Reflections on the Zero Draft of the New Urban Agenda

This paper commissioned by Cities Alliance analyses the strengths and weaknesses of the Zero Draft and takes a closer look at some of the key issues.
Reflections on the Zero Draft of the New Urban Agenda


On May 6, the UN Bureau of the Preparatory Committee submitted the Zero Draft of the New Urban Agenda, the outcome document to be adopted at the Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016.

Cities Alliance has been a strong advocate for recognition of the role of cities in the New Urban Agenda, and the partnership is keenly interested in the contents of the Zero Draft. The Cities Alliance JWP for Habitat III has held a series of meetings to discuss the Zero Draft, and also commissioned the Berlin-based development think tank Adelphi to provide an analysis of the document in preparation for its meeting in New York on Sunday, 15th May.

Titled Reflections on the Zero Draft of the New Urban Agenda, the paper analyses the strengths and weaknesses of the Zero Draft and takes a closer look at some of the key issues. The analysis draws on a number of input papers the JWP Habitat III has developed on enabling conditions, partnerships, integrated urban and territorial development, follow-up, and decentralisation and subsidiarity. What follows is a brief summary:

The positives

It keeps the focus on cities. The text is strong in the areas of function, content and process.  It fulfills its purpose of keeping up the momentum and recognition of cities as developmental actors, and contains the basic building blocks needed to shape a New Urban Agenda.  Initial reactions suggest that stakeholders note the draft’s balance of opinions and that it has improved over the course of development.

It addresses the meaningful participation of all major groups and other relevant stakeholders. The draft also calls for gender-responsive policy-making and planning processes, training programmes and government initiatives to tackle exclusion with particular attention to women’s effective participation in decision-making for urban development (para. 155). It does not, however, explicitly mention initiatives such as the Global Task Force.  

Recommendations for improvement

While the zero draft is a good start, it can still be strengthened to provide an inspirational, motivating and clear agenda for decades to come. The paper offers these recommendations:

Rationale and place in the global landscape. While the zero draft acknowledges the Agenda 2030 and the Paris Agreement, it does not specify links or mechanisms demonstrating how the New Urban Agenda will contribute to specific SDGs. These details are essential to show how the Agenda will add value, and they should be clearly artriculated. It is recommended that the rationale and unique value of the New Urban Agenda should feature prominently in the text.
Clear structure and logic of narrative. Although the Zero Draft contains the necessary building blocks for a new agenda, it does not offer a clear, compelling narrative outlining why a new agenda is needed and actions for implementation. It is recommended that the main parts of the Agenda spell out a logical storyline starting with the high-level vision, then moving to the guiding principles embodied in the Transformative Commitments and the enabling conditions, followed by how the principles can be translated into specific actions.

Action-orientated priorities. By its own standards, the New Urban Agenda aspires to be action-orientated. However, it does not detail specific actions for implementation or how they are linked to the overarching vision and goals. The Agenda should identify Priorities for Action within the SDG framework and for enabling conditions: national urban policies, capacity development, and effective municipal finance systems and legal framework. The Priorities should also detail means of implementation, such as renewed local-national partnership, integrated urban planning, and innovative financing framework.  The Agenda should link these Priorities for Action to the SDGs, provisions in the Paris Agreement and other international agreements.

Gender. It is welcome that the Preamble characterises cities as places where people “will aim to achieve gender equality, empower women and girls,” and the Zero Draft calls for attention to women and girls among other groups several times. Building on the parts of the text that begin to specify actions towards empowering women and girls as well gender equality, future negotiations should pay special attention to creating a substantial proposal for how the city can achieve this goal.

“Cities for all” and rights-based approaches. The zero draft rightfully commits to the concept of cities for all to “ensure that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, are able to inhabit, use, and produce just, inclusive, and sustainable cities”.  Because it aspires to be a universal agenda with transformative potential, the New Urban Agenda should explicitly accept and build on existing human rights standards.  Attaining socially just, inclusive and sustainable cities is crucial for the promise of human rights. The New Urban Agenda should unequivocally express commitment to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and anchor in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant instruments, in alignment with the text of Agenda 2030. It should also include more discussion and concrete actions on how to operationalise the concept of Cities for All, as there is no common understanding of the concept and what it entails.
Economic development and technology. The zero draft is weak in articulating the comparative advantage of cities as drivers for economic development and prosperity.  An economic narrative prominently placed throughout the text would help to leverage private investment for sustainable urban development and urban transformation, especially since SDG 11 does not target the productive role of cities. In this context, technology development application and cooperation play important roles; technology is one of the key drivers urban transformation and relevant to various urban sectors, and technology applications are indispensable for ecological modernisation and the provision of basic services.  

Follow-up and Review. The New Urban Agenda zero draft recognises the need for carrying out follow-up and review to ensure an effective implementation and progressive impact. However, an effective follow-up and review mechanism can also guide decision-making and strengthen the agenda’s inclusiveness, legitimacy and accountability. This should be added in the first paragraph to provide an overarching vision.

Chapter C on follow-up and review includes several important aspects: It recognises the need for multi-level follow up and review at the global, regional, national, sub-national and local levels; calls for recognising and strengthening existing platforms and processes to avoid duplication; and stresses the need for an inclusive process, and the reinforcement and creation of partnerships. However, the chapter enters quickly into specific institutional arrangements without having established the foundation of what constitutes an effective follow-up and review mechanism.  The following structure for chapter C is suggested: define the goals of an effective follow-up and review process and what principles it should follow, define the mechanisms and its link to the Agenda 2030, and define the institutional architecture and call upon relevant stakeholders to contribute to the follow-up and review process.

The zero draft also lacks clarity on how a review process could look like. It is suggested to include that the review process should be tripartite, involving national reviews, city peer reviews, and contributions by non-state actors. Peer learning could be encouraged directly between cities through city networks.