Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda

“The battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities”  - UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson

For three days, from October 17 – 20, over 30,000 people from around the planet gathered in the city of Quito, Ecuador, to envision future possibilities for the cities of the world. Ten thousand people including national politicians, urban planners and thinkers, and representatives of business and peoples’ movements came from outside of Ecuador. Around 400 city mayors attended the ‘Cities Olympics’.

In 1976 when the first Habitat Conference was held in Vancouver almost 38% of the world’s population lived in cities. By 1996 when Habitat II was held in Istanbul this had increased to 45% and this year it has grown to almost 55%. The Urban Agenda under consideration at Quito concerns the future of over half of the worlds people so it is not surprising that there was enthusiastic, even passionate debate alongside a wealth of clearly considered proposals. As one participant commented, there was an ever-present exuberance here at the conference.

Questions discussed at the event included: How can cities become more sustainable, resilient and inclusive? How will the gap between wealth and poverty be bridged in cities? How will people be encouraged to participate fully and freely in city governance? How will the power relationship between wealthy elites and the bulk of the residents of a city be navigated and managed for the good of the whole? And how will cities lighten their impact on the environment while still ensuring adequate water, food and all the other basics? Cities have a hugely diverse response to these questions and are at times able to display agility, innovation and experimentation that are not possible at a larger national level.

As much as anything else Habitat III provided evidence that there is a massive concentration of energy amongst people of intelligent goodwill focused on these issues in local urban environments. And cities are now linked around the world into networks of affinity and similarity – open to learning from each other.

Since nation-states arose in the seventeenth century, the power of cities has waned. But now, in the early twenty-first century, they are beginning to flex their muscles again - at Habitat III calling, among other things, for a seat at the table in the United Nations and in international affairs. As Barcelona’s Mayor, Ada Colau, commented All the major global challenges … will be solved in cities. If nations want to succeed with their policies, [cities] must be counted as serious actors on the global stage. Just before the conference began delegations from 500 cities released a manifesto, A Seat at the Global Table: Local Governments as Decision-Makers in World Affairs, arguing that The global governance system is no longer adequate to address the existing challenges the world is facing because these challenges are at the same time more global and local.

The center-point of the summit was an agreement, the New Urban Agenda, negotiated and signed by the world’s governments. The 24-page document contains a set of guidelines, a shared vision and a call to action. It took two years of negotiation amongst governments and city leaders to produce the Agenda and the organizers note that the process was remarkably open, that it involved a diverse range of stakeholders and that it produced a substantial amount of new research and thought on current and future patterns of urbanization. As one reviewer writes, the document has been lauded for its focus on a strengthened role for local governments in spearheading urban development, on a progressive view of equity and rights, and on the prospects of strong urban planning principles to create cities that are socially, environmentally and financially sustainable.

Inevitably there has been criticism of the Agenda. It does not recommend specific actions to achieve the guidelines and there is no review process to measure progress (two difficult political issues that will be addressed at a future session of the UN General Assembly). After much debate there was only passing reference to a popular call to endorse the ‘right to the city’: the growing political movement that seeks to enshrine the equal rights of all citizens at the heart of a city’s governance.

Beyond the politics of cities Habitat III provided a space for discussion and sharing of all the latest thinking about what the city can become in the future. This was well illustrated by the launching of the Quito Papers – headlined in one article as An intellectual counterpoint to the new Urban Agenda. While the Agenda was the outcome of government negotiation the Quito papers presented the shared vision of four of the world’s leading thinkers in urban development. They envision cities that are “porous”, “complex”, “synchronous” and “incomplete”. Gregory Scruggs reports on comments made in a New Yorker interview by one of the four, sociologist Richard Sennet:

Cities should be “complex in a synchronous way”, which is to say, “many things happening at once.” He lauded central Delhi’s Nehru Place as a public space where sari vendors, mobile-phone-repair stalls, sleeping pavement dwellers and a high-tech innovation hub can co-exist. “Disparate elements that don’t fit together neatly creates synergy,” he said.

As a result, cities should remain incomplete — to “begin a process of development, which at the end is not determined,” he said. Instead, designers and planners should provide the building blocks.

Let us hope that the New Urban Agenda, the Quito Papers, and other thoughtful contributions to the debate, will help integrate cities into the whole fabric of settlements, large and small, which house humanity in the twenty-first century.    


More information

Conference website: https://habitat3.org/

Citiscope at Habitat III : World Cities at a Crossroads – a wide range of articles http://citiscope.org/quito

Gregory Scruggs, The Quito papers: An intellectual Counterpoint to the New Urban Agenda http://citiscope.org/habitatIII/news/2016/10/quito-papers-intellectual-counterpoint-new-urban-agenda

The Guardian - articles on Quito and Resilient Cities https://www.theguardian.com/cities/series/resilient-cities

Ada Colau, mayor of Barcelona, ‘After Habitat III: a stronger urban future must be based on the right to the city https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/oct/20/habitat-3-right-city-concrete-policies-ada-colau