final draft of the urbanization strategy would have alleviated the need for intense negotiations at the UN’s Habitat III conference to be held this October in Quito, Ecuador. Leaders will now continue meet in New York City ahead of Habitat III for informal talks that will hopefully lead to a more complete agreement before the once-every-20-years summit commences.

Next City attended the negotiations in Surabaya, known as PrepCom 3, to speak with local leaders about transportation, inclusive and equitable urban planning, and how policymakers and citizens at the city level can ensure that the New Urban Agenda — if it passes — will really work.

One of the sticking points in negotiations was the inclusion of the phrase “the right to the city” — the idea that everyone, especially the disenfranchised, have a right to shape and design their cities. Espinoza, a street vendor from Lima, Peru, spoke with Next City about why it is important to her to have that particular phrase included in the New Urban Agenda.

Less controversial were discussions of sustainable development. Rose Molokoane, an advocate for the urban poor, said she doesn’t intend to sleep till she sees it working at the community level, with everyday residents holding national governments accountable for whatever agenda they may sign in Quito.

Transportation planning — and how multimodal transit can impact residents’ quality of life and employment opportunities — was a prominent topic at the negotiations. Clayton Lane, the CEO of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, spoke with Next City about how important inclusive and equitable transport is to the New Urban Agenda.

Diplomats from Haiti, Myanmar and Ecuador shared why the New Urban Agenda will matter to everyday citizens. Shwe Shwe Wein Latt, a member of Myanmar’s parliment, spoke about why the New Urban Agenda needs grassroots momentum to stick.

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Kelsey E. Thomas is a writer and editor based in the most upper-left corner of the country. She writes about urban policy, equitable development and the outdoors (but also about nearly everything else) with a focus on solutions-oriented journalism. She is a former associate editor and current contributing editor at Next City.

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