A city view of Dhaka, Bangladesh. What exactly is meant by transformative cities? Photo by: Kibae Park / United Nations

More than 900 urban development experts came together in Berlin last month for the German Habitat Forum to debate and seek out solutions for sustainable urban development and governance. Hosted by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Senate of Berlin and Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik / German Development Institute (DIE), the forum invited representatives from the political, business, academic and civil society spheres — together with a strong representation of local governments.

The Berlin Recommendations, the central outcome document of the event, sent out a clear message to the urban and international development community: Strong and transformative cities are prerequisites for sustainable urban and global development. Although not part of the official preparatory process leading up to Habitat III, the forum is nevertheless likely to effectively inform the ongoing Habitat III negotiations and the New Urban Agenda.

But what exactly is meant by transformative cities?

Framed by a vision and detailed out in six priority areas of action, the Berlin Recommendations delineate their key elements. The elaborations are clearly inspired by insights drawn from the new flagship report by the German Advisory Council on Global Change titled “Humanity on the move: Unlocking the transformative power of cities,” which was released a few weeks prior to the forum:

1. Cities are conceived of as decisive actors for the implementation of the Agenda 2030 and the Paris agreement. According to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the global transformation towards sustainability will succeed or fail in cities, stating that “cities are not only local, but also global actors.” They are particularly fundamental for safeguarding global common goods, such as ecosystems, climate, economic prosperity, social integration, democratization and political stability.

2. “[Fundamental] structural, organizational and behavioral changes” are required if cities are to disrupt unsustainable path dependencies. Or in other words, the way we use, build and govern our cities must be transformed so as to harness their sustainable development potential. A particular emphasis is placed on encouraging bottom-up activities and co-production and thus “capitalize on the innovation potential of civil society.”

3. Nation states must provide enabling institutional, legal and financial frameworks for cities, which are at the same time tailored to local contexts. This implies that cities are given the rights and competences for self-government and the financial means to implement the changes necessary for sustainable development. Moreover, national frameworks must be adapted to new, increasingly dynamic and hybrid urban forms such as metropolises or peri-urban areas and develop the corresponding governance structures.

4. Multistakeholder partnerships are considered as “critical drivers of urban transformation” due to their ability to harness innovative expertise, technology and financial resources. This includes partnerships on the global and regional levels, as well as cooperative engagements within cities and urban regions, recognizing “all urban inhabitants, both formal and informal, as co-planners and co-creators to achieve sustainable development.”

5. The follow-up and review process of the New Urban Agenda is essential to maintain commitment and engagement over time and to take corrective actions towards transformative change. Among other aspects this should be based on policy dialogue and learning and imply the use of qualitative and quantitative information from multiple sources, the former notably integrating “the voices and information generated by city dwellers.”

6. Cities deserve a stronger voice in global urban governance and should be attributed a “specific role in the design, implementation and follow-up of international policies on sustainable urban development.” In this sense, the Habitat III process can be the starting point for discussions on the institutional architecture for global urban governance, which is necessary not least for implementing the New Urban Agenda.

The Berlin Recommendations’ pledge for transformative cities as key drivers for sustainable urban and global development provides a timely impetus to the Habitat III process in two respects:

First, it rightly elucidates that “transformation is an uncomfortable process,” according to Sandra Schilen, director of the Huairou Commission at the German Habitat Forum, since it requires a profound paradigm shift in urban structures and practice.

Second, it makes clear that such change can only be accomplished through pioneering partnerships between all relevant actors and at all levels, with more weight attributed to local and city actors.

It remains yet to be seen whether the New Urban Agenda and Habitat III provide viable pathways for this change.

What do you want to see on the #NewUrbanAgenda? Over the next six months Habitat for Humanity, Cities Alliance and Devex will join forces to explore the future of our increasingly urbanized world in the run up to Habitat III in October. Spread the word, share your views below or tag @devex and #NewUrbanAgenda.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Eva Dick

    Eva Dick is a senior researcher at Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik / German Development Institute (DIE) in Bonn, Germany. Currently she is advising the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in the Habitat III process. Her research focus is on migration, urban governance and planning.
  • Maria-Theres Haase

    Maria-­Theres Haase is a researcher at Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik / German Development Institute (DIE) in Bonn, Germany. Currently she is supporting the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in the Habitat III process, focusing on the topics urban development and mobility.