The relevance of the ‘New Urban Agenda’

The agenda, adopted at a recent UN conference, offers a normative framework for guiding India’s urban future


Photo:n Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Photo:n Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

After years of ambivalence, urbanization is increasingly being embraced, or at least acknowledged, in India. This can be seen in the growing importance cities are receiving in the distinct “worlds” of government, business, think tanks, academia and civil society. Each of these “worlds” is populated by experts in specific “fields” within the urban realm such as planning, environment, transport, housing, finance and health. The multiple “fields” within these parallel “worlds” typically operate as silos and do not interact with the other “fields” and “worlds”.

Consequently, there is an absence of a collective urban vision that is shared by various urban actors. In such a splintered space, the adoption of a “New Urban Agenda” by nation states at a recent UN conference is welcome.

The “New Urban Agenda” sets the global vision of sustainable urbanization for the next 20 years. It is the outcome document that has emerged from the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (referred as “Habitat III”) held in Quito, Ecuador, last week. The UN’s Habitat conferences are held in a bi-decennial cycle, with previous editions being held in Vancouver (1976) and Istanbul (1996). While the document was adopted by representatives of national governments, its preparation lasted two years and involved discussions with various stakeholders, including local governments, civil society groups and urban scholars and practitioners.

The “New Urban Agenda” arrives at an interesting moment when a new international development framework to succeed the Millennium Development Goals is being crystallized. Just a year back, the UN general assembly had adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). One of the SDGs—Goal 11 on Sustainable Cities and Communities—aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Expectedly, sustainability is at the core of the “New Urban Agenda”. A substantial portion of the document is dedicated to various “transformative commitments for sustainable urban development”, linking it further with themes like social inclusion, urban prosperity and resilience.

The “New Urban Agenda”, rather ambitiously, calls for an “urban paradigm shift” to readdress the way we “plan, finance, develop, govern, and manage cities and human settlements.” It commits to a “vision of cities for all” where “all inhabitants” are able to “inhabit and produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient, and sustainable cities and human settlements.” One of the sticking points in the negotiations leading up to Habitat III was regarding the inclusion of the provision on “Right to the City”, a term used to describe the collective right of “all inhabitants”, irrespective of their legal status, over the city’s resources and spaces. While there is still a reference to this phrase, it has been considerably diluted as a compromise between its supporters—Latin American countries—and its more powerful opponents: the US, European Union, Russia and India.

India’s engagement in framing the “New Urban Agenda” has been quite limited. Unlike other member-states who made detailed suggestions for revisions, India mostly gave short, cryptic comments expressing discontent with certain sections. India wanted provisions supporting refugees and migrants circumscribed by a proviso stating “where applicable as permitted by laws of the land”. India also preferred a more generic commitment on the right to housing instead of one that denounced discrimination and forced evictions. India sought restrictions on provisions that increased local government autonomy over taxes. The nature of India’s engagement raises concerns about our seriousness in empowering cities and their inhabitants.

Though India is aggressively pursuing an urban-centric development agenda, its priorities do not seem to fit well with those of the “New Urban Agenda”. India’s current urban policy framework is not centred on an approach that provides “all inhabitants” a “right to the city”. Interestingly, while “smart cities” form the lynchpin of India’s urban agenda, it only makes a fleeting appearance in the “New Urban Agenda”. Equity, inclusivity and sustainability are instead the recurring themes (even though, much to the chagrin of some urban activists, it also uses the language of “leveraging” agglomeration, competition and productivity). The divergence in priorities hence raises questions about the appositeness of India’s current urban development approach.

Can the “New Urban Agenda” create a paradigm shift in the way cities are built and governed? Since it is a non-binding document without concrete mechanisms for implementation, its ability to effect change is limited. However, instead of dismissing it as hollow proclamations, India should consider whether it can harness some of its key ideas. For instance, Habitat III proceedings also include a bunch of policy papers on topics such as urban governance, municipal finance, and urban spatial strategies. As decision-making processes in Indian cities continue to be driven by proceduralism or ad hocism, it’s worthwhile to explore alternative strategies and processes. At a time when India has grandiose visions for its cities, even while they struggle to meet the basic needs of its inhabitants, the “New Urban Agenda” offers a normative framework for guiding India’s urban future.

Mathew Idiculla is a lawyer and researcher on urban policy.

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