Land Policy Dominates Habitat III Agenda

By Alberto Wilde, Ghana Country Director for Global Communities

This story was originally published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and was republished via the Habitat III Journalism Project.

Land policy was at center stage at Habitat III in the high-altitude Ecuadorean capital of Quito all week, as the New Urban Agenda was formally adopted on the last day of the United Nations global cities summit. Highlights from the week:

UN-Habitat executive director Joan Clos attended the debut of the Atlas of Urban Expansion 2016 edition, an online tool that can be used to monitor progress in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. A partnership of UN-Habitat, New York University, and the Lincoln Institute, the new and improved Atlas – based on the initial online resource and three publications, the Atlas of Urban Expansion, Planet of Cities, and Making Room for a Planet of Cities – is an extraordinary library of satellite imagery showing how 200 sample cities have grown physically from 1990 to 2015. Accompanying analysis shows how land consumption is increasing at an unsustainable rate, and growth at the periphery of sprawling metropolitan areas in the developing world lacks open space, short blocks for walkability, and access to arterial roads for people to get to work. Greg Scruggs at Citiscope noted how the Atlas takes an abstract concept – global urbanization – and makes it more understandable.

Experts and UN delegates from around the world emphasized municipal finance as a key pillar of sustainable urban growth, noting the need for much greater levels of services and infrastructure in the coming decades. Cities need to mobilize local revenue sources, particularly land-based revenues, lay the groundwork for robust municipal debt markets, and improve legislation and collaboration across national, provincial, state and local governments. In a panel convened by the Lincoln Institute, experts and officials from Ecuador, Canada, South Africa, Brazil, Peru, Germany and the United States highlighted value capture as a key tool for recovering the land value generated by government action and re-investing it for public benefit. Value capture strategies need to align with the land use goals and governance structures of individual places, they said. “It’s not a technical problem,” said Peruvian Congresswoman Marisa Glave Remy. “It’s a political problem.” Equally important for local government finance is the property tax, a stable source of revenue to fund public services, and a basis for many strong municipal debt markets. At a packed panel session, experts surveyed the use of the property tax in the U.S., Latin America, Africa, and, as a work in progress, in China. While the property tax is a sizeable revenue source in most advanced countries, revenue collected in the developing world is miniscule by comparison. Panelists agreed it is a fair tax, and its transparency is both a blessing and curse: quarterly or annual bills make it easy not to like, whereas few people have any idea how much they spend per year on the sales tax.

Cities also need to take on some of the less flashy, but equally important aspects of municipal fiscal health, such as transparent financial management and regulatory frameworks, efficient systems for distributing funds across different levels of government, coordination of land-use and financial planning, and training to ensure that local governments are equipped to take on new challenges, experts said. National governments need to better support cities – for example, aiding rather than impeding cities’ access to municipal bond markets. The Lincoln Institute and UN-Habitat are collaborating on a global municipal fiscal database that will help cities understand and manage their finances.

Enrique Silva, fellow and Associate Director of the Program on Latin America and the Caribbean, was a prominent voice in the General Assembly of Partners, and made a statement on behalf of civil society and academic and research institutions in the closing ceremonies on Thursday. The array of non-profit organizations and foundations that have been working so hard in the run-up to Habitat III are commited to helping with the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, Silva said.

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