September 14, 2016

Commit - And Also Verify: Putting Reality Checks into the World's 'New Urban Agenda'

By Michael Cohen, Bart Orr, and Lena Simet

Urbanization, climate change, and inequality are among the critical issues expected to take center stage when “Habitat III” (also known as the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development) convenes in Quito, Ecuador in October. With a majority of the world’s inhabitants now living in cities for the first time in history, the “New Urban Agenda,” that’s intended to emerge from the conference may prove an influential, even historic, document.

But that will only be the case if it, unlike previous Habitat accords, stresses specificity and accountability in setting and meeting goals. That’s one of the major findings of a new report, entitled “The Habitat Commitment Project: Assessing the Past for a Better Urban Future,” from the Global Urban Futures Project and the Observatory on Latin America at The New School’s Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy. It reviews the generally disappointing record of what the world’s nations have done to meet commitments made at the last 1996 Habitat II conference in Istanbul. With the permission of the authors, we present these excerpts from their web site and final report, both available at

Given the economic growth of the past two decades, how well have countries used their resources to meet the commitments of the Habitat II agenda?

To answer this question, the Global Urban Futures Project has developed the Habitat Commitment Index (HCI)—a way of measuring country performance on a set of indicators taking per capita income levels into account to gauge progress over time. The HCI seeks to analyze the progress made on the commitments, goals, and principles of the 1996 Habitat Agenda by dividing them into six broad categories:  Residential Infrastructure, Poverty, Employment, Sustainability, Institutional Capacity [meaning the ability of governments to provide public services], and Gender Equality. 

In the time period between Habitat II to present, some countries have experienced rapid economic growth, while others have suffered from slow growth or economic stagnation. The HCI measures progress on socioeconomic indicators in light of the resources, as measured by per capita GDP, that have been available to countries during this period. 


Overall, there has been extremely little progress, with the average HCI score increasing only 1.49 points, from a global average of 69.68 in 1996 to a current average score of 71.17[1]. In 1996, as well as in most recent years, the Americas are medium-to-high performers, with Argentina and Brazil both increasing. In Western Europe, some of the few countries to lag behind the rest of the continent in the 1996 HCI scores—Spain, Portugal, and Ireland—were able to catch up, although economic decline as a result of the global recession would have influenced their scores. Globally change has varied. While Latin America and Southeast Asia, with a few exceptions, increased their HCI scores, North and Sub-Saharan Africa showed extreme variations in both directions, with both large increases and decreases in HCI scores. Also troubling was the finding that the two most populous countries either made no progress, as was the case in India, or actually had a significant decline in the HCI score, as was the case in China.

The greatest change was in the “Gender” dimension (Find full article here). The average Gender HCI score increased by 8.62 points in the period between Habitat II and the present, rising to a global average of 76.82. This rise was due in part to phenomenal increase in women’s enrollment in [post-secondary] education, which rose by an HCI score of 22.13 points, by far the largest positive change among the indicators. 

Informing Habitat III

As UN member states prepare to meet in Quito in October to agree on a New Urban Agenda (NUA) at Habitat III, it is important to scrutinize the previous urban agenda and assess how effective it has been. Unfortunately, there has been little effort so far to thoroughly gauge the progress made toward meeting the objectives agreed upon in the previous agenda from the 1996 Habitat II conference in Istanbul. By assessing progress made toward the Habitat II commitments, the Habitat Commitment Index aims to highlight the limitations of relying on economic growth alone in meeting urban development goals and better identify opportunities where policy interventions may be needed. 

Four major findings from the Habitat Commitment Project stand out:

  • National economic growth does not automatically result in improved urban conditions.
  • There is no relationship between inequality levels and economic growth.
  • Policy reform and institutional development both prove to be fragile in many countries.
  • Data and evidence of the impacts of national policies on cities are difficult to find. There are severe limitations on the availability of urban data at the national level.

We offer the following recommendations:

  • Establish clear targets and indicators of progress.
  • Establish rigorous monitoring systems at the global, national, and urban levels.
  • Hold periodic public reviews of the progress of countries and cities in meeting the commitments made in the NUA.
  • Design feedback loops at the national and urban levels so that monitoring results can be used to strengthen policy reform and implementation process.

Michael Cohen is a professor of international affairs at The New School’s Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy. Bart Orr and Lena Simet are PhD. students in public and urban policy at the Milano School.


[1] The HCI is on a scale of 0-100, with 100 indicating not necessarily 100% fulfillment of an indicator, but 100% of the predicted maximum potential for a country’s per capita GDP