What is Agenda 21?

by Mark Apel, Bisbee, Arizona

Agenda 21 is a hot button for many planners across the nation and particularly for those in the West. In trying to uncover the truth, it is important to explore the history behind the United Nations Environment and Development Agenda for the 21st Century document.

In June of 1992, the United Nations convened a conference on the Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At the Earth Summit, 172 governments were represented along with some 2,400 representatives of non-governmental organizations. All tolled, hundreds of thousands of people were involved with this conference in one way or another – before, during and after. The purpose behind this summit was to help countries grapple with economic development while putting the brakes on pollution and the loss of irreplaceable natural resources.

What resulted from the summit in 1992 was a document known as Agenda 21, a blueprint for action to achieve sustainable development worldwide. The document is a non-legally binding set of ideas and recommendations. One of its objectives, as noted in the document, is “to promote and support policies, domestic and international, that make economic growth and environmental protection mutually supportive.” President George H. W. Bush was one of 178 heads of government to sign the agreement in Rio in 1992.

Since it is a voluntary, nonbinding statement of intent and not a treaty, it was never ratified as law by the U.S. Congress. Yet, despite being a non-binding statement of intent, some in the U.S. see Agenda 21 as a conspiracy and oppose it on the grounds that it poses a threat to American sovereignty and is an erosion of private property rights. They have made their beliefs known by participating in the planning process at times being confrontational rather than civil.

Since its inception in 1992, Agenda 21 has been reaffirmed and recommitted to by participants at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (also known as Rio +20) held in 2012, again in Rio de Janeiro. At this conference 180 world leaders participated. A new document that incorporates Agenda 21 and that serves as the most recent guiding principles for sustainable development emerged from this conference. It is known as The Future We Want and can be found at www.un.org/en/sustainablefuture.

The Agenda 21 document is 300 pages divided into 40 chapters. It essentially covers four main topic areas: social and economic dimensions; conservation and management of resources for development; strengthening the role of major groups (i.e. women, youth, indigenous people); and means of implementation. The full document can be reviewed here: http://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/Agenda21.pdf.


Common Misconceptions

Agenda 21 infringes on the sovereignty of our nation.

Agenda 21 is not a legal document but a set of recommendations. Nothing in federal law implements Agenda 21 or requires local communities or states to address issues discussed in Agenda 21. Support for its policy recommendations is not legally binding.

Agenda 21 is the same as planning.

Our communities have been planning since the founding of our nation. Predating the founding of the United Nations and the creation of Agenda 21, planning in the U.S. has been used as a tool for communities and their citizens to shape growth, lay streets and install basic infrastructure so residents and businesses can prosper in a civil state.

Smart growth and comprehensive planning are code for Agenda 21 policies.

There is no causal relationship between these terms and Agenda 21, according to the American Planning Association.

Planning threatens private property rights, especially in rural areas.

Planning is a community decision-making process, guided by local and state regulations that respects private property rights.

-Summarized from “Agenda 21: Myths and Facts” by the American Planning Association


Mark Apel works for the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension as an agent in community resource development. He is the chair of the Western Planner Editorial Board and is on the Western Planning Resources Board.


Published in the December 2013/January 2014 Issue

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