The Habitat Agenda: Local Governments Are Critical in Sustainable Urban Development

Article excerpt

Democratization, decentralization, and empowerment have been at the core of the Habitat II conference. Commencing with the thoughtful and diligent work of the World Assembly of Cities and Local Authorities, the Habitat Agenda [the final conference document] has embraced the critical role of local government in implementing tangible solutions to solving the vexing challenges posed by rapid urbanization. Section D of the document clearly reflects that the Habitat Agenda depends on increasing decentralization, whereby local governments can work in partnership with private and NGO [nonprofit] sectors to achieve real change at the community level.

- Tim Honey, U.S. delegate to Habitat II and city manager of Boulder, Colorado, in a report to U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, head of the U.S. delegation.

After more than two years of international, national, and local preparations and two intense weeks in Istanbul, Turkey, Habitat II, the last UN conference of the century, drew to a close on June 14, 1996. Though the city summit tackled such contentious issues as housing as a human right, a broad global consensus was reached on strategies for achieving the conference's themes of adequate housing for all and sustainable human settlements in an urbanizing world* Among the key approaches advocated for reaching these goals were:

* Viewing government as an enabler, rather than the sole or even primary provider, of infrastructure and services. Governments should focus on establishing the legislative, institutional, and financial frameworks and on ensuring a stable and transparent policy and operating environment in which the private sector, NGOs (nonprofits), and community groups can make a greater contribution to sustainable urbanization.

* Diversifying and mobilizing funds from new domestic and international sources through the development of innovative financial mechanisms to meet urban investment requirements.

* Recognizing the importance of autonomous and effective local governance in fostering sustainable urban and environmental development and management.

The emphasis on strong, democratic local authorities as key partners in implementing the Habitat Agenda was perhaps what most markedly distinguished Habitat II from the UN conferences that preceded it. For the first time in the history of the United Nations, local officials were included in national delegations and given a voice and a seat at the negotiating table; the U.S. delegation, for example, included three mayors and a city manager.

At the World Assembly of Cities and Local Authorities (WACLA), held just before Habitat II, more than 500 mayors and other local officials from around the world gathered to discuss their mutual concerns, to share solutions that they have found to urban problems, and to finalize a "WACLA Declaration" intended to serve as a united policy document for local authorities. The declaration, which was presented to the national delegations at Habitat II, advocates a worldwide charter of local self-government. A cornerstone of this charter is the principle of subsidiarity or proximity, whereby decisions are taken at the level closest and most accountable to citizens, and only those tasks that local government cannot effectively carry out are referred to higher levels.

Sections of the declaration capture the pivotal position of the themes of decentralization, democratic local governance, and creative partnerships between public and private actors:

. . . sustainable human development must be conceived and enacted essentially at the local level, which is best able to mobilize concrete initiatives from the bottom up, geared towards a truly better individual and collective quality of life . . . .

To be able to play their role completely in this respect, local authorities must be legally constituted, with adequate powers, must be able fully and without hindrance to undertake the responsibilities which are recognized as their own, and must be able to call upon the necessary financial and human resources and management and training capacity to fulfill their responsibilities. …