How to achieve the vision of the New Urban Agenda: A new role for UN-Habitat

A member of the UN’s independent review panel calls for a new “normative” role for UN-Habitat, including “research, developing standards, identifying best practices, demonstration projects,” and other high-profile actions.


Peter Calthorpe, one of the 8-member independent panel appointed by the UN Secretary General to study the role of UN-Habitat as it seeks to implement the New Urban Agenda, recently described three major proposed changes to the role of UN-Habitat:

One,  Elevate UN-Habitat.  The agency “needs interaction with and support from a much larger group; hence the recommendation to shift from a governing council of 58 to universal membership and governance by the UN General Assembly,” Calthorpe said. “And just like cities need support from many stakeholders, the panel saw the need for expanded participation from local governments, a broader range of stakeholder groups, and a growing array of institutions.”

Two, help UN-Habitat work with other agencies.  The panel felt this could best happen “through a new ‘UN Urban’ arm proposed last month. Much like UN Energy, UN Urban would operate as a small, efficient platform in New York to facilitate inter-agency initiatives,” said Calthorpe. This entity is not meant to replace or duplicate the work of UN-Habitat, but to integrate and streamline its efforts.”

Three, focus UN-Habitat efforts on systemic work. There is a need “to shift UN-Habitat’s work focus to ‘normative’ activities that support and guide sustainable urbanism across the globe,” Calthorpe said. “This can take many forms: research, developing standards, identifying best practices, demonstration projects, data collection and more. UN-Habitat’s current localized “operational” projects need to clearly reinforce the systemic, normative work,” he said.

The panel concluded, according to Calthorpe, that the governance structure of UN-Habitat can be structured to better serve these ends:

To seamlessly weave all three strategies together, UN-Habitat needs a new, energized governance structure starting with direct interaction with an urban assembly comprised of all member states. Urbanism is a global challenge, and therefore universal membership is central to its implementation and commitment. UN Habitat should also be directed by a new Policy Board of 20 member states, which would act as an executive board engaged in strategic planning, budget review and interaction with the urban assembly. This small, committed and focused policy board would coordinate the secretariat UN Urban and the existing Committee of Permanent Representatives made up of 94 members located in Nairobi. Finally this policy board would incorporate input of key non-UN stakeholder groups from representatives from metropolitan regions and cities to a range of related NGOs.

“The coalition created at Habitat III was a formative moment for the UN,” Calthorpe said. “It recognized, codified and elevated urban form to a profound, crosscutting role in the future of our global community.” He concluded:

While cities are the nexus of many of our most dramatic challenges, they also represent the opportunity to resolve them with cross cutting policies, programs and urban design. In cities, individual actions can have multiple positive outcomes. The UN is the natural institution to lead the effort to create urban environments that are economically robust, environmentally sustainable, and socially just. A reinvigorated UN-Habitat is the means.

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