Help Shape the New Urban Agenda

The City We Need / UN Habitat
The City We Need / UN Habitat

Nearly twenty years ago, world leaders met in Istanbul, Turkey, to discuss the fate of cities at UN-Habitat’s Habitat II conference. For Michael Cohen, director, Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, The New School, who spoke at the Urban Thinkers Campus in New York City, that conference resulted in a interminable report that failed to solve the problems facing cities. But in a contrary view — Jan Peterson, Chair of Coordinating Council, Huairou Commission, said the Habitat II process gave a voice to hundreds of non-profit organizations from around the world for the first time and put “the world’s poor and women on the agenda. It was no longer just about academics and governments.” Now, twenty years later, the UN-Habitat is gearing up for another giant conference, Habitat III, which will convene in Quito, Ecuador in late October 2016. Just like Habitat II, there’s a risk the result will be an over-long report that will overwhelm all of governments, non-profits, and businesses’ goodwill to solve the most critical urban issues. But the process may also succeed in raising awareness of underserved urban populations and create a new consensus, a real vision for cities in the 21st century.

UN officials are hoping for nothing less than a total “rethink of the urban agenda.” The idea is to focus national policymakers’ attention on cities and get them to create new policy and regulatory frameworks that can help urbanites develop. UN Habitat wants to see greater global support for more sustainable urban planning and design, which is fantastic. However, none of this can happen without a better system of municipal finance. Cities need smarter investment if they are expected to grow in sustainable ways. Clearly, lots needs to be discussed with representatives from all sectors of the city.

There are many skeptics of these UN processes, too. At the meeting in New York City, Brent Toderain, Toderian UrbanWorks, a planning consultancy, said he has been a long-time critic of high-level international conversations. “These kinds of debates can actually be an unhelpful distraction. Just look at Agenda 21 and its impact in the U.S.” Too often at these big-profile summits, it’s “nations talk and cities act.” If an international dialogue is going to have any real impact, it must “be translated into action.”

Toderain sees five areas where action is needed:

First, every city — from Los Angeles to Nairobi — is “struggling with growth management.” In North America, Africa, South America, and Europe, there is unending sprawl. While sprawl may mean different things in the developing and developed worlds, it’s a problem everywhere.

Second, every city has an “infrastructure deficit, whether it’s providing water or WiFi.”

Third, traffic and mobility are a problem almost everywhere. “Whatever city you go to, it’s the first thing people want to talk about.” And it’s not an easy problem to fix. For example, while Medellin, Colombia, managed to “solve crime,” shutting down Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel, it still hasn’t been able to solve traffic. But there are lots of new solutions being tried as well. Paris and Stockholm are now experimenting with making their center cities totally car-free, a model that may spread to other cities.

Fourth, cities are all focused on improving public spaces. Pointing again to Medellin, he said that city has created remarkable and safe parks with free amenities for the poor, like museums and libraries. This signifies an amazing change there: “Twenty years ago, people were afraid to go out in public.”

Lastly, all cities are wrestling with equity and diversity issues. Cities may use different terms, but core issues relate to affordability, equal access, gentrification.

Ana Moreno, head of communications for UN-Habitat, said a new global discussion on cities is needed because “not all politicians are accountable, so people don’t know they have a voice and can participate in their own future.” In many countries, the private and non-profit sectors are getting together through a World Urban Campaign to provide feedback that will feed into the final report from the non-governmental sector at Habitat III. This feedback is being collected through Urban Thinkers Campuses and other meetings held around the world from now until next spring.

Each country is submitting an official national report that will feed into the governmental agreement at Habitat III. The U.S. has already submitted a draft National Report. U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) official Salin Geevarghese said HUD Secretary Julian Castro is leading that effort. The U.S. seeks to create a “broad, inclusive process” around key themes like housing for all, upward mobility, and improving resilience. He announced a set of regional public meetings designed to elevate the local conversation. “We want to surface local stories.”

The world is already more than half urban, and heading to two-thirds urban by 2050, but it’s not clear all national policymakers know this. Landscape architects and all other kinds of urban designers need to get involved. Write UN Habitat directly to see if they can join a constituent group of the General Assembly of Partners, which is collecting together all the feedback from the non-profit and private sectors. In the U.S., join in regional HUD meetings as they are announced in coming months. Planners can also submit comments via the American Planning Association (APA).

Also, check out up-to-the minute coverage of the process at Citiscope.

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