The agenda sets an important precedent: For the first time, national governments fully embraced much of the language on local sustainable development that has been used by local and subnational governments for the past 20 years. On the other hand, the New Urban Agenda is not yet the landmark turning point we hoped it would be.
The document does include ambitious language. It also established, albeit at the last minute, a crucial link with the process of “localizing” — or figuring out how to locally implement — the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the U. N.’s overarching framework that will guide anti-poverty efforts over the next 15 years.
Many were looking to the New Urban Agenda to offer specific guidance on localizing the SDGs. Unfortunately, the new document does not contain details as to how these goals should be translated, implemented and monitored at the national and local levels.
Thus, in order to use the agenda as a tool to deal with the many intertwining challenges related to urbanization and development, its text needs to be translated into a meaningful roadmap for sustainable urban development.
How will we know if Habitat III has been a success or not? Nations will soon begin a series of steps by which they will decide how to monitor and evaluate progress on the New Urban Agenda. That process should be finished in two years, and by the end we should be able to assess the real success of Habitat III. Also by that point, hopefully, national authorities will have come up with innovative modalities for engaging local and subnational governments in the U. N. system, as well.
Eventually, the New Urban Agenda should set the course for coordination across all levels of government on the implementation of global frameworks. But in the meantime, there are several important actions that local governments can take to start moving decidedly toward the implementation of the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda — and indeed, many are already doing so.
ICLEI has defined three strategic actions that local governments can take, starting tomorrow.
1. Establish local commitments.
It’s important to develop a local strategy, identifying where current plans already align with the SDGs and the actions that could be taken to increase that alignment. This is, for instance, what New York City and Freiburg, Germany, are doing — developing plans and strategies to translate the SDGs in terms of their current and pre-existing commitments and programmes.
An important component of the strategy is also for local authorities to screen all the SDGs systematically, in order to identify gaps and thus needs for additional policies and action.
It also may be useful for city officials to appoint a liaison or set up an international relations office. Doing so not only helps to ensure that local action is connected with global goals but also provides important feedback to global processes, detailing the real implementation that is taking place on the ground.
Equally important will be to start building the political capital and commitment necessary to push forward sustainable development policies. This can be done by creating campaigns and movements across the political spectrum in order to ensure continuity of action, regardless of changes in the leadership of administrations through elections.
Similarly, local authorities can immediately start developing multi-stakeholder partnerships with local businesses, civil society and academia.
2. Seek sustainable and innovative financing mechanisms.
Cities will need to be proactive, looking at innovative ways to self-finance — for instance, through green bonds. They also should work to better position themselves to attract financing by improving communications around existing commitments and actions on SDGs implementation, and by showcasing progress and potential for further advancement. This is what the cities of Seoul and Malmö, Sweden, are doing, for instance — organizing forums on SDGs and knowledge-exchange opportunities. (Malmö is hosting such an event later this month.)
Local governments also can advocate for more and better financing opportunities. ICLEI’s Transformative Action Program (TAP) is one important way to connect potential funders and cities with high ambitions and low resources.
3. Raise awareness and advocate for support.
City leaders can explain the SDGs to citizens and all stakeholders, including local and multinational business, aiming to mobilize them to participate in their implementation. They also will need to put pressure on national counterparts so that they put in place enabling frameworks and inclusive approaches in defining national strategies for SDGs implementation.
Finally, local leaders can seek to develop urban sustainability alliances engaging a variety of stakeholders. This would help giving momentum to concerted local action to implement the SDGs.
Urgency of now
This week, the next round of international climate talks — known as COP 22 — begins in Marrakech, Morocco. Given that this event is taking place just a few weeks after the New Urban Agenda was approved, we are reminded of the importance of convergence.
From a local governments’ perspective, in fact, the climate debate and the sustainability debate must go hand in hand. Their connection is clearest when from global agendas and conferences we get to the business of implementing commitments and developing local plans of action.