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Insights into Editorial: Important lessons for the Smart Cities Mission
With the 26th UN-Habitat governing council conference (GC26) held last month, the new urban agenda (NUA) has once again come to the fore. As the world moves towards a globalized policy discourse, one wonders if the NUA is an improvement on the existing unratifiable global documents.
What is NUA all about?
The New Urban Agenda aims to be the international community’s foremost guide for sustainable urban development over the next 20 years.
The New Urban Agenda represents a paradigm shift in global thinking, recognising what professionals have perhaps understood for some time: that our future is urban. From gender-equity to youth-empowerment, participatory planning to inclusive public space, The New Urban Agenda sets a high benchmark for the type of urban development we should strive for and a global accountability framework for achieving it. Its catch-cry to “leave no one behind” commits to reducing urban inequality.
What’s good about NUA?
- It establishes an integrated approach to urbanization by setting a clear vision of how urban economies, standards of living and climate sustainability are interconnected.
- The New Urban Agenda also promotes a strong sense of inclusiveness, both in the diversity of actors who helped forge the agenda and in the participatory roles it sets for national and local governments to create policies that support sustainable urbanization.
Key concepts highlighted in the New Urban Agenda:
The urban paradigm: By 2050 the world urban population is expected to nearly double, making urbanisation one of the 21st century’s most transformative trends. NUA asks us to take advantage of this opportunity as the vehicle through which sustainable development can be realised. It urges not only the adoption of urban strategies and policies, but that all strategies and policies take into account urbanisation.
Everyone has a right to the city: The New Urban Agenda acknowledges that current urban development trends will not deliver equitable cities for all. Instead we need to adopt policies and practices that “leave no one behind”. The New Urban Agenda encourages practices that work towards just, safe, healthy and resilient. Practices that end poverty in all its forms, end violence against women and girls (particularly in public spaces) and end all forms of discrimination, including people with disabilities.
Participatory and people-centered cities: The New Urban Agenda calls for people-centered planning, and to ensure that participation is integrated across all areas of practice. It urges professions to move beyond community engagement, to seek to empower all individuals and communities, particularly women and youth, as partners in creating the city.
Supporting local leadership: One of the major paradigm shifts is the call for decentralised decision making. This decentralisation is not only for local governments, however. The New Urban Agenda outlines that it is everyone’s responsibility: individuals, communities, civil society to shape better cities.
Age and gender-responsive planning: Across all areas of city-making, the New Urban Agenda calls on professionals to seek to achieve gender equality. This includes women’s full and effective participation at all levels of decision making, as well as eliminating all forms of discrimination, violence, and harassment against women and girls in private and public spaces.
Use public space to improve participation, safety and inclusion: Public space is a strong theme throughout the New Urban Agenda document, recognising that equitable city-making cannot be achieved without sufficient quality public space. The New Urban Agenda argues for improved public participation in shaping public space, and for improvements to safety of public space, particularly for women and girls.
Environment, disaster and resilience: Under the New Urban Agenda UN member states acknowledged the threat of climate change and committed to preserve and promote the ecological and social function of land in cities. UN member states also committed to facilitating the sustainable management of natural resources in cities and human settlements in a manner that “protects and improves the urban ecosystem and environmental services and reduces greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution”.
Smart cities approach: Governments and partners are urged to make the most of digitisation and a smart cities approach as an independent point. Equally governments and partners are urged to work more closely with science and technology sector.
How is NUA related to Smart Cities Mission?
The smart city guidelines stipulate that the Indian smart city needs to adhere to 24 features in order to be “smart”. The overlap between these features and the transformative commitments of the NUA are quite significant.
- With an emphasis on promoting civic engagement and strengthening participatory local governance, the NUA mirrors the commitment of the smart city for civic participation—where the citizens of the city have been involved in the mission at every step through polls and calls for suggestions to redevelop their cities.
- Similarly, the SCM has promoted the concept of municipal bonds in Indian cities. Further, with regard to the empanelment of special transaction advisers for each of the cities, the MoUD has also assigned credit ratings for most of the smart cities to facilitate the process of issuing municipal bonds for mobilization of resources. On the other hand, the NUA calls for sustainable financial frameworks for municipal finance and local fiscal systems.
- The NUA aspires to integrated and vulnerable section—responsive housing policies, aspects that many of India’s smart cities are paying close attention to—with the lead city Bhubaneswar making these the prime focus of its redevelopment efforts. Furthermore, both the NUA and SCM guidelines pay close attention to infrastructure and services such as solid waste management, compact urban planning and energy resources.
- Therefore, the SCM can be viewed as an extension of the strategy expressed in the NUA.
As India strives to leave a mark on a world that is becoming increasingly urban, we would do well to follow a comprehensive and well chalked out strategy for our cities. Though a commendable step in the right direction, the SCM has its own pitfalls and shortcomings. With urbanization gaining prominence in the global policy discourse, it is important, now more than ever, to focus on local governance. Currently, there is an inadequate emphasis on the functioning of urban local bodies when it comes to centrally motivated schemes like the SCM. India is a signatory of the SDGs. Paying further attention to the aspects of resilience and local governance outlined in the NUA and the allied action framework can ensure that Indian cities respond to more than just competitive sub-federalism. Indian cities, catalysed by learnings from the NUA, can become competitive global cities.