The UN’s New Urban Agenda Needs to Monitor and Review Cities’ Progress

To be successful, Habitat III needs a rigorous review and monitoring process to track progress and support developing cities. (Photo: John Solaro/Flickr)

In October of 2016, UN Member States will meet in Quito, Ecuador for the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development (Habitat III). Taking place 20 years after its predecessor, Habitat III will set the New Urban Agenda, an agreement that will develop a vision for the future of cities and provide guidelines on how to create safe, sustainable and livable cities for everyone. However, to be effective and avoid the shortcomings of its precursor (the Habitat Agenda), this new agreement must forge a bold monitoring and review process to track progress, and support measures that address gaps in its implementation.

Using Data to Monitor Progress and Encourage Success

Monitoring mechanisms are tools that allow countries, cities and citizens to assess progress on sustainable urban development. However, implementing them is costly, and many national statistical offices—especially in low income countries—lack effective systems for data collection and processing. Brainstorming ideas to overcome such barriers, members of the urban development community recently discussed monitoring at several side events (held by Cities Alliance and the Global Taskforce and the Communitas Coalition) of the UN Sustainable Development Summit that recently took place in New York.

The discussions in New York made clear that a monitoring mechanism for the New Urban Agenda has to be affordable for low-income countries, provide regular and reliable data, and account for diversity among cities. It should also be linked to a political review process, so that the data collected can be used to assess successes and shortcomings in implementation. To ensure that the monitoring process is effective and accessible, policy makers and activists must push for these provisions and make sure that they are included in the “zero draft” of the UN’s New Urban Agenda.

Furthermore, the UN’s “data revolution”—which aims for new approaches to data collection for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—could also help in monitoring the New Urban Agenda. Indeed, the creation of an integrated monitoring platform that collects data from international organizations, state and non-state actors would be an extremely useful tool for tracking progress on a variety of urban issues. While ambitious, such a tool would streamline the monitoring process by significantly reducing redundancy and overlap.

Reviewing Implementation and Overcoming Gaps

While a monitoring platform for the New Urban Agenda is a helpful first step, it must be accompanied by regular reviews at the regional, national and global levels. To begin putting these review processes in place, we can learn from suggested structures of the review and follow-up process for the SDGs and adapt them. Moreover, a review process should also contain measures for exchanging knowledge, distributing technology and otherwise supporting countries and cities facing implementation gaps. By accompanying review with support measures, cities and countries will be incentivized to participate in the review process. Finally, it is critical that supporting measures also assist governments in improving data availability and collection—particularly in areas where the capacity to collect and utilize data is lacking.

While the inclusion of cities and other urban actors at Habitat III has been contested, it would be absurd for cities to be excluded from participating in the monitoring, review and support processes of an agreement dedicated to sustainable urban development. Intuitively, participation by local authorities, city networks and civil society will be key and should be prioritized in the monitoring and review processes. These actors will make substantial contributions to the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, and their participation will increase accountability and transparency.

With only one year to go until Habitat III, it’s critical to discuss these components of the New Urban Agenda now. Indeed, in April, 2016, the “zero-draft” of the New Urban Agenda will be published; in the lead up to this, discussion surrounding the draft agreement should focus not only on the actual substance of the agenda, but also the monitoring, review and support mechanisms that it needs to ensure that it provides a solid foundation for inclusive and sustainable cities of the future.

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