Habitat III: Towards a Vision for Sustainable Cities

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Habitat III / UN Habitat

“The battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities.” So reads the preamble to the New Urban Agenda, a draft document recently released by UN-Habitat ahead of its Habitat III Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, to be held this October in Quito, Ecuador. Habitat III, which picks up 20 years after Habitat II in Istanbul, Turkey, aims to help global cities cope with climate change and exploding population growth by offering a global plan for sustainable urbanization over the next two decades. UN Habitat has spent the past year collecting input from around the world for this new plan; their hope is it represents the latest global thinking on sustainability and cities and captures the collective wisdom of academia, non-governmental organizations, citizens groups, and local and national governments.

Here are some highlighted ideas in the latest draft, which will continue to be debated, but will ultimately become, in some form, part of the agreement among 150-plus national governments meeting in Quito:

Preserve nature to build sustainability and resilience

The New Urban Agenda notes that cities, many of which are on coasts or rivers, are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As such, national governments will be asked to commit to sustainable urban development efforts that protect the environment, preserve natural resources, reduce risks associated with natural disasters, and promote economic and social well-being. This is to be done through “environmentally-sound planning, infrastructure, and basic services.”

A very positive step: the current draft gives special consideration to the protection of ecological corridors, urban deltas, coastal areas, “and other environmentally sensitive areas, highlighting their importance as ecosystems’ providers of significant resources for transport, food security, economic prosperity, ecosystem services, and resilience.”

The agenda also focuses on a common issues for cities: their heavy reliance on distant sources of food, water, and energy, and the implications for sustainability and resilience.

While these statements might not sound groundbreaking, they represent a sea change in the thinking on how cities should perform since the Habitat II conference twenty years ago.

Urban form and infrastructure are key to prosperous and equitable cities

The agenda describes affordable housing options and quality public spaces as two ingredients necessary for a prosperous and equitable city for all.

The agenda contains strong language on affordable housing. Adequate housing for all is seen as key to raising urban living standards. Also, cities, the document reads, should focus “on the needs of the homeless and persons in vulnerable situations, while enabling participation and engagement of communities and stakeholders.” This is a change from an earlier draft that some considered weak with regards to supporting under-served populations.

The principles of efficient land use and appropriate density, along with considerations for safety and security, inter-generational interaction, and respect for diversity, will guide the development of public spaces.

Public space is central to sustainable urbanization

The latest draft calls for national governments to commit to “developing universally safe, inclusive, accessible, green and quality public spaces.” This includes parks and public squares but also streets and sidewalks. Multi-functional spaces — those that serve “social interaction and inclusion, economic exchange and cultural expression among a wide diversity of people” — will be prioritized.

Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, principal of Heritage Landscapes LLC, who has followed the Habitat discussion for several years, believes the agenda can still be improved. “My key issue,” O’Donnell said, “is having Habitat III outcomes recognize the critical intersections of cultural diversity and biodiversity upon which life on earth depends.”

O’Donnell expressed hope that the agenda items and outcomes of the conference would make a difference. “Action will rely on the commitment of leaders at the national level in any country, to champion and give voice to the objectives and programs.”

For too long national governments have not provided enough financial support to cities as they seek to transition to more sustainable forms of growth. Hopefully, Habitat III, which will be approved by all the leading housing and urban development officials of the world, will lead to more smart planning and increased investment in our cities, which are expected to be home to 2.5 billion people by 2050.

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