Defining a Global Urban Development Agenda

World Development 2016, 78: 529–540.

The United Nation’s recent endorsement of a stand-alone urban Sustainable Development Goal and the immanent formulation of Habitat III marks a watershed in global development discourse on cities. The New Urban Agenda, currently under debate, is located in its historical context to reveal who the major actors and institutions were that defined global urban policy; what the shifting normative positions on cities are; and why the increasingly complex process of the global policy environment makes defining a universal agreement on urban development so hard. At stake in UN negotiations are fundamental issues about the centrality of urban pathways to sustainable development. A historical view of the Habitat process reveals that even at the global scale it is possible for those with strong convictions to change the normative base and mode of working on urban issues, but that the compromise politics of the international system also masks important compromises and contradictions. Looking back over the decades of international debate on development priorities shows not only that there is now greater acceptance of the importance of defining and agreeing to “an urban agenda” but that global policy on urban and regional issues has indeed evolved. There is no longer a question of whether cities are important for sustainable development, but rather why and how the urban condition affects our common future.

Susan Parnell