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Restructuring UN-Habitat and the inaugural UN-Habitat Assembly

29 August 2019 Author: Olafiyin Taiwo

In this unprecedented era of rapid urbanisation, the prevailing urban-rural challenges in the 21st century transcend all geo-political zones. Unplanned urbanisation can lead to severe consequences such as increased crime, inequality, environmental pollution, vulnerability to disaster and inadequate basic shelter.

Although urbanisation is a major threat to achieving sustainable development, sustainable urbanisation presents an opportunity for improved security and equality, economic growth and development, climate change action and resilience through collaborative and innovative actions by all actors in urban development and effective urban planning.

International agreements and policies have been initiated to coordinate and facilitate a global response to the challenges of rapid urbanisation such as the Sustainable Development Goals, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, the Paris Agreement on climate change and the New Urban Agenda (NUA).

In order to better meet the demands of rapid urbanisation and strengthen its role as a focal point for all urbanisation and human settlement matters within the United Nations system, UN-Habitat has been restructured, replacing the dissolved UN-Habitat Governing Council with the UN-Habitat Assembly. As a high-level decision-making body on sustainable urbanisation and human settlements, the inaugural UN-Habitat Assembly was successfully convened in Nairobi, Kenya from 27-31 May 2019 with the theme of Innovation for Better Quality of Life in Cities and Communities.

Five resolutions were adopted at the inaugural Assembly:

  • Achieving gender equality through the work of UN-Habitat to support inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable cities and human settlements;
  • Enhancing urban-rural linkages for sustainable urbanisation and human settlement.
  • UN System-Wide Guidelines on Safer Cities and Human Settlements;
  • Enhancing capacity-building for the implementation of the NUA and the urban dimension of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development;
  • The Strategic Plan of UN-Habitat for the period 2020–2023.

The first President of the Assembly, regional Vice-Presidents, members of the Executive Board, other officers and rules of procedure were decided during the opening session. In his opening address, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta stressed the need for innovative solutions and international cooperation to plan and prepare effectively for rapid urbanisation.

UN Secretary General António Guterres addressed the delegates through a video message, remarking that the assembly is happening at an important juncture. He noted that almost 60 per cent of urban infrastructure needed by 2030 is yet to be built and this in turn creates great opportunities. He emphasised the need for well-planned and managed cities that drive inclusive growth and sustainable low-emission development.

UN-Habitat Executive Director Maimunah Mohd Sharif said that the Assembly was happening at ‘an historical moment’, affirming the need to innovate and depart from a ‘business as usual’ attitude that has created ‘little hope of progress’.

Prior to this restructuring of the agency, UN-Habitat had been struggling with issues of different characters which have limited its ability to fulfil its global mandate. Now, in accordance with the demands of several international agreements and global agendas, UN-Habitat is set to be the centre of excellence and innovation that sets the global agenda on sustainable urban development and acts as a multiplier in the exchange of knowledge, experience and best practices related to cities and human settlements. As the restructuring evolves, it is expected that the new governance structure will promote transparency and reduce the complexities involved in the interactions between UN-Habitat and its diverse stakeholders. In this sense, the establishment of the Executive Board and the Stakeholders Advisory Group represents notable progress.

A significant outcome of the Assembly is the approval of the first strategic plan for UN-Habitat for the period of 2020-2023 which will includes four ‘domains of change’:

  • Reduced spatial inequality and poverty in communities across the urban-rural continuum;
  • Enhanced shared prosperity of cities and regions;
  • Strengthened climate action and improved urban environment;
  • Effective urban crisis prevention and response.

Planning is crucial as an integral tool in achieving the outcomes set out in the strategic plan. The strategic plan recognises the strong connection between urban/regional planning and shared prosperity. Urban Planning and Design forms one of the four fundamental drivers of change. Recognising the accrued benefits of the different aspects of the planning process in achieving socially and physically integrated urban growth, inclusive engagement of all segments of society in the planning and management of cities and communities is paramount in ensuring more equitable access to public space, basic and social services, infrastructure and livelihood opportunities.

In disaster or humanitarian crisis, the Strategic Plan 2020–2023 recognises that adaptive urban planning and management approaches can help to support incremental decision-making on appropriate humanitarian and development responses.

It is safe to conclude that achieving a better quality of life for all in an urbanising world is unsustainable without effective urban planning processes.

Olafiyin Taiwo

Olafiyin Taiwo

Olafiyin is a planner with the London Borough of Ealing, co-founder of Life Brooks International and a member of the RTPI International Committee.