A PUF of Fresh Air? Critical Reflections on Urban Development Cooperation

10 Dec 2019

Photo Credit: iStock.com/tampatra

In 2015 and 2016, five landmark UN agreements were synchronously adopted, culminating in the New Urban Agenda in October 2016. The 7th Asia-Pacific Urban Forum convened by ESCAP and UN-Habitat in Penang, Malaysia from 15 to 17 October 2019 sought to answer what these really mean for urbanists like myself, working for cities in a multilateral institution.

These have come at a unique moment, when the connection between the climate agenda and the urban agenda have become much clearer and more focused through the leadership of cities through their transnational networks, such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy. The Future of Asian & Pacific Cities Report 2019 highlights that actions taken over the next 10 years will largely determine whether the majority of the world’s cities can avoid or overcome lock-in, and enter a transition towards lower carbon, more equitable, and higher productivity pathways. Simply put, we have a window for change but one that is rapidly closing.

There are a number of inter-linked megatrends that form the backdrop to the current context:

At the regional level, vulnerability to a rapidly changing climate is growing, as is resource scarcity and competition. The effects of uneven demographic change are now being felt on labour markets and welfare systems. Changing economic and geopolitical balances have amplified tensions and uncertainties in countries. At the same time there is a clear pattern of rising in-country inequality and concerted political opposition to globalisation and multilateralism in several countries.

At the city and sub-national level, agglomeration, metropolitanisation and the expansion of urban footprints are taking place very rapidly, setting in train a new international urban system. Divergence between cities that are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ is growing, and more cities find themselves under-powered and under-resourced to meet demands placed upon them, including from the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This cycle also sees the re-urbanisation of jobs, business, and capital, which gives rise to the private sector becoming more influential in the development, investment and planning of cities.

These trends collectively add up to a changed scenario for urban development assistance that includes:

  • Leading and often primate cities in each country and region will receive and attract more investment, assistance and talent than their smaller peers;
  • The growing link between ODA and trade is likely to elevate the role of cities among leading donors. There will be more interest in investing in trade routes and supply chains, and more direct links will emerge between cities where synergies are identified;
  • The pace of technology within construction, infrastructure and ‘city place making’ is changing much more rapidly, such that helping cities make the right decisions on planning and infrastructure to avoid obsolescence will be critical;
  • The debates between retrofitting cities versus facilitating urban expansion, and urban democracy versus efficiency, are still live. Models about the ideal city will become increasingly plural and contested as non-Western voices become more prominent;
  • Actors are divided over where to focus their attention - some are directing efforts towards the national level, while others believe that direct working, lending and networking directly with cities is the priority; and
  • The development of urban science is still nascent, fragmented and detached from multilateral policy and decision making. The use and application of evidence to inform urban policymaking is still sub-optimal. This is leading more actors to demand a stronger urban science-policy-practice interface and seek inspiration in the IPCC model of the climate sector.

This scenario creates urgency to find the new catalysts, new partnerships and new ways of working that can deliver a new multilateral urban policy framework that is coherent and fit for purpose. Initiatives and alliances that are sincerely and practically committed to overcoming three enduring barriers to development in cities will be critical: one, the building of national and city-level capacities for sustainable development, second, the mobilisation of private finance and third, those which improve financial and technical assistance to small and medium-sized cities, and higher-risk cities on the front lines of the climate crisis.

The Future of Asian & Pacific Cities Report 2019 highlights 15 policy pathways to transform the pace and scale of implementation and seeks to implicitly address risks to further fragmentation and piecemeal delivery of the urban agenda through highlighting the role of partnerships for implementation across these priority areas, providing a roadmap for coherent action to deliver the 2030 Agenda and the New Urban Agenda in Asia-Pacific cities.

Related SDG: Goal 11: Sustainable cities and communities