After Quito, the path forward for the New Urban Agenda

(L-R) Secretary General of UN Ban Ki-moon, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and Secretary General of UN Habitat III conference Joan Clos attend a ceremony at the Habitat III headquarters in Quito, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Guillermo Granja - RTX2P8F5

In October, delegations at the third United Nations Habitat Conference adopted the Quito Declaration on Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements for All, an urban development framework commonly called the New Urban Agenda. Though the framework is nonbinding, U.N. members have agreed to support it over the next 20 years.

With the commitment made, attention now turns to practical considerations and concerns about implementation.

The New Urban Agenda is long on vision but short on implementation detail. Realizing its ambitions will require a detailed understanding of multilevel governance arrangements and the ways in which intergovernmental cooperation and coordination can facilitate and grow local competencies.

As part of a deeper conversation on modern urban governance and finance, the Brookings Institution engaged delegates and participants at Habitat III in two events that offered concrete examples of how cities are working, both within the context of national governance systems and fiscal constraints, to achieve sustainable and inclusive economic futures. At these and other events, policy experts and practitioners attempted to bring the New Urban Agenda from the aspirational to the practical, and to link it to other policy frameworks, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and COP21.

Financing the New Urban Agenda: Multi-Level Metropolitan Finance for 21st Century Cities examined a central concern cities face: how to improve balance sheets and de-risk development finance. Ideally, national governments, bolstered by cooperative relations across administrative levels, would facilitate municipal access to and utilization of capital markets and alternative financing sources. But given current economic and political realities, national governments cannot be relied upon to fill funding gaps for burgeoning metropolises struggling to meet the infrastructure, development, and social needs of their rapidly growing residents.

Experts agreed that while central governments are crucial for the creation of national policies and intermediary structures that create fiscal space at the city level, vertical governance dysfunction often limits the impact and options of local actors. Drawing on the experience of Dakar, Senegal – which tried, unsuccessfully, to launch the first municipal bond in Africa – Khady Dia Sarr outlined how national governments and political conflicts stymie efforts to create innovative financing mechanisms and more conducive environments for local development.

While functional and supportive intergovernmental relationships are critical, local responsibility and capacity are also essential elements of successful metropolitan governance and finance. Cities can adapt to budget constraints and inefficient bureaucracies by increasing their capacity to self-finance urban development initiatives, either through increased own revenue control or freer access to international capital. Patrick Braouezec, president of France’s Plaine Commune, stressed that the future of urban development hinges not only on a better allocation of national resources but also on the ability of local leadership to advocate and network at the national and international level.

Unfortunately, plans to increase municipal fiscal health and autonomy will remain aspirational in the absence of rigorous data collection that allows cities to track their own progress and compare themselves to others. A session co-organized by the Urban Institute and the OECD, centered on how cities, as the drivers of SDG implementation, are positioned to inform national development policies if they have access to proper tools and resources.

Drawing on data gaps that limit the ability of government and city leadership to properly measure trends at the sub-national level, thereby distorting analysis of issues like inequality and climate risks, panelists advocated for a data revolution that would enable local leadership to right-size policy. By allowing city governments to harness new data sources, local leadership and their civil society partners are finding effective ways to use disaggregated data to establish best practices and global networks.

These discussions represent only a small subset of encouraging and innovative sessions featured at Habitat III and demonstrate how leading organizations have taken the first steps toward advancing the New Urban Agenda. Now is the time to capitalize on the momentum and excitement generated by the convenings to create actionable, meaningful progress. Brookings’ Project on 21st Century City Governance will continue to study and surface the underlying governance and fiscal dynamics shaping cities at multiple levels, the multilevel logistics, to improve our understanding of the fundamentals of our city-driven century.