Habitat Assembly: revitalizing multilateralism from the bottom-up

On 15 June, the Geneva Cities Hub, in close partnership with UN-Habitat, organized a Geneva Urban Debate on key outcomes of the UN Habitat Assembly (5-9 June 2023, Nairobi). Present in Nairobi, the GCH advocated for a more inclusive kind of multilateralism at the UN. Notably, it called for the creation of a new status for local and regional governments (LRGs) to get accredited and participate in UN processes in their own capacity.

The objective of the Geneva Urban Debate was to share first-hand experience from speakers who attended the 2nd UN Habitat Assembly, which gathered +3400 participants in person (+2000 online), including 80 persons at ministerial level.

Graham Alabaster, Chief of UN Habitat Geneva Office, started by providing an overview of UN Habitat’s mandate and the governance reform that led to the establishment of the Habitat Assembly. As the main governance body of UN Habitat, the Assembly gathers States to discuss urbanization-related issues and adopts resolutions on key themes governing the work of UN Habitat. Many other stakeholders participate in the Assembly, including LRGs, which are among UN Habitat’s closest partners. Among the various Assembly institutional outcomes, Graham Alabaster underlined the extension of the current UN Habitat Strategic Plan (until 2025), in order to align the next planning cycle (2026-2029) with other UN agencies. He also touched upon the Ministerial Declaration, in which commitments were taken to properly fund the mandates given to UN Habitat.  

In a recorded video interview, Berry Vrbanovic, Mayor of city of Kitchener (Canada), explained why as a local government, he took part in the Assembly. In addition to his role as Co-president of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), he underlined that going to Nairobi was a way for him to better understand how his city was doing in term of the implementation of the SDGs, as we hit the midpoint of Agenda 2030. He emphasized that the main outcomes of the Assembly were the various resolutions adopted, as well as the convening of the World Assembly of LRGs which adopted a joint statement at this occasion. More importantly, he said “Participating to the Assembly was an opportunity to revitalize multilateralism from the bottom-up”. Having been involved in city diplomacy for +17 years, Mayor Vrbanovic stressed that “over the years, I have seen significant progress. We’re taken much more seriously, we’re now brought in early on many issues that impact LRGs. National Governments recognize that in order to attain real meaningful progress on these issues, it’s going to take all spheres of government, rolling-up our sleeves, working together to advance on the implementation of the SDGs”.

10 resolutions were adopted by States, by consensus, at the Assembly on issues of relevance for LRGs:

  • Esteban Leon, Head of the City Resilience Global Programme, UN-Habitat, introduced the resolution creating a human settlements resilience framework. The resolution addresses two issues, one being disaster risk reduction and resilience building and the other being how to respond to urban crises situations. The resolution formalizes the work that UN Habitat has been doing for decades. It makes the case for undertaking a mapping of urban resilience actors, so as to be more aware about other existing work and how UN Habitat can better support cities going through crises, while at the same time building foundations for sustainable urban development. Finally, the resolution provides the opportunity to fundraise for UN Habitat’s work in this area, which is obviously important to ensure implementation of the resolution.
  • Pontus Westerberg, Lead on People-Centred Smart Cities, UN Habitat, introduced the resolution on People-centred smart cities. The resolution requests UN Habitat to support States and other stakeholders, including LRGs, in putting in place a people-centred smart city approach which is defined therein (see first operational paragraph). Importantly, the resolutions also asks UN Habitat to convene a global consultative process to develop international guidelines on people-centred smart cities that bring in States, LRGs, LRGs associations, academia, UN entities, civil society, private sector, etc. These guidelines aim at primarily supporting States and LRGs put in place smart cities strategies and regulations that are appropriate and adequate. This important normative document will be finalized by 2025.  
  • Biodiverse and resilient cities: the resolution encourages UN Habitat to promote a shift in urbanization that takes into account biodiversity. For that, UN Habitat is requested to establish an open-ended international expert advisory group (made up of States, in collaboration with many other actors engaged on the issue) to produce a toolkit on urban development for more biodiverse and resilient cities by the end of 2024. The toolkit should be useful to LRGs to understand how to be more biodiverse and resilient, by compiling best practices, existing standards, guidelines, etc.
  • Adequate housing for all: the resolution is directly addressed to both States and LRGs. It establishes an intergovernmental working group to make recommendations to the next UN Habitat Assembly on policies for accelerating progress towards achieving the right to housing. In doing so, the working group is requested to, inter alia, assess the efforts to realize the right to housing, identify best practices and propose a framework for measuring and reporting on the adequacy of housing across diverse national and local contexts. Collaboration with other UN entities, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, will be necessary to undertake that important work.
  • Related to adequate housing, the resolution on informal settlements and slums puts forward 10 key actions to be undertaken by States to upgrade informal settlements and slums. Among these, the resolution promotes a multilevel participatory governance on the issue and encourages States to adopt a whole-of- government and whole-of-society approach with multisectoral horizontal and vertical coordination among government spheres at all levels.


Other resolutions adopted at the Assembly also related to : World Cleanup DayUrbanization and climate changeLocalization of SDGsUrban planning and sustainable infrastructureFinancing and monitoring of the implementation of Habitat Assembly resolutions.

During the event, many participants expressed their interest in taking part in and contributing to the different processes, platforms, working groups established by these resolutions. Participation always depends on the mandate and terms of references of these processes, platforms, working groups, but generally, as recalled by Graham Alabaster, UN Habitat is a very open and participatory organization. Substantive expertise is always drawn from across the globe to contribute to UN Habitat governing bodies and therefore interested people should not hesitate to contact UN Habitat in that regard.

The event concluded by recalling how the mandate of UN Habitat will become even more important as we move forward. There is need to convince people of the importance of urbanization, how it impacts us and to work closely with LRGs on this matter. There will be many opportunities for LRGs to continue to engage on these issues, the next one being the High Level Political Forum on SDGs to be held in New York in July (which will review the implementation of SDG11 on sustainable cities and human settlements), the SDG Summit in New York in September, as well as the World Urban Forum in Cairo in November 2024.       

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