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Habitat III: A New Approach to Urban Development?

Source: The Contemporary                       Author: Maggie Poulos

While researching social movements in Mexico earlier this year, I had the privilege of meeting with Román, a sustainable farmer from Oaxaca. We discussed the traditional farming techniques he relies on to live, but also the threat of forced urbanization on his community. With the support of the Mexican government, transnational mining corporations are displacing farming families to develop their land. Román’s story is that of millions of Latin Americans, whose traditional ways of life are incompatible to the urban policies of their governments.

Perhaps with the pressure of the international community and shifting global norms, Latin American governments will be encouraged to approach urban development in a more inclusive and peaceful way for their citizens.

From Oct. 17-19, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development convened for its third conference, in Quito, Ecuador, to develop a global agenda to implement sustainable strategies for development. The UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, also known as Habitat III, aimed to implement a “New Urban Agenda” focused on developing a methodology of sustainable urbanization that supports long-term growth and resilience. Building upon the collaborative efforts of the Habitat Agenda of Istanbul from over 20 years ago, the conference resulted in the delivery of an action-oriented document to help implement development goals. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged global leaders to “take strong ownership” of a new agenda for sustainable urban development; the conference itself is known for its broadly encompassing membership and welcomed the participation of diplomats, professionals, and academia alike. He called on these 30,000 representatives directly by declaring, “In short, your role is growing by the year …You are faced with the immediate daily demands of your people: for housing, transport, infrastructure, and basic services.” After 60 years of turbulent and dynamic urban growth in Latin America, 80% of inhabitants live in cities or towns and 122 million live in urban poverty. Crime, organized drug cartels, and insecurity are rampant, as Latin America’s economic and social policies try to catch up to these rapid developments.

With the backdrop of Quito, Ecuador, hopefully the international community will place special attention on the needs of Latin Americans specifically.

Launched in 1976, the Habitat process came about due to the global acknowledgement of issues associated with rapid urbanization. These include inequality, poor quality of life, low standards of living, and unsustainable development. Its first conference focused on incorporating civil society organizations into designing sustainable strategies towards urban development, and established the organization UN Habitat. In 1996, the second conference produced a Habitat Agenda of over 200 pages that recognized the importance of ensuring liveable shelter for all people. Habitat III had a number of themes for its discussion, including “climate change, safe cities, renewable energy, sustainable housing, social inclusion policies, social issues in transport, women’s right to the city and financing urban initiatives.” It was also one of the first global summits to convene following the adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, the product of the UN Sustainable Development Summit in Sept. 2015. The strategies developed and outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development were based on the discussions of sustainable urban development, the goals delineated in the 2030 Agenda being attentive to inclusive, safe, and sustainable methods of building infrastructure, reducing inequality, and industrializing safely.

The central focus of the conference was the Zero Draft of the New Urban Agenda (NUA), which had already been previously revised three times during the year. The concise document emphasizes the global effort towards sustainability and the significant role that national governments play in implementing sustainable strategies of development. It also underscores the importance of community inclusion in the process of implementation; local authorities, community organizations, and the private sector should all play major roles. This reflects the changing nature of governance towards a more multilateral, polycentric, and inclusive model, although the document does not specifically delegate responsibilities to these actors. An interesting component of the Zero Draft is its language of the “right to the city,” which urges governments to recognize that cities are for their inhabitants, and to focus on efforts that are beneficial to the public. The New Urban Agenda is a non-binding document, meaning that its signatories are not required to apply the standards in the agenda. In addition, the draft does not include measures to address who implements the agenda, how it should be implemented, or the methods that should be used to assess the progress of cities. Though non-binding documents do not legally require state action, they are representative of a promising step towards shifting norms in the international community and encourage the shifting of domestic policies through state pressure.

Quito is the first city in the developing world to take on the role of hosting the conference, perhaps representing the hope and importance of sustainable urban development in South America specifically. South America’s history of forced urbanization and displacement is an ironic backdrop for a conference concerning urban development, and serves as a reminder of the issues surrounding urbanization. Many participants and observers are hopeful about the outcome of Habitat III, because it could represent a significant shift in thinking about sustainable urbanization.

On-going conversations about climate change and the responsibility of global leaders in initiating progress will intersect and align with sustainable urbanization.

Previous commitments to curbing carbon emissions could be incorporated into these new conversations, and perhaps global leaders will feel more compelled to develop and implement sustainable strategies. As with any non-binding document adopted by the United Nations, a main concern following the conference will be how countries will be held accountable for progress, and what incentives will be needed in order for local authorities and the private sector to implement the policies. Nevertheless, recent years have demonstrated a shift in global norms and discourse surrounding urbanization, which is a hopeful step towards implementing progressive policies.