Building Urban Science to Achieve the New Urban Agenda

Timon McPhearson, New York.  Sue Parnell, Cape Town.  David Simon, London.  Thomas Elmqvist, Stockholm.  Xuemei Bai, Canberra.  Owen Gaffney, Stockholm.  Debra Roberts, Durban.  Aromar Revi, Bangalore. 
24 October 2016

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

The New Urban Agenda, being adopted at Habitat III, requires a coherent and legible global urban scientific community to provide expertise to direct and assess progress on urban sustainability transformations. As we have commented in Nature’s special section on Habitat III, the urban research community is currently institutionally marginalized and poorly prepared to interact effectively with global urban science policy platforms. We have five specific recommendations for the urban scientific community to support the global urban agenda and successfully implement this New Urban Agenda, or NUA, after Habitat III.


The battle for sustainability will be won or lost in cities (NUA, 2016). Every twenty years, the UN convenes a major cities conference. The third, Habitat III—addressed in various places elsewhere on TNOC—opens in mid-October in Quito, Ecuador, to adopt a global framework for transforming cities toward sustainability—the so-called New Urban Agenda (or NUA). This is significant because it is the first major international convening following the 2015 UNFCCC COP21 Paris Agreement on climate, the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction and, critically, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the associated Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs). The success of these multilateral agreements rests on catalyzing complex transformative change across the global system of cities—a tall order for international processes.

Unlike the aforementioned global policy processes, where the views from science were central to making the case for change, the voices of experts in Habitat III have been largely disregarded. One explanation is that, throughout the drafting process, the role of science was organizationally subsumed by that of civil society as part of the Global Alliance of Partners (or GAP). Also, during the penultimate drafting of the NUA in Surabaya in late July, negotiators dropped the proposed Multi-Stakeholder Panel, which would have included scientists, as a formal mechanism for implementing the NUA (NUA 2016). However, the urban research community itself may bear some responsibility for its marginalization in Habitat III. We are often a disparate “community” lacking the level of international coordination of, say, the climate or ecological research communities, which have developed over decades thanks to strong professional networks.

We argue that the case for a powerful and independent urban science policy interaction rests on the dire implications of failing to understand or respond to scientific evidence of the cumulative and accelerating pace of increasingly urban-driven development processes and consequent global environmental change. This change, the Great Urban Acceleration, lies at the heart of the sustainable development opportunity. It is also well understood by the drafters of the NUA, as is a general awareness that this is a critical window of opportunity to make cities pathways for transitions towards sustainable development (Revi & Rosenzweig 2013).

The product of consensual politics, the Habitat III agenda espouses a welcome and important holistic perspective. It is also, however, both hugely ambitious and too vague to be of immediate practical value: the mechanisms for catalyzing rapid transformation in individual cities or city systems are entirely absent (Cohen, 2016). Rapidly shifting urban conditions and the catalytic role of cities in sustainability mean that over the 20-year policy cycle of Habitat III, some review and recalibration will be imperative. Habitat III attendees are actively engaging with the challenges of linking scientific knowledge to participatory solutions via an innovative science-policy interface, but much work will need to follow the conference itself. We argue that if the NUA fails to establish a satisfactory science policy interface through the Habitat III process, an alternative means must be found for ensuring urban goals are informed by scientific knowledge.

The Great Urban Acceleration: global sustainability hinges on urban sustainability

Urban development pathways will continue to dominate global change (Grimm et al., 2008). In the next 30 years, there will be more urban areas built—largely in Africa and Asia—than in the whole of history combined, driving demand for urban infrastructure, roads, pipes and mobile technology, food, energy, water, and housing, and shifting the burden of disease (UN 2014). Urban sprawl, the least sustainable of all growth strategies, is evident across all the major regions of the world (Seto et al. 2011). Settlement expansion puts tremendous pressure on immediate and displaced biophysical environments to sustainably supply services critical to urban livelihoods (Elmqvist et al. 2013).

Cities are significant sites of resource depletion and climate-induced risk. For example, recent flood disasters in the United States (2005, 2008, 2012), the Philippines (2012, 2013), and Britain (2014) have demonstrated increasing vulnerability of coastal and riparian cities to storm surge flooding, with US$ trillions of assets at stake (Aerts et al. 2014). At the same time, simply meeting the demand for urbanization will exhaust any reasonable chance of success of staying within the 2015 Paris Agreement’s carbon budget.

Many of these upward trends are accelerating, including climate change in cities, infrastructural investment, land use and land cover change, inequality in health and income, and urban population expansion (Figure 1). While any one of these challenges alone requires ambitious action that must begin immediately to reduce risk, as well as to improve urban livelihoods and environmental sustainability, the challenges also intersect and influence each other, requiring a more complex urban system approach to cities to elucidate scientifically validated pathways for more desirable urban futures. Yet, cities are often engines of innovation (Glasser 2011); to date, the most progress is being made on climate change (Revi et al. 2014, Seto et al., 2014, Rosenzweig et al. 2010) and other sustainability goals (UNEP 2016, Kanuri et al. 2016) in cities.

Figure 1: Cities and urban areas will house nearly all of the world’s net population growth over the next two decades, with 1.4 million people added to urban areas each week (UN 2014), equal to roughly the population of Stockholm. Cities are engines of national and global growth, accounting for 80 percent of global economic output. In China, four city-clusters account for nearly half of China’s GDP (Shao et al. 2006). Cities are also key drivers of global energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for around 70 percent of both (IEA 2008). Meanwhile, urban land area could triple globally from 2000 to 2030 (Seto et al. 2012). This is equivalent to adding an area larger than Manhattan every day. Accelerating urban development boosts private consumption (Dobbs et al. 2008) and requires significant infrastructure, including carbon intensive manufacturing and construction, which consume massive quantities of concrete and steel, particularly in early phases of urbanization (Güneralp 2016; Wang 2007).

Rapid urbanization represents one of the biggest social transformations in human history (e.g., Bai et al. 2014). Cities display emergent properties, have dynamics that are nonlinear and often far from equilibrium, have a rapacious appetite for energy (Batty 2008), and are thus difficult to plan, manage, and govern. Drawing on the evidence from diverse conditions around the world, the essentially urban characteristics of sustainability are, however, increasingly understood (OECD, 2016; Simon 2016). Developing an urban science with methods and tools that, while sensitive to context, can address the social, ecological, and technical infrastructural complexity of urban systems is key to advancing the goals of improving urban sustainability, livability, social equity, and resilience, especially at the global scale (McPhearson et al. 2016).

The New Urban Agenda

The NUA negotiations reveal the difficulty of the UN in accommodating inputs from non-state actors, including the research community. The Habitat III preparatory process drew on a system of expert panels and a General Assembly of Partners, and early drafts of the NUA made provision for a Multi-Stakeholder Panel (or MSP) for ongoing extra-state engagement with UN structures. It seems that the MSP, the only possible placeholder for a more formal science-policy engagement in the NUA, was cut because European Union members and other high-income countries were concerned at the cost of funding such a broad mechanism, while there were wider concerns about the precise mandate of the MSP in monitoring and evaluation. Science was not the only casualty of the excision of the MSP in Surabaya and the latest drafts of the NUA still lack clarity on how local governments—absolutely critical stakeholders in the sustainability transition—will engage the global urban agenda.

Meaningful implementation, monitoring, evaluation, and revision of the NUA and related SDGs will require coordinated and sustained research evidence from the scientific community (including natural scientists, social scientists, humanities scholars, practitioner scholars, and professionals). Implementation also requires the urban scientific community be organized, representative, and seen as legitimate if it is to provide necessary input to any emergent science-policy platform.

The development of a coherent global urban scientific community is therefore one of the most critical, and currently missing, components of achieving the NUA. Habitat III must demand that the urban scientific community organize itself to meet the needs of the NUA and ensure its integration into the wider global urban agenda.

 Lack of a coherent urban science

Despite having played a critical role in articulating the need for a global urban policy agenda in the SDGs and the development of the NUA, the urban scientific community is not coherent, organized, or legible (Parnell, Crankshaw and Acuto 2016). This lack of coherence makes it currently impossible for there to be inclusive scientific input into any global science-policy platform for achieving the goals of the NUA and related SDGs. This lack of disciplinary and methodological coherence is compounded by the context-specific nature of urban research and solutions. For example, African urbanization trajectories can be very different from those in Asia or in the Americas (Bloom et al. 2008). Most urban scientific research and academic institutions are located in the Global North and/or large cities, while some of the most pressing urban challenges are in the Global South and in small- to medium-sized cities. Additionally, cities are a growing locus for scientific research and have enormous influence on one another, especially at regional (but also global) scales. Beyond Europe, where the regional urban system is fairly well understood, scientists have so far mostly failed to address cities at the regional scale.

Given the geographical diversity of cities and the complexity of issues encompassed by the urban question, it is unsurprising that there has been a proliferation of scholarly communities engaging in sustainable urban development. Taken as a whole, urban science is mostly not inter- or trans-disciplinary in theory, method, or data, and existing resources are not aligned with areas of the greatest need.

In brief, the research community, located both within and outside of academia, is heterogeneous and unevenly distributed worldwide in terms of depth, resourcing, and especially in interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary experience. The skills of drawing together and synthesizing the multiple sources of urban knowledge that must inform global urban policy are in short supply, but are essential in view of the complexity of urban processes and phenomena. Paradoxically, experience in working with complexity is commensurately greater in countries of the Global South than in the North, where academic institutional practices and research evaluation processes frequently reinforce disciplinary barriers on the ground, and foster narrow specialization that is antithetical to addressing complex urban problems across sectors and scales.

A new urban science

Achieving the SDGs and the NUA requires that the global urban scientific community come together to develop a new urban science, including new institutions, new funding mechanisms, and new research agendas to support fresh knowledge generation on the urban transition. Scientists must expand primary research in little studied and rapidly changing urban contexts, as well as developing a new urban systems science aligning and responding to emerging, evidence-based policy needs. Setting aside the self-evident imperative of the need for a fundamental expansion of Southern urban research capacity and funding, which will take time and considerable resources to resolve, reforms for building an inclusive global urban scientific community and developing a new urban science could be achieved more rapidly and would have immediate and positive impact for policymakers. Several approaches for attaining these aims have been considered.

One model advocated during NUA negotiations is an urban equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (or IPCC), designed to lend independence and authority by weighing the accumulated evidence in recent scientific and grey literatures. However, the intergovernmental nature of the IPCC has proved burdensome in recent years, with cumbersome processes and arrangements, increased difficulty in ensuring integration between the Working Groups, and escalating workloads and travel for Working Group members.

The sustainable urban development agenda is broad and, while focused on the NUA, also cuts across the entire UN system. Urban scientists don’t necessarily agree on the most important research questions, which limits the possibilities of an IPCC-like body to advise global and local policymaking. For example, the IPCC began with clear aims to establish the magnitude and impact of climate change, and to understand the drivers and the response strategies. Urban system challenges require a much more complex and interrelated set of questions about equity, justice, climate resiliency, economic opportunity, infrastructure development, ecological restoration, and more.

One strength of the IPCC is that it has helped focus a strong, internationally coordinated research community. IPCC findings, however, require clearance by member governments—an assessment of cities may require an even more torturous, sub-national clearance level, and may generate political tensions from opposition-run Councils. Crucially, too, the IPCC does not undertake new research, but rather collates and assesses the existing literature. Given the paucity of published scholarship on the cities of the Global South, adoption of the IPCC process might inadvertently reinforce current distortions and further encourage inappropriate interventions. We believe, moreover, that an IPCC-like model will probably move too slowly to address the urgency of urban social and environmental challenges, and would limit the need for fundamentally new urban system research.

The NUA and related SDGs require new research that is more credible both thematically and geographically. The researchers, therefore, will need to be on the ground in different locales for differing durations, often working collaboratively and integratively with local, regional, and national governments (Simon et al. 2016), and coordinating with the practitioner scholars within these levels of government to maximize the benefits of their research—none of which lends itself to an IPCC-like mechanism.

Beyond city limits

We propose 5 key steps for science to support the global urban agenda, including implementation of the NUA:

1. Build global urban science. The urgency of urban growth issues demands the building of a new urban science and a rapid change in research and institutional organization. As a starting point, we recommend that a global urban scientific body be formed to address issues of science pertaining to the urban question in the post 2030 agenda. This could take the form of an urban scientific network of networks based on (or amalgamate of) existing global networks with a strong science policy commitment. These existing networks include urban clusters with the IPCC, IPBES, UN-Habitat, the United Nations Environment Programme, the Future Earth Cities Knowledge Action Network (KAN), and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The final form of a new, coordinated, and legible global urban scientific community should be developed in consultation with scientists, professional societies, and urban knowledge holders at all levels. This will take time but can start with scientific leaders within existing institutions as a pragmatic initial step. Governance of this body should be planned inclusively and could be based on the polycentric model developed within Future Earth, allowing distributed regional hubs with ability to be responsive to different research needs locally and regionally.

2. Map knowledge and institutions globally. Inclusivity and diversity across geographic regions and scientific domains is key to legitimacy and legibility. Most research is in the North, yet most need is in the South. We need major investment in academic institutes at the nexus of urban research-policy-practice in rapidly urbanizing cities. Mapping knowledge and institutions would help to uncover key geographic and thematic gaps in knowledge and scientific research capacity.

3. Boost urban research and funding mechanisms. Truly global sources of research funding are needed to allow cross-comparison studies of cities and regions. These sources should be set up with support from national governments, development banks and private foundations. This would require significantly large sums, which is one of the reasons the MSP was taken out of the final NUA draft. Still, scientific funding issues must be addressed if we are to make real progress on the global urban agenda.

4. Support trans-disciplinary research synthesis. It is crucial that scientists and other communities of practice with relevant knowledge have a significant seat at the table to generate policy to guide urban development over the short- and long-terms. Transdisciplinary research must be not only supported through new urban science funding and organization, but also be a centerpiece of synthesizing existing knowledge and new knowledge generation for input to policymaking at global, regional, and local levels.

5. Improve access to science policy arenas.  Urban scientists must have a clear role within emerging science-policy platforms in the New Urban Agenda and the wider multilateral system, such as the links forming between the urban SDGs and the Future Earth Cities KAN.  As a start, the role of independent urban experts including multiple types of knowledge holders across multiple disciplines must be made clear within the New Urban Agenda and its implementation stage through development of a strong, diverse, and inclusive science-policy interface to achieve the NUA and related SDGs.

We must deal seriously with the complexity of urban systems and overcome institutional reticence to understand the emergent behavior and properties of urban systems as they evolve and change. The imperative of scaling up urban research and fostering a global scientific research leadership that is able to direct and critique global urban policymaking and implementation cannot be underestimated.

Timon McPhearson, Susan Parnell, David Simon, Owen Gaffney, Thomas Elmqvist, Xuemei BAI, Aromar Revi, Debra Roberts
New York City, Cape Town, Gothenburg, Stockholm, Stockholm, Canberra, Bangalore, and Durban

On The Nature of Cities

This post produced with contributions from Laura Booth.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Nature Commentaries

To read more on this subject, see coverage of this topic and the Nature commentary at The Guardian and NYU’s Center for Urban Science + Progress.


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Sue Parnell

About the Writer:
Sue Parnell

Professor Sue Parnell is an urban geographer in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences at the University of Cape Town and is a founding member of the African Centre for Cities there.

David Simon

About the Writer:
David Simon

David Simon is Professor of Development Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London and until December 2019 was also Director of Mistra Urban Futures, an international research centre on sustainable cities based at Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden.

Owen Gaffney

About the Writer:
Owen Gaffney

Science writer and journalist Owen Gaffney is a communications consultant for Future Earth and director of international media and strategy at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Thomas Elmqvist

About the Writer:
Thomas Elmqvist

Thomas Elmqvist is a professor in Natural Resource Management at Stockholm University and Theme Leader at the Stockholm Resilience Center. His research is on ecosystem services, land use change, natural disturbances and components of resilience including the role of social institutions.

Xuemei Bai

About the Writer:
Xuemei Bai

Professor Bai is a professor in Urban Environment and Human Ecology at Australian National University.

Aromar Revi

About the Writer:
Aromar Revi

Aromar Revi is Director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. He is an international practitioner, consultant, researcher, and educator with 30 years of interdisciplinary experience in public policy & governance, political economy of reform, development, technology, sustainability, and human settlements.

Debra Roberts

About the Writer:
Debra Roberts

Debra Roberts founded and heads the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department of eThekwini Municipality, Durban, South Africa.

Timon McPhearson

About the Writer:
Timon McPhearson

Dr. Timon McPhearson works with designers, planners, and local government to foster sustainable, resilient and just cities. He is Associate Professor of Urban Ecology and Director of the Urban Systems Lab at The New School and Research Fellow at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Timon McPhearson

Timon McPhearson

Dr. Timon McPhearson works with designers, planners, and local government to foster sustainable, resilient and just cities. He is Associate Professor of Urban Ecology and Director of the Urban Systems Lab at The New School and Research Fellow at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and Stockholm Resilience Centre.

One thought on “Building Urban Science to Achieve the New Urban Agenda

  1. The New Urban Agenda now reads, …well, like an agenda: ”we” (heads of states) recognize that… and are committed to…and support, promote, carry out….etc.
    The commitments in the NUA are defined in the belief, that better management, planning and organization of the city, can actually lead to sustainable cities.
    However, the fact that cities are and most probably always will be unsustainable (regarding their ecological footprint) is completely ignored – also by scientists. Of course cities can be less dirty, more equal, more resource efficient, greener and more healthy – no question about that, but they can never be sustainable in the sense of being ecologically self-sustaining. Probably that is why the rural-urban linkages are recognized quite frequently in the NUA (Art. 26, 28, 36, 49, 50, 71, 72, 73, 82, 88, 95, 96, 114, 123, 136).
    So, actually “we” need to recognize that cities are unsustainable and that “we” need to be committed to off-setting the happy and healthy, but ecologically unsustainable urban lives (if compared to rural lives) we live, by managing, cultivating and conserving the urban hinterlands and their urban support functions.
    Imagine the NUA would begin with “We, the Heads of State and Government,…recognize that cities are unsustainable but better places to live in and therefore, in order to sustain economic growth and human progress (our hedonistic, equality and human rights driven development goals), we commit to conserve and restore biodiversity and ecological functions in the urban hinterlands.”
    Even it sounds good and is often cited: “The battle for sustainability will be won or lost in cities” (by the way, NOT a citation from the NUA, also not from the post Surabaya draft of the NUA, as falsely stated in the essay on your webpage ) – it is simply not in accordance with what we know about cities – that their ecological footprints are much larger than the area they occupy – and those ecological footprints are unlikely to become small in the foreseeable future.
    So in an age of the Anthropocene in which improved health and wealth has also come from urbanization at the expense of planetary health , we must be less antrophocentric and more ecocentric, recognizing und understanding the place which the human being has in the biosphere – the living tissue of planet earth.
    Some scientists now complain that their contribution and participation to the NUA is undervalued, but at the same time they make statements, despite better knowledge, for example, that the “battle for sustainability will be won or lost in cities” – statements which are still short of scientific evidence.
    Also, that complaint dos not seem to appreciate the role which the scientific community was given in the Research and Academic Partner Constituent Group (RAPCG) of the General Assembly of Partners (GAP) – falsely referred to as Global Alliance of Partners in the essay on your webpage which is linked to the commentary in nature . Also it does not mention the opportunity and role which the scientific community had by contributing to the “Urban Thinkers Campuses ” under the World Urban Campaign.
    Further, a comment on “The development of a coherent global urban scientific community is therefore one of the most critical, and currently missing, components of achieving the NUA.” Probably the NUA is not the right place to call for the consolidation of one out of many constituent groups. The respective constituent group (urban science) can and should be able to do that by itself, independently, collectively, bottom up, and without the need of a NUA to call for its establishment. The importance of science, however, is NOT missing in the NUA: See the more than once mentioned importance of science and and science-policy interface in the NUA: Art. 126, 149, 150, and 157.
    Whether the “development of a coherent global urban scientific community” is critical for the sustainability of our urban planet and not just for that scientific community itself, is indeed a debatable question. An alternative would be to learn how to communicate among diverse scientific communities and knowledge domains and develop collective intelligence, without the need to establish ever more and new scientific organizations such as an IPCC-like body, as proposed by the authors of the nature commentary (mentioned previously).
    The aim of some scientists, to establish (yet further) prominent, leading international bodies for their academic fields, like urban science, also seems to reflects the assumption that the application of more scientific knowledge leads to better decision making. However, it may overestimate the
    1. relevance of science for society,
    2. the capacity of science to communicate with society and
    3. the capability of science to include diverse knowledge domains.
    After all, science, like economies, have flourished and become successful when they diversified and developed specialized fields. That meant also becoming fragmented. Being a specialist is still greatly rewarded in the scientific system. So, it is not necessarily a natural ability or even goal of science to build collective intelligence at societal level.
    Eventually, it may not even need to be the science constituent groups but other societal groups which use the knowledge they have for building the cities the want and need. The ability to translate knowledge into action for society may be more relevant than possessing specialized knowledge with limited abilities to communicate that knowledge among colleagues form other scientific disciplines and other societal groups.
    Calling for an international urban scientific advisory body and at the same time admitting that “urban research is disparate,…” and does “…not necessarily agree on the most important research questions, let alone the prescriptions”, is not very convincing and maybe even self-disqualifying.
    The self-assessment of the urban scientists, that “Urban research is disparate, marginalized and ill-prepared to interact effectively with global policy” seem quite self-damaging and is not conducive to the demand to be more prominently included in political negotiation processes like those that led to the NUA, let alone the establishment of an international scientific advisory body.
    The NUA should be understood as what it is meant to be: “an action-oriented document which will set global standards of achievement in sustainable urban development…” Based on the NUA governments will continue their attempts to make cities sustainable although they know that they cannot be self-sustaining without the rural hinterlands. Nevertheless, the NUA should not be used as an opportunity to call for the creation of yet another UN scientific body, especially not on the grounds of a disqualifying self-assessment. That may harm the role of science in society more than supporting it. This does not mean that such a body is not needed, rather, that the timing, circumstances and arguments for such a call are not particularly convincing – and, the scientific evidence for the claim that “the agenda will fail without input from researchers” is simply missing.

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