An urban development agenda for Latin American cities: Integrating global and local challenges

Jorgelina Hardoy
Buenos Aires, Argentina

In September 2015, at a workshop in Buenos Aires, Augusto Barrera, the former Mayor of Quito, Ecuador, and Director of the Centro de Investigaciones de Políticas Públicas y Territorio (CITE), FLACSO, said, “Sustainable development needs to unfold in cities or else it won’t happen at all” (Pandiella, 2016).  Globally there is a growing interest in identifying what city governments are doing in terms of developing urban agendas that are more sustainable and inclusive; that can both address short, immediate development needs as well as mid- to long-term sustainable development goals. During 2015 – 2016 alone, several international processes were developed, including the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), The Paris Agreement, and The New Urban Agenda. Together they embrace many international goals and commitments, most of which have been agreed to by national governments.

Unfortunately, these international agreements fail to address the local implementation of these goals, nor do they recognize the role and capacities of local governments as well as the urban poor and their organizations, to develop, implement, and monitor an urban agenda that is more sustainable, inclusive, and responsive to those with unmet needs (Satterthwaite, 2016; Allen, Apsan Frediani, & Walnycki, 2016; Roberts, 2016).This despite the fact that in recent years local governments have been very active participating in networks such as ICLEI, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), C40, and forums such as the Ibero-American Forum of Cities, that promote the role of local governments as allies of national governments in the achievement of international goals.

With 54% of the world´s population residing in urban areas, a percentage expected to rise to 66% by 2050, cities will have a strategic influence over meeting the SDGs as much of what is happening or will happen will unfold in cities and urban areas. While SDG 11, entitled “Sustainable Cities and Communities” is specifically for cities, there are over 80 indicators distributed throughout the 17 goals that are relevant to urban issues. Cities are challenged to meet the everyday needs of their residents, such as the provision of water and sanitation (SDG 6) as well as addressing global problems such as climate change (SDG 13) through climate adaptation and the mitigation of greenhouse gases.  Well-managed cities with ample stakeholder support are more likely to be able to address both local and global issues, identifying needs, opportunities and challenges, as well as advancing on implementing more sustainable and inclusive practices.

For many, Habitat III was a good opportunity to address the implementation of the SDGs, but the process finished with yet another document with broad commitments and little guidance on implementation. Global agreements will fail to deliver unless national governments and local governments sit down as equals and talk in practical ways on how to overcome global–local challenges (Roberts, 2016).

Source: UN DESA, 2014


The persistence of poverty and unmet needs in cities around the globe is a chronic failure of governance (Colenbrander, 2016). In Latin American cities, many local governments, working with citizen organizations have shown great capacity and innovation in channeling resources and improving overall living conditions, including better services and infrastructure, e.g., healthcare, education, housing, land tenure, public spaces, and mobility.  They have managed to address climate change issues through disaster risk reduction and local development. Underlying these accomplishments is a growing commitment to understanding and addressing root development problems, including improved governance and democratic practices. Much of this innovation is undocumented as it’s seen as part of the normal functioning of responsive and accountable local governments (Hardoy & Ruete, 2013).

Despite this growing interest and commitment and understanding around urban problems and dynamics, little is understood regarding how a more sustainable and inclusive urban agenda can be pushed forward, by whom, with what support, and how best to take advantage of local opportunities. I suggest here three main actions that are key for advancing implementation: a) Strengthen multilevel governance; b) Strengthen the capacities of local players, and; c) Ensure political support.

Strengthen multi-level governance

National governments play a key role in developing policies that help strengthen the role of local authorities as enablers of development that supports, rather than excludes, disadvantaged groups (McGranahan, Schensul & Singh, 2016). This needs much work on strengthening multi-level governance (Corfee-Morlot et al., 2009), both vertically between international, national, and sub-national levels and horizontally across sectors and actors within the same government level and across city administrations. The cross-cutting nature of urban issues needs coordination between government areas, sectors, and actors (Bulkeley, 2010). This includes greater integration, coordination, and coherence between municipalities and cities, metropolitan networks, and coordination entities. It also requires a willingness to utilize new forms of engagement with a broad spectrum of local actors and supporting local processes driven by local actors that respond to local needs (Bartlett & Satterthwaite, 2016). But this is a challenge for many Latin American cities, especially small and intermediate size ones, that are understaffed, under trained and have only limited capacity to plan and invest towards more sustainable development pathways (Hardoy & Romero-Lankao, 2011).

Strengthen local players

City governments are ultimately responsible for ensuring the functioning of their city. They are also on the front line of citizen demands, so an important part of their work focuses on addressing everyday immediate and pressing issues, such as backlogs in infrastructure and service provision, poor quality housing, land tenure problems, and social emergencies, e.g., high unemployment. Usually solutions given to these problems have been narrowly focused, with little coordination between areas, and superposition of actions. There is often little time to plan for the medium- and long-term development needs, and to include issues such as sustainable development, resilience, and climate change adaptation and mitigation in these plans. These issues are often seen as global and distant, not related to the local conventional development agenda (Bartlett and Satterthwaite, 2016), with many key players in the areas of land use planning or legislation reforms still reticent to scale up actions (Romero-Lankao et al., 2014; Romero-Lankao et al., 2015). For many local governments and actors, the co-benefits of good disaster risk management, climate change adaptation and mitigation, urban planning, and environmental sustainability are not easy to see and act upon (Hardoy, Pandiella & Velásquez Barreto, 2011). There is an acute need for strengthening the capacities of local governments, and for generating an environment that enables the integration of these issues within the local conventional development agenda, as well as advancing a long-term development strategy that can be more sustainable and inclusive. It also needs to develop and encourage mechanisms for enhanced engagement with all local actors, hear and understand what people are doing, how and with what capacities (Roberts, 2016).  Enhancing the capacities of all stakeholders, both of local government teams and citizens, is of paramount importance in connecting global and local agendas. Political support to give hierarchy and sustain the process is also fundamental. This will include greater clarity to concepts and the integration of different sources of knowledge (Ziervogel, Archer Van Garderen & Price, 2016)

Ensure political support

Most cities that have made progress in developing a more sustainable and inclusive urban agenda, one that integrates conventional development with a forward looking approach that embraces all/or partial aspects of disaster risk management, climate change adaptation (and mitigation) and sustainable development, are those that have Mayors directly committed with these issues (sometimes called “local champions”), or that are capable of supporting local teams driving these agendas. Often when there is an interest on a long-term sustainable development vision, resources (financial and human) are allocated to the task.

Citizens and their local organizations, working with or without the support of the academic sector, and NGOs can also contribute in the long term to drive local planning and action, as well as guaranteeing the continuity of the sustainable development agenda across electoral periods and government changes (Hardoy & Velásquez Barrero, 2014). This requires capacity to challenge conventional development pathways and practices, challenge ways of planning and doing. Citizen mobilizations have often been capable of shifting policies and plans by engaging multiple stakeholders and building governance (Sánchez et al., 2013)

It will ultimately be the joint work of local governments and local actors that will set urban agendas to a more sustainable and inclusive development pathway, responsive to the needs of all citizens, but above all, to those with unmet needs.

Versión 3

Jorgelina Hardoy is Senior Researcher and Team Coordinator at the Instituto Internacional de Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo, IIED – América Latina in Buenos Aires, Argentina.


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