The New Urban Agenda and the green building movement

Wednesday 26th October 2016

As I made my journey home from Habitat 3, leaving behind the beautiful city of Quito in Ecuador, I reflected on what exactly the New Urban Agenda (NUA) - formally agreed at the conference - means to our Green Building Council movement, and how we can turn this document into an active tool that helps our GBCs to transform their markets. It’s a symbiotic relationship: if the NUA can assist GBCs in achieving their goals, GBCs in turn can assist the implementation of its content.

But before we get into how GBCs can best leverage the NUA, lets start by mapping out exactly what the NUA is and does.

The New Urban Agenda – what is it?

“By 2050 the world urban population is expected to nearly double, making urbanisation one of the 21st century’s most transformative trends.” – New Urban Agenda. The NUA marks another monumental step towards heads of state (but also sub-national and local governments, NGOs, civil society, the private sector, professionals and many other stakeholders) understanding and agreeing what it will take in order to turn urbanisation into an opportunity for, rather than a obstacle to, sustainable development for all (see the approved NUA).

The agenda itself is a carefully crafted and widely negotiated 23-page document that outlines a shared vision, principles and commitments, and an implementation plan that acts as a foundation for the future work of all of the above stakeholders. While its scope is comprehensive, many parts of the agenda are directly connected to building and construction (for those intending to read the document, see paragraphs 37, 46, 53, 63-80, 88, 95, 100, 107) and therefore the work we do as a green building movement.

The NUA calls for developing our cities using principles that are firmly embedded in green building including selecting appropriate places to build that are not environmentally sensitive; promoting the ecological and social function of land; supporting the local provision of goods and services; conservation and sustainable use of water; environmentally sound waste management; promoting energy conservation and efficiency; practicing resource efficiency of construction materials; transitioning to a circular economy, and many other aspects. It is a clear mandate for cities to build green! 

However, even the best formulated document will not be effective in bringing about change if it remains just that, a document.

How do we leverage the New Urban Agenda as a GBC network and green building movement?

If used actively, the NUA can become an extremely useful asset in the toolbox of any GBC. Since the aim of our movement is for all buildings and communities to be green, governments are key stakeholders in achieving this. GBCs are increasingly growing in strength at effectively facilitating dialogue between public and private entities (see www.buildupon.eu as one example) but they are often still exploring how best to work with cities, especially identifying a meaningful starting point in their discussions. Particularly in the Global South, city officials carry the weight of addressing so many different challenges that getting them to focus on green building as a solution provider is often a challenge in itself.

With an entire section dedicated to environmentally sustainable and resilient urban development, the NUA gives legitimacy to the work of GBCs and can therefore help them in creating meaningful partnerships with their national, sub-national or local governments. It can also act as a blue print when cities and GBCs sit down together and start developing plans for green building policies, incentives and regulation.

There is however another important piece to this puzzle. That is making sure that a common language is used between our industry-led green building movement and political mandates such as the NUA. This means expanding our green building vocabulary to also include the term “resilient”.  Buildings are reliant on many different factors - energy and water supply, waste disposal, availability of different building materials not to mention the demand from the end user. This reliance makes them susceptible to shocks and shortages to any one of those factors.

WorldGBC’s newly launched Advancing Net Zero project looks at scaling the uptake of net zero carbon buildings but its not just about carbon. It’s also about promoting the construction of self reliant buildings that can produce their own energy, harvest water from the atmosphere, turn waste into resource and much more. This kind of independence can be a huge asset to the goals of resilience set out for cities in the NUA.

The ratification of the NUA last week in Quito was the result of the hard work of UN Habitat in finding agreement between national governments and many other stakeholders who are involved in shaping the future of urbanisation. But now the real work is about to begin. Our ability to effectively implement the NUA will determine whether our cities can grow into inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable places for all and I believe GBCs will play a crucial role within this.

Dominika Czerwinska is Director of Membership and Regional Networks at WorldGBC. She attended the Habitat 3 conference in Quito, Ecuador, last week.