Creating rules for great cities : Will UN Habitat III bind cities to take action | FUTURE CAPE TOWN

“whether we fight or not shouldn’t depend on whether there are laws in place or not.”

Habitat III will introduce a document called the New Urban Agenda that’ll effectively guide the future of urbanisation policy for all UN member states. Cris Robertson explores this agenda revealing that although its content may be groundbreaking, it is not legally binding. Begging one to question how much action will governments take if there are no consequences if they don’t. 


Another year, another United Nations conference. Right? Not quite. The UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development , which takes place later this year in October, only comes around once every 20 years – as common as a comet – and a lot has changed since the last one.

Previous editions were hosted in 1976 in Vancouver and 1996 in Istanbul. Read more here

Today, everything is urban. We live in cities, we work in cities, and by 2050 – when there’ll be more people in urban areas than there are people living today – we’ll die in cities. Now, there’s no melodrama in talking about our own mortality, because at the very heart of any discussion on sustainable development is the question of our own survival. And as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said, “the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities.” So make no mistake, this is no ordinary gathering. 

Habitat III, as the conference is more commonly known, will introduce a document called the New Urban Agenda that’ll effectively guide the future of urbanisation policy for all UN member states. The New Urban Agenda’s development has been unprecedented too. There have been over 10,000 contributors of academics, policymakers, activists and youth representatives adding their voice to the numerous formal and informal consultative meetings that have been taking place for the past few years, worldwide.  

This is all well and good, but ‘good’ is not great.

At an event hosted by the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) on the 5th of May 2016,  David Dodman, director of IIED’s Human Settlements Group, who has been heavily involved in these decentralised discussions, noted a lack of clarity as to how these contributions would be incorporated – among other concerns. He also pointed out the uncomfortable irony that UN member states will ultimately decide the key priorities to be endorsed at Habitat III, even though it will be the local and municipal governments that will be tasked to turn these recommendations into realities.

The IIED event, which coincided with the launch of academic journal Environment and Urbanization’s latest issue, also welcomed Gordon McGranahan of the Institute of Development Studies, Caroline Moser of University of Manchester, and the editor of Environment and Urbanization, David Satterthwaite. And although there were smiles on their faces, there was an unmistakable air of scepticism in their commentary of whether Habitat III would really produce an effective ‘new urban agenda’.

The Guayaquil Slum, Ecuador

Why? Because whilst this is all well and good, ‘good’ is also not binding.

This was the elephant in the room that evening. Just like the pseudo-bite of the Paris Agreement, there will be no real legal binding to anything in the New Urban Agenda – there will just be good intentions. There will be nothing to strictly enforce UN member states (and their cities) to follow-through on the sustainable urban policies that will be presented at Habitat III, and similarly, there will be no penalties to UN member states (and their cities) who pursue any unsustainable urban development policies and turn a blind eye to the sprawl of slums.

So, what now? What hope to do we have of even surviving in an urban future? Well, that’s the funny thing about hope – you either have it or you don’t (and you carry on looking for it). The same goes for following-through with the New Urban Agenda – you either do it or you don’t.

The thing is, Ban Ki-moon was right: cities will be the battlefields of sustainable development. But what he didn’t mention was that whether we fight or not shouldn’t depend on whether there are laws in place or not. Sure, laws would help legitimise things, but as Plato famously said, “good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.”



Perhaps, it would be foolish to think that Habitat III will really produce an effective ‘new urban agenda’. But what would really be foolish is to think that it’s only at Habitat III where the pathway towards a ‘new urban agenda’ can be paved. Whatever the outcome of Habitat III, the point is this: we either acknowledge the seriousness of the situation and follow through on the policy recommendations, or we take advantage of the lack of legal obligation and fail those in our urban future who will have no choice but to be born in cities.


Interested in learning  more about UN Habitat III:


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About Cris Robertson

Cris Robertson is a young South African with a passion for socio-environmental justice and sustainability communications. He completed in Masters of Philosophy at the Sustainability Institute, and has recently been awarded the African Leaders of Tomorrow Scholarship Program to further his academic studies in Canada. To stay tuned to what he's up to follow him on twitter @karooyouth