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The Paradox of a Global Urban Agenda Led by Nations, Not Cities

Why mayors and other leaders from 500 cities released a manifesto at the UN’s Habitat III summit in Quito.

The Second World Assembly of Local and Regional Governments brought mayors and other city leaders together in Quito, Ecuador. (UCLG)

As the prevailing wisdom goes, the battle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities. Yet as nations gather this week at the UN’s Habitat III conference to discuss solutions for a rapidly urbanizing world, missing are the voices of the individuals and groups who actually run those cities. So argues a 10-point manifesto that resulted from a convening of the Second World Assembly of Local and Regional Governments on Sunday.

Mayors and other leaders from more than 500 cities gathered in Quito, Ecuador, over the weekend to form a collective voice calling for “A Seat at the Global Table.” Their manifesto lays out why local governments need to be integrated into international talks traditionally reserved for national policymakers. With support from key figures such as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the assembly pushed for a “paradigm shift in global governance” that would give local leaders more say in what strategies to implement and how.

Not only are local leaders the “closest to the citizens,” according to the declaration, they also know the most about the indicators of urban life, including housing and infrastructure needs. The document touts cities as “centers of talent,” with measurable experience in finding innovative solutions. Given those qualifications, the assembly is calling for stronger partnerships between local and national governments that recognize the “democratic legitimacy” of local authorities. That means giving them significantly more oversight powers when it comes to implementing the New Urban Agenda, the list of guidelines at the center of Habitat III. The assembly is also pushing for more interaction between local governments and UN members, development banks, and other international bodies.

Historically, the UN process casts city leaders to the sidelines as “partners,” with about as much authority as NGOs. A group of 100 global city officials consulted member states on the first draft of the New Urban Agenda back in May, but it was ultimately national leaders who put the final draft together. And at the end of the four-day summit this week, the heads of states will be the ones to sign and adopt it. “The most paradoxical thing is that … basically we're doing the UN urban agenda for cities, but without cities,” says Michele Acuto, a professor of urban theory at the University College London, speaking from Quito.

Local leaders have long acknowledged their desire to be included in such global discussions. During Habitat II in 1996, about 500 mayors came together to create the First World Assembly of Cities and Local Authorities. That led to the formal establishment of a UN Advisory Committee on Local Authorities and the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), a global network of city governments and associations that’s become the main driver of the movement.

Joining the mayors and other city leaders at the Second World Assembly was UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon. (UCLG)

Twenty years since the first World Assembly, though, cities are still fighting for their spot at the table. Some nations prefer to leave cities out of the global conversation, whether it’s because they’re in political opposition to local leaders or because interests differ too greatly across cities. “So there is sort of an anti-urban bias locked into the multinational system,” says Susan Parnell, an urban geography researcher for the African Centre for Cities at University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Plus, not every city may be ready to represent themselves. “To have a voice in a multinational system presupposes that local governments and cities themselves are organized, and that's only been relatively recent,” she says. “It takes time to mobilize and find the mechanism which will work, and I'm not sure we got those yet.”

It helps that more national governments are turning their attention to urban issues, but looking ahead, achieving that “paradigm shift” will likely continue to be an uphill battle. For one thing, Acuto says the rhetoric of the world assembly’s talks focused too much on “city vs. state” and not enough on multilateral partnerships. Meanwhile, the manifesto itself could have been bolder.

“There needs to be some real institutionalized proposals, not just acknowledgements,” he says. Of the four points calling for action from the international community, Acuto adds that he would have liked to see the assembly detail actual methods that could be implemented.

If there’s a time to make more daring proposals, it’s now. Both UCLG and the UN recently announced a change in leadership: UCLG named Parks Tau, the former mayor of Johannesburg, as their new head, and the UN named António Guterres as the next Secretary General. And next year, UN Habitat, which run these conferences, will go through a formal review of its mandate and purpose.

“This is a moment of substantial changes in the UN system,” Acuto says.

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