One Year Later: Reflections on the Habitat III Conference

Every 20 years since 1976, the United Nations has convened an international “Habitat” conference to develop a unified global vision for the future of urban development. These conferences provide opportunities for policymakers, practitioners, and civic leaders to come together to exchange knowledge and best practices to help inform more effective urban development. And like other counterpart UN conferences, they have invited non-technical actors the opportunity to interface with a global institution that at times seems bureaucratic, inanimate, and cumbersome.

UN Flag
Photo Credit: Adam Hasan, Ezra Rawitsch, and Aisling Henihan

In October 2016, I attended the Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador. Like its preceding Habitat I (Vancouver 1976) and Habitat II (Istanbul 1996) conferences, it concluded with the adoption of a policy document, the “New Urban Agenda,” intended to set the direction for urban development priorities until Habitat IV in 2036. Building on the work of its predecessor document, commonly referred to as the “Istanbul Declaration,” it is the actualization of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 11, “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.” The New Urban Agenda (NUA) sets priorities, guidance, and desired outcomes for achieving this goal through a nonbinding, multilateral international agreement. In the months leading up to Habitat III, UN-Habitat convened a series of thematically structured meetings that brought together experts, grassroots activists, and practitioners in cities around the world to discuss urban challenges ranging from security of land tenure to water and sanitation issues. Many of the recommendations from these meetings were ultimately included in the final draft of the NUA.

Photo Credit: Adam Hasan, Ezra Rawitsch, and Aisling Henihan

The New Urban Agenda has been described by its detractors as both vague and ineffectual, and by its proponents as ambitious and forward thinking. Despite the NUA’s criticisms, I found resonance with a number of key themes and stories from the Habitat III Conference and its attendees.

Approaching urban planning and related fields through a rights-based approach. A key element of the New Urban Agenda was its inclusion of Henri Lefebvre’s “right to the city” as its guiding development philosophy. At times nebulous, the right to the city is a right to human dignity, access, inclusion, and participatory democracy. It means having the opportunity to build the communities we want to live in – regardless of background or geography – and producing spaces and institutions that allow us all to do that. For an illustration of a rights-based approach, the Urban Law Lab, a project of Thomas Coggin at Fordham University Law School, uses narrative storytelling to demonstrate the links between human rights and urbanism.

Technical information must be shared across related disciplines and fields to allow for greater collaboration between practitioners, academics, and other stakeholder groups. We can build better communities, institutions, and cities when diverse stakeholder groups are incorporated in planning processes. Initiatives like the Local Pathways Fellowship, sponsored by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, are working to empower cohorts of young people to take an active role in shaping their cities by providing tangible resources and a global network for collaboration. The program connects a cohort of discipline-diverse youth to technical experts in a variety of fields to spread knowledge and encourage collaboration on implementing the New Urban Agenda in cities around the world.

Ban Ki Moon
Photo Credit: Adam Hasan, Ezra Rawitsch, and Aisling Henihan

Expanding the conversation to involve more stakeholder groups requires new methods of engagement – and new ways of thinking. Relying on conventional forms of media to reach broader non-technical audiences is insufficient. Narrative nonfiction storytelling and works of art can also be incorporated as instruments to reframe our thinking about cities. They are a great reminder of the diverse ways individuals shape the city through the production of social and cultural urban space. In Kinshasa, D.R.C., which is commonly regarded internationally as dysfunctional, seeing the city through the eyes of a fashion designer opens the door to a lesser-known identity as a design capital of Africa. Using creative, mixed media approaches helps broaden the perspective of practitioners and engage a wider swath of the public.

Think local! Localizing solutions to big picture challenges is always relevant for planners. But outside the context of best practices, thinking local means empowering citizens and communities to co-produce data and solutions alongside practitioners. Slum Dwellers’ International, a global network of grassroots informal settlement dwellers, has profiled over 7,000 of their own communities in almost 225 cities worldwide through their “Know Your City” campaign. Identifying community needs and assets using an adaptable, localized, and co-produced action research method is empowering slum dwellers with powerful tools to advocate for themselves.

Photo Credit: Adam Hasan, Ezra Rawitsch, and Aisling Henihan

A year after Habitat III, I remain encouraged and empowered by the diverse stories I heard from leaders and urban dwellers around the world. But I came to realize by the end of the conference that the great urban challenges of our time will be solved as much with quotidian solutions as with extraordinary ones. As dense as UN policy documents can sometimes seem, implementing the New Urban Agenda simply means working to make our communities more inclusive and sustainable for ourselves and our neighbors. As a student, the experience of attending Habitat III continues to challenge me to think creatively about our world’s urban future, and the role we all have to play in shaping it.

About the author: Adam Hasan is an undergraduate senior at UNC.