Habitat III – Looking back on a milestone in the global urban development debate

On October 20, 2016, the New Urban Agenda was adopted, setting the priorities and expectations for the next 20 years of urban development against the backdrop of growing urbanisation. The Habitat III conference in Quito, which hosted a vast array of events besides the official negotiations reflected the themes of the New Urban Agenda and the hopes attached to it.

The conference was attended by around 50,000 representatives from all over the world, including leaders of local and national governments. Next to the main plenary meetings, special sessions and round-table talks, the conference hosted a large number of side events and training sessions. Leaders as well as participants could attend and share ideas and experiences from their respective countries. At the exhibition area next to the National Assembly, dozens of booths by national governments, universities and NGOs informed about the latest trends in urban development.

While many important debates were held in the plenaries, many delegates also used the opportunity to confer about the most pressing issues in their cities during panel discussions. Common themes were mobility, resilient urban development, housing and the question of how cities can be inclusive for everyone. Good practice examples, like the efforts of Naga City to become more resilient, were showcased, and representatives of NGOs and town representatives reminded the attendees of areas where action is still needed. Germany, as one of the few countries which contributed to the Quito Implementation Plan, announced its Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative, which provides for 1 Billion Euros to be spent on sustainable mobility worldwide in the next year. Ministers from Bangladesh, India and the Philippines talked about the plans to transform their countries’ cities into more livable places, e.g. through implementing programmes on climate resilience, through building homes for the urban poor or by using their infrastructure to become Smart Cities.

At nearly all of these events, a sense of dichotomy prevailed: although people agreed that sustainability is vital, it was often heard that the term is too broad. Additionally, the New Urban Agenda is seen as a necessary, important step to turning cities into better places, however, there is still a certain degree of helplessness when it comes to implementing it: “My problem with the New Urban Agenda is: who can be against it? ‘Reduce poverty, clean the air, clean the water, have better transport systems’ – it’s like a wish list”, said Claudio Orrego, Mayor of Santiago de Chile.

Many people thus still remain sceptical, namely those who were already present at Habitat I and II and have witnessed the Habitat process over the last 40 years. What is commonly criticized is the lack of enforcement mechanisms for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. The fact that many agreements of previous conferences were never implemented has also raised doubts, as SDI’s Sarah Nandudu pointed out: “At Habitat II, so many solutions were agreed on – I heard the one ‘Housing for all’ – but if you take the data of how many people were living in slums back then and if you compare it to the data now, how many of them are really housed?” UN-Habitat Secretary General Joan Clos, in his closing statement at the signing of the New Urban Agenda, warned that “we will have to act for these commitments” and that “if we don’t implement, it’s going to be useless”.

In the end, the New Urban Agenda was adopted by leaders from 167 countries, who left the Edificio de los Espejos, the “Building of Mirrors”, through a cheering crowd of UN volunteers lined up in front of the building. It is now up to these leaders, activists, practitioners, and stakeholders to pave the way for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda and to meet the high expectations for the next 20 years.

During the conference we spoke to some of the participants, delegates and speakers about the way forward after Habitat III and their expectations for the future. Here are their answers:

 

Voices on Habitat: What do participants and stakeholders believe the future of Habitat will look like?

Sarah Nandudu, Deputy Chair of the Board of Slum Dwellers International (SDI): “It will take a lot of cooperation among stakeholders to bring to pass what we were aiming for at Habitat II. It will take a lot of innovation, a lot of partnerships, engagement and acknowledgment that each stakeholder has a responsibility for change to take place.”

Carlos Pardo, psychologist and urban planner at Despacio: “I was just recently asking someone jokingly, ‘do you think we will come to Habitat IV?’ We may have electric cars and a lot of technology, but if we continue going down the path that we’re on it’s highly probable that Habitat IV will have 200 participants in total, and that the global population will be 100 million at most. Because with the lack of seriousness of action, and the lack of proper mechanisms to actually improve things, this is the way things are moving”

Janice Perlman, founder and president of The Mega-Cities Project: “When I come to Habitat IV, I expect to see an enormous flourishing of either the retrograde old guard that denied climate change, denied inclusion, denied the rights of poor people, young people, dark-skinned people to be part of it and it’s all gonna be private sector real estate people talking to the government people they support as candidates. Or we’re gonna see a huge flourishing of real partnerships where the neighborhoods that are now called marginal or informal will be a normal part of the diversity of neighborhoods in the city. There will be the very rich, the medium rich, the rich, the middle class and there will be the low income groups, but they will all have equal citizenship and they will all have a voice in creating their strategic plan for the next 30 years. I’m hoping for the second scenario, but I’m not counting on it, because the forces against change are very strong, as well as the forces to preserve the privilege of the privileged. They already have the money, they already control a lot of the power. It’s not going to be with light-hearted abandon that they are really going to embrace the fact that they’ll all be better off if they have a city for all and everyone has the right to the city and the city centre.”

Elias George, CEO of the Cochin Smart Mission Limited: “I think in many places it has to be successful because Habitat III is creating a platform where people around the world can meet and exchange ideas and what they are currently doing in their city. Another opportunity for the people is that this process has the strength of organisations like GIZ, WRI, ICLEI – and there are so many NGOs. So with their help many cities should be able to see good progress. I think we’re on the right track.”

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