Live from Quito, Day 1: The official opening of Habitat III

Habitat III, the long-awaited global conference on urbanisation, was officially opened on Monday morning. In his opening remarks, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon thanked Ecuador for hosting the conference in Quito. Like other cities of the Global South, Quito manifests many of the biggest problems of urbanisation. It “reflects both the challenges of sustainable development and many of the solutions the world will need in the years to come,” said the Secretary General about the city that was one of the first to be declared a World Heritage Site in the 1970s.

Cities are “remarkable engines of growth, centres of diversity and hubs of creativity” that will only become more important, said Ban Ki-Moon. At the same time, he added, urban areas are growing rapidly and frequently unplanned. “The pollution that cities produce and the products they consume have dramatic consequences for the environment. So it is clear that transforming our world for the better means transforming our towns and cities. That means better urban governance, planning and design.” Ban Ki-Moon further emphasised that “it means more investment in adequate and affordable housing, quality infrastructure and basic services. And it means engaging women and girls in making towns and cities safer and more productive for all.”

The Secretary General of Habitat III, Joan Clos, spoke of his excitement about the expected outcome of the Habitat III conference – the adoption of the New Urban Agenda – which will be a major step towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Peter Thomson, President of the UN General Assembly, referred to the New Urban Agenda as a means to “guiding humanity to a sustainable urban future.”

Thousands of delegates from all over the world have travelled to Quito to take part in Habitat III. Over the course of the next four days, a wide range of events will take place. Many of these events will be taking place at the Habitat III Exhibition, a designated area where member states, organisations and institutions, civil society, and the private sector can showcase their work.

At this venue, the German Pavilion was officially opened yesterday. The concept of the pavilion itself is an outstanding example for sustainable urban development: all the building materials used for the pavilion will be re-used to construct four houses in the Ecuadorian regions that were hit by an earthquake in April 2016. In the pavilion, each part that will be reused is indicated and labelled, so that visitors can tell what will become of the different elements.

The German Pavilion not only serves as material storage for the new houses, it also directly reflects the idea of a “second life” for the pavilion’s building material. It builds on the idea that making a pavilion for an exhibition is as basic a design problem, as making a house that responds to a natural catastrophe. The German Pavilions hosts the exhibition “Planetary Urbanism: The Transformative Power of Cities”, showing a selection of outstanding entries in the medium of information design, and demonstrating essential characteristics of the ongoing urbanisation process. Supported by the German Federal Foreign Office, the exhibition is curated by ARCH+ Magazine for Architecture and Urbanism, and realized in collaboration with architects from Ecuador.

Mobility is key for the liveable city of the future

One major aspect for sustainable cities is access to affordable, safe, clean and reliable mobility, especially in developing countries. At Habitat III, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) launched its new Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI). The BMZ and its partners will work together to strengthen cities in their financial and legal capacity to provide modern and sustainable transportation. “TUMI,” said Clayton Lane from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, “can be a great transformative initiative for urban mobility.” Next year alone, Germany is going to invest EUR 1 billion in sustainable mobility infrastructure and capacity building of more than 1,000 leaders from ministries, local authorities and universities. 250 million more people will thus be moved by public transport or have access to safe bicycle lanes and footpaths. “TUMI is putting flesh onto the bones of implementing the New Urban Agenda,” said Cornie Huizenga from the Partnership On Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SloCaT).

Implementing the New Urban Agenda

How to guarantee an effective implementation of the New Urban Agenda was the focus of a panel discussion organized by BMZ and GIZ and hosted by the Ford Foundation on Monday afternoon. Participants debated the questions of: how member states can organize the follow-up and review process of the New Urban Agenda; how the sub-national level can be involved; and how such processes can be made inclusive and participatory.

The panelists agreed that a whole range of indicators are needed to review the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. However, opinions differed as to how specific these indicators should be in order to make the reviews comparable, or how strongly the indicators should be adapted to local circumstances. Dr Eduardo López-Moreno from UN-Habitat strongly advocated the indicators to be collected locally. “Many countries,” he explained, “oppose the existing indicators provided by the SDGs and the Agenda 2030 – and with reason. They don’t match their particular needs.” Professor Michael Cohen from the New School in New York City, on the other hand, emphasized the need for a limited set of general indicators to make the progress and state of implementation comparable. Nevertheless, both agreed that reliable data must provide the basis for the monitoring process. However, the need to take action for an effective follow-up and review process was made absolutely clear.

What makes cities smart – and sustainable

What sustainable urban development could look like in practice was illustrated in a presentation on the “Smart City Kochi” project. Kochi is the financial capital of the South Indian province of Kerala. Over the next 20 years, India’s urban population will grow by 250 million people. The city of Kochi is a frontrunner in supporting sustainable urban transition. The Smart City project focuses on the small area of the historic port city of Kochi. The term “smart” in the project’s name does not only refer to the use of information and communication technology (ICT), but also its cross-sectoral approach. The proof-of-concept project works on a sustainable transport system, including ferries, but also aims to rejuvenate the city’s canals, parks and walkways as well as to revive the identity and cultural heritage of Kochi.

Whether “Smart Cities” are really what India currently needs is a polemic and much discussed topic, explains Sarah Habersack from GIZ. But the area-based approach opens up the possibility for integrated development that brings together a lot of different departments. The Kochi project offers the chance to try integrated planning in a small area. The project’s progress needs to be well-observed and monitored, says Habersack. Successes can lead to the upscaling of the project, while failures are lessons to be learned in order to find good means to implement the New Urban Agenda on a local level.

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