An aerial view of a slum in Caracas, Venezuela. Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

The UN summit, coming in October, happens only every 20 years and aims to chart the path of global cities in the 21st Century.

The summer Olympics in Rio are fading into memory, but the world’s attention did focus, however fleetingly, on urban conditions in the Brazilian city—the challenges of life in the favelas, the specter of crime both real and imagined, and the future uses of new infrastructure that made the games possible.

Now comes another international event that most people aren’t aware of, also in a South American city, that has an even greater mandate: to set an agenda for the world’s rapidly urbanizing metropolitan areas. There won’t be any medals awarded at Habitat III, the United Nations-led global cities summit set for Quito, Ecuador, in October. But organizers are hoping for a similar zeitgeist: calling attention to the urgent need to better plan the planet’s cities, particularly in the developing world.

This summit only happens every 20 years. Habitat I was held in Vancouver in 1976, followed by Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996. Those meetings established a basic framework for wrestling with the challenges facing the world’s cities, but never quite set an implementable set of policies or goals concerning urbanization. With Habitat III, the United Nations agency charged with guiding sustainable urban policies worldwide—the UN Human Settlements Programme, also known as UN-Habitat—recognizes this may be the last best chance to chart a course for the rest of the 21st century.

It’s hard to get the countries of the world to agree on anything. But organizers, led by UN-Habitat executive director Joan Clos, a former mayor of Barcelona, are hoping for the global urban policy equivalent of the COP-21 consensus on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, forged in Paris last December. The sense of urgency is palpable—that it’s now or never.

Why all the heavy breathing? As readers of CityLab well know, more than half the world’s population, currently some 7 billion souls, now lives in cities. By 2050, two-thirds of the planet’s projected population of nearly 10 billion are expected to inhabit metropolitan areas. The rapid increases now are mostly attributed to rural migrants streaming in, in search of a better life; future generations will be born in the metropolis. The most growth will occur predominantly in the developing world, in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

The problem is that on the whole, this extraordinary process of urbanization isn’t going particularly well. The UN estimates that nearly 1 billion people are currently living in informal settlements, or slums, without access to basic services such as sanitation and clean water. Two-thirds of rural migrants in Africa are believed to be moving straight into shantytowns.

Analysis of satellite data from a forthcoming revision of the Atlas of Urban Expansion, a project led by my employer, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, shows an incredible sprawl of slums, expanding outward at the far periphery of the urban core, from Accra to Dhaka. At current rates, this unplanned growth worldwide will eat up land equivalent to the entire country of India. This vast consumption of land comes coupled with a poor quality and character of growth. It’s inefficient, willy-nilly, bad for ecosystems, bad for food security, and above all, bad for billions of poor people. Such inhumane conditions, in many cases exacerbated by the impacts of climate change, will be a tinderbox, increasing instability for the entire world.

What’s been clear is that the cities accommodating this unprecedented population growth have been woefully unprepared. It’s a little like driving a bus with a fraction of the capacity for riders, with no schedule and no route. The conceit of Habitat III is to suggest that there must be a better way. Improving the future growth of the world’s cities entails basic urban planning, inclusive economic growth, and principles of sustainability, both fiscal and environmental. UN-Habitat seeks to help cities grow more sensibly and humanely, and give them the tools and policy frameworks to achieve that mission. Simple enough.

The summit is supposed to conclude with an agreed-upon document of policies, commitments, and principles for 21st century city-building, ambitiously called the New Urban Agenda. This manifesto contains high-level language recognizing the central role of cities in the planet’s future, detailed statements about gender equality, disaster risk reduction, the financing of basic services and infrastructure, and also phrases such as: “Leave no one behind, by ending poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including the eradication of extreme poverty.” They’re not kidding around.

For the New Urban Agenda to be official, UN member states have to agree to it, which is the major challenge. In what might be described as typical parliamentarian wrangling for the international organization, the members have found it hard to reach consensus. Part of the problem is that the members are nations, while the New Urban Agenda is all about cities—local or “sub-national” governments in the parlance. Different countries have different ideas about what’s important, and resist being held accountable—to the extent they would be—on things they don’t agree with. There are turf and power issues riddled throughout.

The document was actually supposed to be finalized at a pre-Habitat III meeting in Surabaya, Indonesia, in July, but negotiators couldn’t resolve major differences, including where or whether to use the word “commitment.” Some even questioned whether UN-Habitat should be the entity in charge of the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

It’s all not exactly what organizers had in mind heading into Quito. But something good can still come out of Habitat III. Negotiators are planning to meet in New York City next month to try to finalize the New Urban Agenda document, so the summit itself can focus more on implementation.

And while it is important to have a bold and firm United Nations statement on the future of the world’s cities, there are parallel global efforts related to cities that have more teeth. Chief among these are the aforementioned Paris climate agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, a 17-point game plan for the planet through 2030. One of those goals, referred to in revered tones by Habitat III insiders, is Goal 11, which sums things up pretty nicely: “Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” Member states have already agreed to be held accountable, as much as that is possible, for achieving those goals.

The New Urban Agenda, never conceived as a binding charter, might benefit from being more flexible: making it a living, evolving document, where stakeholders can get together and add initiatives or frameworks when it becomes apparent they would be useful. That approach could also allow for advances in technology and smart infrastructure. A clean energy source or sanitation system that hasn’t yet been invented could reshuffle priorities.

Throughout, the Habitat III hopeful have also been mindful of accentuating the positive. The focus shouldn't be just triage to avert dystopia, but how cities are solutions that can do enormous good for the world. An important component here is enabling a two-way North-South dialogue, where successful cities share pro tips, but emerging economies also showcase innovations and experimentation. It could even be fun.

When up to 30,000 dedicated urbanists converge in the nearly two-mile high Ecuadorean capital in a little more than seven weeks, some sort of positive action is very likely. The summit seems poised to serve as a catalyst, promoting ferment among non-profit and civic institutions, and potentially enabling all kinds of partnerships focused on sustainable city-building initiatives. This is utter bias on my part, because I’m part of one of those institutions. It may also be the shared optimism of all those who have been involved in Habitat III, because at the end of the day, this is all about an organized effort to improve life for billions of people. Like the planet of cities the conference is focused on, it’s too big to fail.

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