With the increasingly high profile of global environmental concerns from the 1980s, the urban agenda for developing countries has seen progressive shifts toward a focus on urban environmental issues, collectively termed the 'brown agenda'. The most critical and immediate development issues facing cities of the developing world – those of water supply, sanitation, and waste management – were reconceptualized through an environmental lens rather than being seen solely in terms of ensuring urban service delivery and meeting the basic needs of the urban poor. This shift in emphasis was clearly evident in the discourses of the United Nations and World Bank in the early 1990s, with the latter heralding a 'new urban agenda'. Given the global scope of the 'green' movement, by this time, international development agencies, national governments, and NGOs found the concept of a 'brown' movement a useful vehicle for deflecting blame for environmental ills from urbanization and cities and for focusing on the local and immediate environmental concerns of urban dwellers. This environmental turn constituted both a potential threat to a focus on the needs and rights of poor people in cities and an opportunity to reprioritize urban development issues by feeding brown agenda concerns into wider environmental debates.
The issues that constitute the brown agenda are by and large not new; however, the relabeling of these issues as specifically environmental has a number of implications. From a development perspective, there are worries that shifting the focus of attention from the basic needs of poor people to the urban environment might undermine efforts at poverty reduction. From an environmental angle, the question is raised as to whether brown agenda issues ought to be thought of as separate from the concerns of the broader green movement or as localized expressions of the same agenda; if thought of as separate, there are implications about potential tradeoffs between brown and green issues. Adrian Atkinson has argued, for example, that the idea of a brown agenda can distract from the critical broader green one and result in a prioritizing of the short term over the long, and the local over the planet itself. Ultimately, while the codification of urban environmental issues into a clear agenda has been useful in highlighting the relationship between poverty and the environment at the local level, the brown agenda is best seen as a means of integrating these issues with wider green and development problems respectively, rather than as a separate or opposing agenda.