Author: Petra Hurtado
Last week the third UN-Habitat conference, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, took place in Quito, Ecuador. After Vancouver in 1976 and Istanbul in 1996, this was the third time that the UN member states and their urban stakeholders came together to discuss current urban challenges and applicable solutions. The conference was proceeded by a 2-year preparation process that resulted in the agreement on a New Urban Agenda, a 24-page document, outlining goals and action items to make cities more sustainable and livable for everyone. Read here a short summary on what has been discussed in Quito and how we can use the New Urban Agenda to create sustainable cities.
For some, this New Urban Agenda is a milestone in urban history, offering solutions for pretty much any problem we face today: Urban inequality that results in many other problems such as violence, crime, and a vicious circle for those in poverty. The need for an integration of ecosystems and biodiversity into urban planning efforts to sustain the lifelines of cities. Resilience as an issue that doesn’t stop at the city boundaries, but should be handled at a regional scale. Health as a defining issue for urbanization, its influence on urban development and vice versa.
Others criticize the document for being more like a “laundry list”, not offering a clear road map for its implementation. More leadership would be needed for the creation of collaboration networks with a plan to take science and politics to practice.
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The New Urban Agenda is definitely not an action plan that can just be copied and pasted and immediately be implemented. However, even though cities are different, their issues are more or less the same, no matter where in the world we are. Everyone has to be aware that it is in the member states’ hands now to go ahead and implement what has been written down in this 24-page document and what has been discussed in Quito, considering not just the national levels, but especially the local ones. Out of what was discussed in Quito, cities have to create long-term comprehensive approaches with short-term inclusive actions. The New Urban Agenda is a global document, but it’s implementation and impact have to be local.
Listening to the statements of the national representatives during the implementation roundtables on October 18, it seemed that this point has been understood. Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda were about getting the basics right. Exchange of best practices and ideas is essential and Habitat III was a good starting point to create platforms for those types of collaborations and knowledge sharing. At the same time, it was agreed that collaboration can’t just be a sum of individuals. Urban problems don’t know boarders; we all have to work together to implement the New Urban Agenda. Everything is connected and it is the city where everything comes together. Cities are therefore also the most important partner for the implementation of the Paris Agreement. Global collaboration is critical for local impact.
Three pillars for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda were mentioned: cities and municipalities, national governments, and global partnerships. Local policies and national policies have to be aligned with the New Urban Agenda. At the same time, the primary actors for its implementation are the people. Urban issues have to be extended beyond local governments, including the people in decision processes and understanding what they have to say. The main tenor was that we have to make sure we create cities that work for everyone. The ‘right to the city’ as a new paradigm, using public spaces and infrastructure as tools for social integration, has long been neglected, but was finally also broadly discussed in Quito.
The Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena claimed in his presentation the need for a change from reactive to proactive approaches for urban development. “If we design good cities, then we can achieve development.” In the end, a good city is the city where humans feel happy and are able to live in balance with nature. However, during many discussions in Quito, the question of how to measure progress and what indicators to use arose, knowing that definitions of progress, well-being, and development have been too money-based, neglecting the real needs of humans.
Obviously, a lot of different issues were discussed and it seems like cities are the places to solve them. The comprehensiveness of the New Urban Agenda can be criticized or embraced. However, even if the New Urban Agenda might be a laundry list, we all have to understand that we still have to do our laundry ourselves. Knowledge sharing and global collaboration are the instruments for better understanding how the solutions to similar challenges may look like. However, every city has to find their own and most suitable way of implementing them locally.
Let’s hope that the momentum of Habitat III will be present for a while longer and that together with the Paris Agreement, the New Urban Agenda will guide us towards the right direction. One thing is for sure, with more than half of the world’s population living in cities, we will have to address all these global issues on a city level, offering scalable solutions. As Ban Ki Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said: “Our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities.”