The New Urban Agenda’s Road Map for Planning Urban Spatial Development: Tangible, Manageable and Measurable



In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which contains 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Agenda set the pace for many aspects of the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), to be held in Quito, Ecuador, from 17 to 20 October 2016. While the complete set of SDGs is important for Habitat III, Goal 11, “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”, with seven associated targets, is especially critical because it embraces several components that make cities and regions sustainable, including housing, transport, planning, cultural and environmental heritage, disaster risk reduction, environmental impact and public space.

The recently drafted New Urban Agenda, which Governments will adopt in Quito, reaffirms Member States’ support of all the components of Goal 11. Both parts of the outcome document—the “Quito Declaration on Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements for All” and the “Quito Implementation Plan for the New Urban Agenda”—clearly enunciate three priorities that will frame the successful execution of Goal 11 and the urban aspects of the other SDGs, and lead to the achievement of sustainable urbanization in the coming decades. These priorities are: having a supportive governance structure; inventing and maintaining twenty-first century planning and managing urban spatial development; and establishing sound financing mechanisms.

While the New Urban Agenda advocates pursuing these priorities with simultaneous and synergistic actions, the recommendations for city planning provide a clear road map for public and private decision-makers to tailor programmes to their particular environments. For overall guidance, they reference the International Guidelines on Urban and Territorial Planning, adopted in April 2015 by the Governing Council of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). The Guidelines provide direction in establishing planning functions at several levels: national (e.g. connecting and balancing the system of towns and cities); metropolitan (e.g. regional economic development, rural-urban linkages, and ecosystem protection); municipal (e.g. design and protection of citywide systems of public space, capital investments in basic infrastructure, overall block layout, and connectivity); and neighbourhoods (e.g. site specific design and local urban commons).

The remaining provisions of the Agenda present several concepts for the structure and form of cities and regions. One calls for “implementing integrated, polycentric and balanced territorial policies and plans.” Here, the Member States recognize that metropolitan areas composed of settlements of different scales and functions enable people to choose from a variety of living arrangements; can provide for the economies of scale that contribute to efficient, synergistic activities yet avoid diseconomies related to current congestion and excess densities in many places; and allow for the conservation of valuable agricultural land and ecosystem services, and the elimination of settlements in disaster-prone areas such as flood plains and steep slopes. The inclusion of “integrated” in this directive refers to providing and knitting together complementary internal systems, such as transportation, water and sanitation, housing, open space and community services within urban areas. This would improve their functioning of internal systems and similar external systems, as required by cities, towns and villages to ensure strong rural-urban synergies for the exchange of goods (e.g. food to cities) and services (health care to rural areas).

In accordance with its mandate emanating from a conference on housing and sustainable development, the New Urban Agenda places housing at the centre of its provisions. It makes a strong reference to the right to adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living established in earlier United Nations agreements, notably the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A fundamental commitment here is the promotion of security of tenure, as well as calling for basic service provisions. The Agenda also specifies the need to build mixed-income neighbourhoods, combined with an effort to ensure affordable units and address homelessness, link public transportation, accommodate vulnerable people (senior citizens, women and persons with disabilities), and deal fairly with refugees.

In addition to promoting functioning cities and regions, a major objective of the planning provisions, and of sustainable urban development on the whole, is to reduce or prevent sprawl. While urban areas only occupy approximately 2 per cent of the earth’s surface, they are usually situated near bodies of water and fertile agrarian land, since large urban populations must have access to food and water. When their populations grow, cities expand their peripheries in a fragmented and uncontrolled fashion, wreaking havoc on agriculture, threatening biodiversity and weakening ecosystem services. As a preventive measure, the New Urban Agenda calls for the use of planned urban extensions to manage urban spatial development and accommodate the growing numbers of city dwellers, whether they are rural migrants or second-generation slum dwellers. An urban extension is a large area of vacant land on the periphery that is connected to the existing city by thoroughfares, as well as transportation and water systems. Its layout features set-asides and protection of sufficient land for a serviceable street network, basic community facilities (e.g. schools and health clinics) and open recreational space; the remainder of the land is available for self-constructed housing. Naturally, slum upgrading programmes accompany urban extension programmes. The Agenda suggests arrangements for transport, water, sewers and electricity, education and health. Executing an urban extension/slum upgrading policy depends on the authorities having a supportive legal framework that would likely include the use of eminent domain and regulatory arrangements to protect public space. Furthermore, it calls for strengthening a range of financing capacities, as pronounced in the Agenda.

Member States acknowledge the need to control sprawl by including in the SDG indicators a measure of land-use efficiency, a ratio of the rate of land consumption to the rate of population growth. This data point can be used, along with per capita consumption of land, for monitoring and controlling the direction and quality of growth. Fortunately, advances in remote sensing and associated population modelling will allow urban managers to employ these measures economically and efficiently. Two examples will be unveiled at Habitat III: the joint UN-Habitat, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and New York University Stern Urbanization Project, mapping 200 cities and their extension over time; and the European Commission Joint Research Centre’s Global Human Settlement Layer, outlining the built-up area of the world and linked with Columbia University’s population grids. These tools are contributing to the growing science of cities.

Another exciting proposal that builds on the recommended urban extension/slum upgrading policies will also be announced at Habitat III: the Urban Prosperity Prize/RENEWW Zones. This initiative envisions the use of circular economy techniques to link an urban extension to existing settlements. It was launched by a multiparty coalition initiated by the United States Department of State and several partners, including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the World Resources Institute, the design and engineering departments/schools of the University of Pennsylvania, Texas A&M University, Missouri University of Science and Technology and others. The initiative aims to incentivize ideas for decentralized, closed-loop models of spatial planning and peri-urban service provision that replace fossil energy with renewables; derive new water, biogas, and fertilizer from wastewater; and produce food and biofuel with recycled inputs, all co-generated at near net-zero waste. Each RENEWW Zone would offer, within walking or cycling distance, a green space for community recreation, recycling and sanitation services, as well as a place to purchase fresh food, recycled goods, biofuels and safe drinking water. A RENEWW Zone placed at the outer edge of an existing informal settlement would provide a bridge to an adjacent urban extension.

Additional planning considerations mirror Goal 11, as a close read of the New Urban Agenda reveals. In addition to the housing, transportation and planning provisions, the Agenda includes leveraging and protecting cultural and natural heritage; developing platforms for meaningful participation in decision-making; enhancing disaster risk reduction; promoting environmentally sound waste management; and providing publicly accessible open and green space.

Finally, the breakthrough is not that the New Urban Agenda is promoting Goal 11 for its own sake, but that it serves as a means of reinforcing the Goal’s principles for sustainable urban development, such as leaving no one behind; eradicating poverty; leveraging the agglomeration benefits of urbanization to engender prosperity; and promoting environmental sustainability in tangible, manageable and measurable terms. Thus, it offers strong arguments for well-planned cities and regions. Going beyond this assertion to offer many specific details, such as the smooth function of the many systems supported by effective land use and building codes, and equitable fiscal policies, the Agenda offers practical guidance for Member States seeking to take action.

While the New Urban Agenda is a Member State-generated document focused on national government roles in promoting housing and sustainable urban development, it also emphasizes the need to involve a wide range of non-governmental stakeholders in its implementation. Fortunately, the Agenda offers important encouragement in several areas. It underlines the importance of establishing national urban policies and empowering local and subnational authorities to undertake responsibilities relevant to their jurisdictions. It also recognizes the importance of involving stakeholders, including those organized under the rubrics of the traditional major groups, and further notes the importance of other innovative platforms that emerged in the Habitat III preparatory processes. While all are not named in the Agenda, they are well documented in public information sources, including official United Nations records of resolutions and statements made at meetings, academic journals and the press, represented by Citiscope, Next City  and Cities Today. These innovations include the use of expert-driven policy units and the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments; the formation of the General Assembly of Partners for Habitat III; the creation of 11 regional and thematic conferences; and the institution of formal stakeholder hearings.

The Agenda highlights the need for evidence-based and practical guidance, innovation, and robust science-policy interfaces in urban and territorial planning and policy formulation. It also supports institutionalized mechanisms for sharing and exchanging information, knowledge and expertise, underlining an associated need for capacity-building. Further, the Agenda calls on UN-Habitat to be a focal point for collaboration among United Nations agencies to recognize the linkages with other initiatives, including sustainable development, disaster risk reduction and climate change. Notably, it calls for an assessment of UN-Habitat to see if its work on the Agenda will require a revised mandate to undertake these responsibilities effectively. Finally, the Agenda insists that the post-Habitat III architecture build on existing platforms, such as the World Urban Forum, and calls on the General Assembly to report every four years on the progress made.

In sum, with regard to sustainable urban development and the means to achieve it, the New Urban Agenda outlines three key priorities: governance, planning and finance. It supplies amply substantive guidance on each of these topics, especially planning, without being prescriptive. The Agenda takes into account the need to invent governmental and multi-stakeholder coalitions for implementation, and recognizes the necessity to refresh and amplify the science of cities through evidence-based and practical knowledge creation and dissemination. This 24-page document is packed with ideas. It is now up to Member States to create an enabling environment for the application of this road map. While the suggested changes will take some time to implement, staying focused on the key elements, as described above, will increase the chances of making significant progress for the people who live in cities and regions around the world.