Global to local: supporting cities to meet the New Urban Agenda

The New Urban Agenda sets ambitious sustainability objectives for cities of all sizes. At the 9th World Urban Forum, IIED worked with local governments on how to deliver against the wide-ranging goals. Alexandra Norodom reflects on the power of inclusive processes.

Alexandra Norodom's picture
Alexandra Norodom is coordinator of IIED's Human Settlements research group
23 March 2018
Esther Atieno prepares dinner for her family in Kisumu City, Kenya, using a jiko kisasa (firewood stove). Without city-wide data on electricity and fuel use available from utilities and companies, cities can survey a set of households on their energy use and extrapolate the results (Photo: Peter Kapuscinski/World Bank)

Esther Atieno prepares dinner for her family in Kisumu City, Kenya, using a jiko kisasa (firewood stove). Without city-wide data on electricity and fuel use available from utilities and companies, cities can survey a set of households on their energy use and extrapolate the results (Photo: Peter Kapuscinski/World Bank)

Cities need to become more sustainable, inclusive and resilient; the New Urban Agenda (NUA) adopted at the 2016 Habitat III conference set out 36 objectives to help them get there. Recognising the key role that cities play in global sustainable development, the NUA provides a framework for urban policymakers, communities, and citizens to realise sustainability in their cities. 

But achieving these objectives depends on whether city governments – responsible for most of the activity needed to achieve the NUA – are able to identify useful, useable indicators to assess their progress. 

Unlike the Sustainable Development Goals, the NUA does not offer a pre-determined list of indicators for each objective. It will be left to cities themselves to identify relevant indicators from a wide range of possibilities, and to design measuring tools that can both track and report on implementation.

Cities are all different; locals know them best

Currently, many of the indicators for tracking development and environment outcomes at the city-level tend to take a 'one size fits all' approach. Measuring them often requires data and skills that smaller cities don't have and can't afford to develop. 

Unless indicator frameworks for the NUA take differing local capacities into account, it will be impossible for smaller cities to make effective progress assessments. To achieve this agenda, the choice of indicators must be more inclusive. Different cities will need different measuring tools based on their size, capacities, and resources. 

Low-cost and easy ways of measuring basic environmental, social and economic urban conditions must be identified – by local governments, not just for them – so that smaller cities can actively participate in tracking the NUA. 

Local ownership is key to delivering this sustainability agenda; it can be achieved through improved participation and genuine consultation of local governments.   

Participation in action: creating locally-relevant tracking tools 

IIED is working in partnership with UN Environment and Cities Alliance to support city-level governments in identifying tracking tools that are locally relevant and usable. Together we are focusing on the third transformative commitment of the NUA: environmentally sustainable and resilient urban development. 

The 9th session of the World Urban Forum, the world's premier conference on urban issues, took place in Malaysia in February (Photo: National Housing Development Authority, via Google licence)

At the 9th World Urban Forum (WUF) held in Kuala Lumpur in February, we put a consultative approach into practice, facilitating a workshop that brought together local government, civil society and other experts. The group looked at different possible ways of measuring indicators for cities where large-scale surveys or advanced data methods just won't work. 

Creating a space to share knowledge, together we identified three workable alternatives: 

  1. Sample-based systems: Where municipal data are not available, cities can audit a statistically representative sample of households. For example, in the absence of city-scale data on electricity and fuel use from utilities and companies, cities can survey a set of households on their energy use and extrapolate from these results.

    Designing and running surveys requires significant time and skills; local governments may lack the resources or capacities necessary for this kind of data collection. Partnerships between local governments and local research institutes help to fill this gap. 

    It is vital to ensure that low-income and other marginalised groups are included in such samples: residents of informal settlements are routinely excluded from official censuses. These groups are often more dependent on local ecosystems and live in more degraded environment.
  2. Proxy indicators: In some cases, data that report on one indicator can provide insights into a related issue. For example, measuring urban air pollution directly requires advanced equipment and technology, as well the resources to regularly analyse the data. But by tracking respiratory health outcomes, authorities can better understand the effects of air pollution in a particular area. 

    Proxy indicators are a useful guide but should be used with caution: they depend on a robust and predictable relationship between two outcomes. It might seem likely that there is a relationship between respiratory health and air pollution, for example, but this may be skewed by a high incidence of asthma or smoking. Where cities cannot collect data directly, the use of multiple indicators may be necessary to ensure that the findings are reliable proxies.
  3. Community-generated data: Community organisations such as the members of Slum Dwellers International (SDI) already collect large amounts of data. This includes information that is crucial to the NUA: such as where people live, what resources they consume and the major risks that they face. This data is owned and managed by community members; working with them to share it could be invaluable in tracking progress towards the NUA. 

    Knowledge-sharing between local governments and community organisations opens up the space for urban residents to shape policy and programming. This can ensure that their needs and priorities are taken into account when cities and countries commit to global agendas.

Global transformation starts with local buy-in

The successful implementation of the NUA will depend on clear processes and resources to support local governments and communities in monitoring progress. The leading agencies driving the implementation of the NUA must continue to engage with city authorities to ensure action plans and monitoring frameworks, including the selection of indicators, are inclusive and locally-relevant.  

Investing in local capacities to craft and measure indicators will go a long way in ensuring more buy-in from local governments and communities. This will be essential to realise the transformative commitments of the NUA.