The UN-Habitat Assembly: An evolution or more of the same

Published 1 July 2019
By Miha Marcenko

The Assembly was meant to rejuvenate the process under the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development goals, which emphasise the need for inclusive urban development that leaves no one behind. © Shutterstock.

The inaugural UN Habitat Assembly was held in Nairobi from 27 to 31 May 2019. Its aim was to reinvigorate the international focus on cities and on the inclusive and sustainable urban development around the world.  In other words, to accelerate the move from mere commitments enshrined in the New Urban Agenda to concrete changes in the streets. As inclusive as the event was, it also closed the door to the uninvited when the concrete decisions on how to steer urbanisation on the international level were taken. In such a way, in spite of the good intentions, the event missed the target.

Changing the governance of the city
The UN Habitat Assembly was held in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya where UN Habitat’s headquarters are based. It was an important event for the city since it brought more than 3000 participants to its streets. In order to make the city representable to these guests flying from all over the world, parts of it were beautified specially for this event. In such a way the city showed its slick, global face to the outside world. However, Nairobi is also a city with one of the largest proportions of residents living in informal settlements and 43 percent of the city is living in poverty. It is also a city where urban development seems too often to serve only the affluent and where predictable legal procedures serving public and not narrow private interests are regularly bypassed.

The Assembly was meant to rejuvenate the process under the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development goals, which emphasise the need for inclusive urban development that leaves no one behind. Hopefully, attendees of The UN Habitat Assembly were not only looking up to the global and international levels when they were imagining the cities of the future. Instead, with a bit of luck they also turned their gaze to Nairobi and started asking themselves how the inclusiveness they are so vigorously promoting in theory can be brought down to the management of streets and neighbourhoods around them.

International governance of cities
The other aim of the UN Habitat Assembly was to increase the interest in and ownership of the way UN Habitat is governed. In a way, the Assembly was a success, since it was well attended and managed to bring UN member states to the table and remind them of the importance of having a common vision of urban development, as well as having UN Habitat as the central institution facilitating it. The focus of the event was the election of the new Executive Board of UN Habitat through which UN Habitat’s structure of governance has changed. Both, the Assembly as well as the Executive Board now allow all UN member states to participate in the steering of UN Habitat. Only time will tell if these changes in the governance structure will more durably rejuvenate the commitments accepted in the New Urban Agenda in 2016.

Yet cities in all their complexity are, even on the international level, recognised not to be only the concern of national governments. Local governments, their transnational associations and networks, as well as civil society organisations and academics all want to have a say in how urban development is approached on the international level. Even more than that, they wish to have a say in international policy development that eventually affects their cities.

All of these other actors were also present at the Assembly as they have been for many years at all urban-focused events taking place on the international level. The Assembly was full of side and pre-events through which they were able to present their visions and ideas on sustainable urban development. Some, such as the Global Parliament of Mayors and the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments were happy to be able to deliver their statements and hold conversations with state representatives and international officials.

However, the requests in their statements that cities and their public representatives must be represented both in relevant international agreements and in international and global bodies and institutions have been left lingering in the air. When the real decision-making took place, the doors were shut tight behind the plurality of actors that all claim to represent cities. In the new, changed, governance structure of the UN Habitat, local governments and civil society organisations have as little influence as before.

At the Assembly, Maimunah Mohd Sharif, the executive director of UN Habitat said “Nobody here needs to be convinced that sustainable urbanisation is a key [global] issue right now. How are we going to overcome the challenges and maximise opportunities? The theme of the assembly stated. If we do not innovate, and if we continue doing business as previously, we will have very slight possibilities of making progress.”

It is strange that everybody seems to agree that to make the global urbanisation sustainable and to successfully coordinate international efforts on the global level, one needs to start innovating and cease working in the same old frames over and over again. And yet, not everyone seems to see that on the international level, frames of governance that lack of inclusiveness are left more or less intact.