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Everything You Need to Know About the Momentous Habitat III

A beginner’s guide to what will take place at the United Nations conference, and why it matters for the future of cities.

A laborer wields at the construction site of a bridge in New Delhi. (Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters)

For the next several days, more than 30,000 mayors, ministers, policymakers, and urbanists will flock to the city with one of Latin America’s largest and best preserved historic centers to make a plan for the future.

They’re gathering in Quito, Ecuador, for the third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, better known as Habitat III. The four-day summit, beginning Monday, takes place once every 20 years, and is a chance to develop a sustainable plan for a rapidly urbanizing world.

To get one thing clear: The gathering won’t magically solve all the problems related to urbanization. But the hope is it will help cities—and the world—to better adjust to the urban boom. At the foundation of the conference is the New Urban Agenda, a declaration of intent to make cities more livable. The conference is a way for leaders to figure out how they’ll follow through.

Like the now-expired Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals that replaced it, the New Urban Agenda isn’t legally binding. But unlike the others, it’s not merely a list of targets “to be achieved and moved beyond,” says the Brookings Institution’s Alaina Harkness, who will be moderating a panel on financing at the event. Rather, they were written as guidelines and priorities that cities need to start tackling over the next two decades.

The History of Habitat

Habitat emerged from the realization that 20th century cities were growing quickly and haphazardly. The UN gathered world leaders in Vancouver in 1976 to discuss the boom in urbanization, particularly in developing nations. What became known as the first Habitat conference also attracted luminaries such as Margaret Mead, geodesic-dome proselyte Buckminster Fuller, Mother Teresa, and Paolo Soleri, who designed an experimental “city” in the Arizona desert meant to nurture a compact, utopian society.

Habitat I gave rise to the UN Commission on Human Settlements, which for the next two decades scored a mixed record in dealing with urbanization. Concern about city growth wasn’t on many governments’ radars then, as two-thirds of the global population was still rural. The political will, not to mention finances, simply wasn’t there to address wealth disparities, limited access to education, and metastasizing slums.

When Habitat II convened in Istanbul in 1996, the UN announced the ambitious goals of providing adequate shelter for all and sustainable towns and cities in an urbanizing world. More than 170 countries signed onto a “Habitat Agenda” laying out pledges and recommendations to address overpopulation, poverty, homelessness, poor urban planning, vulnerability to disasters, and environmental destruction.

In 2002 the UN elevated its Commission on Human Settlements into the Human Settlements Programme, or UN-Habitat, which today partners with governments, nongovernmental agencies, and others to promote its goals. UN-Habitat’s Quito gathering is arguably more important now than ever, with 2.5 billion more people expected to pack into cities by 2050 and all the challenges to housing, economic equality, infrastructure, and environment that meteoric growth entails.

What is the New Urban Agenda?

At the center of the conference is the New Urban Agenda, a 23-page document that lays the groundwork for policies and initiatives that will shape cities over the next 20 years. It lists 175 commitments and principles that reflect an ambitious vision in which cities drive sustainable development around the world and where “all persons are able to enjoy equal rights and opportunities.”

The agenda calls for sustainable consumption to address climate change, for example. As part of the vision to make cities work better for people, the agenda pushes for safer and more efficient public transit systems. There is also a commitment to end extreme poverty and discrimination against underserved groups including women, children, and refugees. It places emphasis on international cooperation to ensure the safety of migrants, and on creating policies that ensure adequate housing and standards of living for all.

“There are themes that come up so clearly over and over again,” says Harkness. “And they’re about making places sustainable for people.”

At the end of the summit, the heads of the 193 member states are expected to officially sign and adopt the agenda following days of discussion about how it will be put into practice. And if the four months of drafting and revising the final version of the agenda are any signal, negotiations about implementation could be contentious. (Progress stalled several times as diplomats disagreed over the language in the document and the role of UN Habitat.)

The Cotopaxi volcano spews smoke as seen from north of Quito, Ecuador. (Guillermo Granja/Reuters)

What issues will Habitat III target?

Lots. Here’s the short list:

Housing: About a quarter of urban dwellers on Earth live in slums or informal settlements. Participants in Quito will discuss affordable housing, integrating housing into more urban policies and addressing health issues that result from overcrowding. Expect further talk about how to fight land speculation, residential segregation, and urban sprawl. There’s also likely to be head scratching over the massive amount of homes needed to shelter the world’s future population—it’s estimated that by 2025 we’ll need at least 1 billion new urban homes, at a cost somewhere between $9 to $11 trillion.

Migration: It’s estimated there are more than a billion people on earth who are migrants. Most, whether forced out by war, persecution, or lack of employment, move to urban areas. Habitat III participants will discuss how to open up all that cities have to offer, instead of having them live in segregated enclaves with few opportunities or legal rights. Future actions might include laws guaranteeing their rights and safety, and improved access to education, healthcare, and jobs.

Infrastructure: About 60 percent of the area predicted to turn urban by 2030 is currently undeveloped. Meanwhile, this urbanization is expected to require some $57 trillion in global investment. Habitat III will encourage talks about the herculean effort needed to provide solid, safe infrastructure to existing and future communities—clean drinking water, better waste-management practices, and resilience to earthquakes and severe storms, especially in low-income countries.

Climate change: Earth's 40 biggest cities are responsible for a full third of the planet's fossil-fuel CO2 emissions. At the same time, urban areas' booming populations makes them vulnerable for huge damages to life and property from sea-level rise, heat waves, extreme rain events, and other perils of climate change. Habitat III attendees will discuss battling global warming by building compact, efficient cities so people don’t have to drive everywhere. They’re also likely to talk about powering cities with renewable energy, enhancing green spaces to store carbon and reduce the urban heat island, and expanding bike-and-pedestrian infrastructure.

Inclusion: The largest cities are also some of the most unequal, in terms of wealth, basic rights, and political power. Habitat III will address the need to make cities more inclusive by engaging slum denizens, minority groups, women, youth, and the elderly. There will be a focus on making urban areas more friendly to disabled people, especially via inexpensive design principles, and building support systems for undocumented workers.

What should you expect at the conference?

The conference is the first step to implementing the New Urban Agenda. During these four days, ministers, mayors, and non-state agencies will network and find opportunities to partner with one another. Through various plenaries, round-table discussions, and special sessions they will also hold discussions on issues like how to finance such an ambitious vision, how to measure success, and who will ultimately oversee its implementation. Although the terms of the agenda have already been agreed upon, participants are expected to bring criticisms and differing perspectives to the table.

One major area of contention will revolve around the dynamic between national and local leaders. While the New Urban Agenda highlights the significance of involving national policymakers, it does little to outline the specific role of city leaders. It does explicitly aim to strengthen the “capacity of subnational and local governments,” but only “in-line with national legislation and policies.”

On the eve of the conference, mayors from around the world will gather to announce the Second World Assembly of Local and Regional Authorities. That’s the declaration emphasizing the need to give local officials more say in high-level talks traditionally reserved for national authorities.

It’s one thing to say cities should do all these things, says Harkness, but it’s another to hash out who gets to implement these guidelines and under what conditions. Organizers expect to hear talks on whether urban policies should be set by national governments or by individual cities—a concept that’s sure to draw opposing views from authoritarian and democratic countries. That will, in turn, influence whether national urban policies should be used as a measure of success.

As Michele Acuto, a professor of urban theory at the University College London, argued in Nature, cities need a seat at the top table. Cities across the globe have already taken the lead in solving challenges like climate change—a fact recognized in the recent Paris climate talks—and human rights. “But the promise of cities is hampered by patchy collaboration with national governments,” he writes, “limited access to global governance processes such as the SDGs and Habitat III, meager funding for collaboration, and poor data collection and sharing.”

What’s some of the neat stuff happening on the ground?

The 1976 Habitat in Vancouver featured anti-whaling expeditions, environmental benefit concerts, and paper-mache pavilions made from a modular form called a “Hexaphypar.” What fun stuff could this year's Habitat bring to Quito? It looks a bit wonkier than Vancouver; here's a sampling of the schedule:

• A “Habitat III” village demonstrating innovations in sustainability and urban planning. Exhibits include a four-story building loaded with green technology, community gardens, electric taxis and commuter buses, a fake trash-strewn beach to highlight river pollution, bicycle-powered phone chargers, and a station for creating masks that filter air pollution.

• Intriguing side events that may or may not take place (they’re listed as “provisionally scheduled”) such as “How to provide unique postal addresses (and therefore identities) to slum dwellers,” “Using Minecraft for community participation in public space design,” and “Urban cable cars—is the future of urban mobility above our heads?”

• A meeting to set firm goals for enhancing public spaces—leaders hope that by 2030 cities will “provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, particularly for women and children, older persons, and persons with disabilities.”

• Discussions on making sustainable food systems an integral part of cities, touching on urban agriculture, forestry, and nutrition.

What will Habitat III accomplish?

The success of Habitat III will depend in part on what policies and strategies come out of the conference. What the next Habitat will focus on in 2036, and ultimately what our urban future looks like, will depend on whether countries and the cities within them have the resources and willpower to make good on their commitments. Harkness emphasizes, for instance, the need to consider not only the financial obligations but also the technology available, saying governments need to “get smarter with data.”

The conference isn’t without its criticisms. Speaking to Reuters this week in London, a leading government resilience expert from South Africa warned that the guidelines set by the agenda are too vague and too “aspirational” for cities to act on. “It doesn’t tell me as a local government official how I should do anything differently,” said Debra Roberts, chief resilience officer of the city of Durban. She added that the success will come down to understanding the unique problems of each city and therefore, the unique solutions they need. A global policy isn’t going to cut it.

Harkness agrees, but remains optimistic that when leaders look back, they can at least say that they’ve made improvements. “And for every city,” she says, “that is going to look different.”

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