Challenges of the New Urban Agenda

This guest post is by Pedro Cisterna Gaete, who is reading for an LLM in Global Environment and Climate Change Law at Edinburgh Law School. Pedro is a qualified lawyer from Chile, and former Deputy National Social Director of TECHO, Chile. In this post, he explores the ideas around the Right to the City, and current challenges facing the world’s urban spaces and their populations.

Almost two years ago, the last UN Conference on Human Settlements was celebrated in Quito, Ecuador. At this international meeting, representatives of the majority of governments and also several non-governmental organisations discussed what the essential international urban challenges for the next 20 years would be, and raised a vigorous agenda relating to our cities. This post addresses three main aspects of this  meeting:

  • the official inclusion of the right to the city;
  • the existing and growing housing challenge; and
  • the crucial implementation of this agenda.

Fifty years ago, Lefebvre created the concept of the Right to the City in his work titled ‘Le Droit a la Ville’ [1], and from that moment the urban discussion concerning the development of cities started to expand towards other areas besides housing. Several non-government organisations advocated raising this concept and implementing it in urban policies across the world, especially in low- and middle-income countries with high levels of urban informality, inequality and poverty. The progression of this concept has been demonstrated further by the development of the UN-HABITAT Conferences. Indeed, HABITAT I and HABITAT II did not mention the Right to the City in their documentation, referring more to the right to development, right to adequate housing and right to plan and regulate the use of land, among others.

However, in 2016, HABITAT III finally incorporated the Right to the City in the official Quito declaration [2] (NUA) understanding it as a ‘vision of cities for all’ [3], which is certainly a wider vision of how to think of present and future urban challenges. Particularly, the concept is focused on the ‘inclusivity’ of every inhabitant to ‘produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient and sustainable cities’ [4]. This comprehensive approach involves an interdisciplinary perspective, which understands the Right to the City as a set of rights gathered in an integrated system – an aspirational way of thinking about how we should understand achieving  a ‘coherent social objective’ [5] in our cities.

According to the last World Cities Report, there are 881 million citizens who live in informal settlements across the world. In terms of percentage, the number has decreased, but in terms of quantity it has been increasing. In fact in 2000 there were 791 million people living in informal settlements, almost 100 million less than 2014. These numbers reflect the continuous obligation we face regarding of the guarantee and achievement of the Right to Adequate Housing. In Istanbul 1996, the first commitment established was ‘adequate shelter for all’ [6], and defined several strategies to achieve this [7]. Regrettably, many of those proposals could not be implemented properly or be adapted in face of the speed of change of urban systems [8], including the dramatic transformations that our cities have undergone during the last 20 years. Therefore, instead of achieving relevant advances in this goal, currently, we have a task which is less easy to manage than before. In this context, it appears essential to find a way to complement the Right to the City and the Right to Adequate Housing in order to ensure shelter.

Lastly, a key part of this NUA is related to implementation. Many times national and local governments have considered innovative policies to overcome difficult issues, but even when these policies have a correct focus, implementation to reach these goals is a huge challenge. International agendas face the same problem, with the added complexity of competing national agendas from both governments and communities. Regarding the New Urban Agenda, the Economic Commission of Latin American and the Caribbean (ECLAC) published the ‘Regional Action Plan for the Implementation of the New Urban Agenda in Latin America and the Caribbean’ in February 2018, indicating six ‘Action Areas’ [9] where this Agenda must act, and defining the necessary steps for monitoring. Clearly, this document constitutes an important advance in order to draw up an action framework by which NUA needs to be implemented, but it is crucial that the objectives and policies are communicated effectively to local governments, and subsequently to the vast number of urban communities across the world. If urban communities are deeply connected with the original purposes of NUA, there is a better chance that their implementation can have successful results, and this is an enormous challenge by itself.

In conclusion, our cities are facing tremendous challenges related to inequality, poverty eradication, housing rights, urban segregation and urban sustainability, amongst others. Approaching these challenges in an effective and integrated way require acknowledging and accommodating the following key principles:

  1. That understanding and application of the Right to the City is treated as an inclusive framework of assorted rights connected with the a goal to build urban social justice as a central purpose.
  2. That successful implementation of NUA requires integration and cooperation between the different agreed concepts (and associated policies) of both the Right to Adequate Housing and the Right to the City.
  3. That the implementation of this NUA depends on the connection that the communities have with the overall goals and plans to achieve these. This means involving local governments in effective communication and collaborative work with urban communities.

If these challenges are faced with these principles at heat, we will likely have more chance of succeeding in the positive implementation of NUA, and therefore in transforming our cities into a better place for human development.


[1] Lefebvre, H. (2009). Le droit à la ville (3e éd.. ed., Anthropologie). Paris: Economica : Anthropos.

[2], para.11

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Harvey, D. (1973). Social justice and the city. London: Edward Arnold., p.50

[6] UN Conference on Human Settlements and United Nations, (1996), Habitat Agenda and Istanbul Declaration, New York: United Nations Dept. of Public Information, para.39-41

[7] Ibid, pp. 60-98

[8] Harvey, D., Social justice and the city, cit.6, pp.57

[9] UN ECLAC, MINURVI and HABITAT (2018), Regional Action Plan for the Implementation of the New Urban Agenda in Latin America and the Caribbean, LC/TS.2017/77/Rev.2, ECLAC.