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General Assembly reviews global progress towards sustainable urbanization

The UN is supporting climate resilience policies in urban settings in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The UN is supporting climate resilience policies in urban settings in Latin America and the Caribbean.

General Assembly reviews global progress towards sustainable urbanization


With six in 10 people expected to be living in cities by the end of the decade, the UN General Assembly met on Thursday to examine progress towards implementing a 2016 framework on sustainable urbanization. 

The New Urban Agenda presents a shared global vision for how to build, manage, and live in cities, through urbanization that is well-planned and well-managed.  

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It was adopted just one year after countries agreed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the blueprint for a better future, for people and the planet, by 2030. 

‘Change this trend’ 

In his opening remarks, General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid spoke of how sustainable urbanization can drive change across a variety of interconnected issues, including poverty eradication, climate action, migration, land degradation, economic prosperity, and creation of peaceful societies. 

Yet, he said the New Urban Agenda has often been “under-appreciated”, despite its far-ranging implications.  

“While sustainable urbanization is related to the achievement of all the Sustainable Development Goals, only a few countries can truly claim that they have in place the governance, and the necessary policies, including on inclusive urban planning, capacity development, technology access, and financing necessary to ensure sustainable urbanization,” said Mr. Shahid, adding “we need to change this trend.” 

The high-level meeting brought together Government representatives, city mayors, business leaders, youth, and other constituencies.   

The lead-up was marked by several events including the publication of the latest UN Secretary-General’s report on implementation, five regional forums on sustainable development, and a special meeting of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). 

Address ‘urban inequalities’ 

Full implementation of the New Urban Agenda is at the core of the SDG principle of “leaving no one behind”, said Collen V. Kelapile, the ECOSOC President, who reported on its meeting held last week. 

Among the key messages coming out of the discussions was the need for financing to address “urban inequalities”, including around access to housing. 

“Housing has become a commercial commodity, and urban land markets are captured by the political elite. Therefore, Member States are urged to position housing above all as a human right,” said Mr. Kelapile. 

He also encouraged countries to view the challenge of unlocking financing for affordable housing as both an opportunity to create jobs and a catalyst to enhance revenues raised by cities. 

Leave no one behind 

The imperative around housing is included in the Secretary-General’s quadrennial report, the document guiding deliberations at the one-day meeting, said Maimunah Sharif, Executive Director of UN-Habitat, the agency that is the “custodian” of the New Urban Agenda. 

She recalled that the report recommends countries integrate provision of adequate and affordable housing as a driver of equitable development, adding that housing is central to social protection systems, along with healthcare, jobs, education and digital access. 

“Member States can achieve this by making urban policy a central feature to comprehensively address climate mitigation and adaptation. By aligning spatial and economic development we can protect biodiversity and reduce pollution. We must ensure no one, including the smallest of God’s creations, is left behind,” she said. 

Urban expansion is contributing to Indonesia's significant mangrove loss.
Ocean Image Bank/Srikanth Mannep
Urban expansion is contributing to Indonesia's significant mangrove loss.

Under pressure 

The New Urban Agenda is critical at a time when cities are grappling with numerous pressures, for example on food, water and energy resources - a point made by the UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed.  

The framework sets out a clear pathway for developing truly sustainable cities, centred around resilient economies, a clean environment, and the health, well-being, culture, and security that residents need.   It also offers lasting solutions to tackle the climate crisis.  

“When planned well, built in a compact urban form, and supported with high quality public transport, cities offer the most sustainable form of human settlement,” she said.   

“Investing in sustainable urbanization can also catalyze important transitions across food and energy systems.” 

Ms. Mohammed also highlighted UN initiatives to assist countries in implementing the New Urban Agenda.  

Urbanization will be integrated more systematically into development cooperation frameworks, for example, while Governments will also receive tailored support for the development of national urban policies and inclusive urban planning.