The New Urban Agenda vs. the urban planner's dilemma

By Naki B. Mendoza 11 October 2016

A view of Makati City, Philippines. Photo by: GreenArcher04 / CC BY-NC

With a final draft of the New Urban Agenda now agreed and ready, the hard part begins.

That is, creating the actual policies, partnerships and financing commitments that will put into concrete action the lofty ideals and political visions that tend to comprise high-level intergovernmental documents. One of the main goals of the Habitat III summit that kicks off on Oct. 17 will be to launch that implementation process of the New Urban Agenda.

Putting meat on the bones of any U.N. agreement is inherently a tall order. Every word is carefully scrutinized and negotiated for months — perhaps years — to purposely construct a broad-based document that can get consensus approval. The New Urban Agenda is no exception. It sets high ambitions, for instance, of “an urban paradigm shift” that aims to “readdress the way we plan, finance, develop, govern, and manage cities and human settlements.”

The tough task of translating that into specifics is not dealt with at the official negotiating table. The onus instead falls on the cadre of mayors, urban planners, property developers, engineers, architects and other municipal officials who work much closer with delivering city services on a day-to-day basis.

What exactly does a draft outcome document such as the New Urban Agenda mean to them? And just how difficult is it to turns concepts into action? To get a sense, Devex asked an urban planner.

A lot of the answers are more questions — questions about balancing current and future city needs or how to plan anew when city resource currently exist. They reveal the scope of the challenge by highlighting the many pedestrian issues city planners must first address before they can get to the big picture.

What the New Urban Agenda and the Washington Consensus have in common

Ahead the Habitat III, Devex interviewed Joan Clos, executive director of U.N. Habitat and secretary-general of the upcoming summit. He explains his vision of urban planning that creates value and strategies for municipalities to finance their plans.

 “Principles are good, but an innovative aspect of urban planning is how to stay true to them when a city is expanding so rapidly?” said Julia Nebrija, an urban planner with the Metro Manila Development Authority, the government agency in charge of urban development for the Philippine capital. “How can planning keep up with that?”

The MMDA oversees urban policy for the Metro Manila region, a sprawling megacity of around 12 million people that is made up of 17 smaller cities and municipalities. Crowded, congested and rapidly expanding, Manila is precisely the type of developing country’s city that the goals of sustainable urbanization outlined in the New Urban Agenda were written for.

But Nebrija hits on a fundamental challenge that urban planners from many cities similar to Manila face: How can forward planning be properly balanced with the day-to-day management of a growing city?

The New Urban Agenda strives to end poverty and hunger in all forms, reduce inequalities and achieve gender equality. But city planners such as Nebrija must first deal with redesigning U-turn slots to keep vehicular traffic flowing or approving construction permits.

“The city is changing every day and we’re putting out fires every day. Sometimes we don’t even get to the planning. Just keeping up with the city is difficult,” she said.

This type of urban planning dilemma provides important context to the “top-down” approach to city planning advocated by high-level officials.

In a recent interview with Devex, Joan Clos, executive director of U.N. Habitat and secretary general of the Habitat III conference, stressed the need for government at all levels to take a more active role in urban planning by guiding sustainable city development with appropriate policies and regulations. For decades, he noted, urbanization was a natural phenomenon that ebbed and flowed with the expansion of industries. But left unchecked it created the kind of congestion and inequalities that the New Urban Agenda aims to address.

“We’re losing the main point of urbanization which is that if it’s planned and well designed, it’s a tool for accelerated development,” Clos said. He cited China as an example of a country that developed national strategies based on both urbanization and industrialization.

But such a purpose-driven strategy might not always be conducive for sprawling cities that are beyond critical mass.

“Can you have a master plan for Metro Manila?” Nebrija asked. “We need a master plan, but it might only work well in a place that is a blank slate.” Urban planning in a city such as Manila, she noted, involves as much untangling current processes and standards as it does strategizing for the future.

The day-to-day maintenance and management can make it quite difficult to see the forest through the trees. “There are a million different decisions being made at a million different levels,” Nebrija said.

But a high-level concept document such as the New Urban Agenda is not entirely disconnected from the daily grind of an urban planner. An encouraging sign, she said, is that an awareness of the agenda’s broad vision challenges cities such as Manila to rethink the very concepts of efficient urban planning.

Municipal planners in the MMDA might not gather around the same table and mull a set of guiding questions around the New Urban Agenda. But they are strategizing how the many fires they put out can be done in ways that promote efficiency and greater inclusivity for city residents.

That type of thinking and strategy is currently being applied to address the pressing issue that affects virtually every resident of Metro Manila — traffic. Vehicular traffic and congestion have long stymied the city, but conditions have worsened in recent years to the point of paralysis.

“Traffic is a symptom of poor urban planning and a single-sector approach to transportation” she said. MMDA estimates that around 80 percent of Metro Manila residents use mass transit, but 80 percent of the city’s transit infrastructure is taken up by carriageways. “We don’t use our streets well,” Nebrija added.

Redesigning streets means reallocating road space, which, in turn, delves into micro-planning exercises. A city bike-share program, for example, is under consideration. But rolling it out requires reconstructing all sidewalks to a uniform height. Or lowering the size of street curbs to prohibit cars from parking alongside them.

“We need 1 million moves at that scale,” Nebrija noted.

The moves are small, but collectively they coalesce around a broader strategy of repurposing a city’s existing resources so that the solutions provide new and sustainable opportunities.

“We are learning as a city what urban planning and development is,” said Nebrija. “A lot of our previous understanding of urban planning has been about a nicely designed central business district.”

For now, ways to implement the New Urban Agenda probably raise many more questions than answers. Municipal leaders, planners and the development community will be gathering at Habitat III to brainstorm more practical, actionable solutions.

We’ll be on-the-ground at Habitat III so stay tuned for more coverage leading up to the event. You can find relevant stories here.

About the author

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Naki B. Mendozamfbmendoza

Naki is a reporter for Devex Impact based in Washington, D.C., where he covers the intersection of business and international development. Prior to Devex he was a Latin America reporter for Energy Intelligence covering corporate investments and political risks in the region’s energy sector. His previous assignments abroad have posted him throughout Europe, South America and Australia.


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