• Thomson Reuters Foundation


The United Nations formally adopted a global road map to grapple with rapid urbanization on Thursday, capping nearly two years of behind-the-scenes international negotiations aimed at designing development priorities for cities and towns over the long term.

The New Urban Agenda, or NUA, sets out a host of general goals such as development of sustainable and compact cities that do not harm the environment and redevelopment of informal settlements with the participation of residents.

The 23-page document was agreed upon at the U.N. Habitat III conference, held every 20 years to discuss the future of the world’s cities, by the 193 member nations of the U.N.

“Urbanization is happening at an unprecedented pace and scale, and 3.7 billion people now live in cities. We think in the forthcoming years, by 2050, this will rise to 7 billion,” said Joan Clos, executive director of Habitat III.

“It is historic in the sense that never in human history have we seen such a transformation of human society,” he said. “This represents huge challenges, and the NUA aims to guide strategy to face these challenges.”

Unlike the 2015 climate negotiations in Paris, which sought legally binding agreements on global warming, the NUA is nonbinding. Clos said it should be seen as a guide to generate debate before implementation at the national level.

“We want to say that we need not fear urbanization,” he said. “There are some countries that want to stop urbanization, put a wall against it. We want to guide it.”

Many points in the NUA are related to the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the U.N. last year to end poverty and inequality by 2030. One SDG calls for making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

The NUA drew sharp criticism from a number of scientists who say it fails to address the urgency of growing urbanization and contains no tangible plan.

“(This) is entirely absent from the NUA. The planet has already moved beyond critical planetary boundaries related to climate, biodiversity, land use and fertilizer use,” said Timon McPhearson, assistant professor of urban ecology at The New School in New York.

Nearly 1 billion poor people live in urban slums and informal settlements in about 100,000 cities around the world, in dire need of clean water, energy, food, sanitation and health services, he said.

The U.N. estimates that number will triple by 2030.

“Without a clear plan for implementation of the NUA and related SDGs, we will not make the needed progress for even basic quality of life and livelihoods in informal and other urban settlements,” McPhearson said.

Some members of the global scientific community plan to join forces at an international conference in 2018 to explore urban issues and solutions and look at what has been implemented from the NUA.

Habitat III was seen as particularly significant, as it was held at a time when more people live in cities than in rural areas for the first time.

In 2014, 54 percent of the global population lived in cities, but by 2050, the U.N. expects this figure to reach 66 percent.

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