What happened at Habitat III

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Every 20 years the world convene to talk exclusively about the future of cities. In 2016, the Habitat III conference gathered more than 30 000 ministers, mayors, policymakers, urbanists, and allied professionals. Quito the capital city of Ecuador hosted the four-day United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development popularly known as Habitat III. Flagship launch at the conference was the New Urban Agenda, a 23-page document that is a 20-year guide to urbanisation and human settlements.

Habitat III is third in a series of the urban conferences. The first conference was in 1976 and the second conference in 1986. The third conference, which happened after transcended urbanisation trends globally, 20 years after the last conference, challenged the conference to be futuristic and concrete on setting the sustainability agenda of cities. The conference came as a ‘reinvigoration’ of global political commitment to sustainability of towns, cities and other human settlements. The reinvigoration together with the pledges and obligations came to be the New Urban Agenda, a new strategy on urbanisation for the next 20 years.

What is the New Urban Agenda?

Flagship adoption at the conference was the New Urban Agenda, which lists 175 commitments and principles to guide the visions of cities for the next 20 years. After four months of drafting and revising which was characterised by negotiations, the 193 member states officially signed and adopted the agenda on the 20th of October 2016. The negotiations of the drafting faced constraints as diplomats disagreed over the language and the role of the UN Habitat in driving the agenda particularly the “rights to the city” narrative. Such contentions illustrate possible hurdles in the implementation of the agenda by member states.

Key issues in the agenda are climate change, safer and efficient public transit systems, ending of extreme poverty, urban equality and social justice, with emphasis on migration. Key to note on governance issues was the emphasis on the leading role of national governments in setting up national urban strategies. Such localisation empowered the prominence of mayors as key in international urbanisation issues. Local authorities and grassroots received attention for inclusion in the agenda though without further detail of their inclusion and on ‘appropriate’ conditionality. A prior World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders in Bogota from 12-15 October concretised empowerment of local leaders, where local leaders outlined their role in the agenda. In the age of cities as economic engines and global economic powerhouses, the “right to the city” seek to create “cities for people, not for profit”. This challenges planning to revert to its primary role of serving public interest.

Key themes discussed at Habitat III

Several issued were discussed at the conference and key among them were housing, migration, infrastructure, climate change and inclusiveness. Inclusiveness was the conference’s key theme by granting right to the city. Housing was a key narrative for inclusiveness in its provision as a basic need. Of course, it came with criticism on how a universal policy can be transformed into a local success given the variations on urban housing provision. Inclusion of migrants and refugees in the cities was another key component of inclusiveness emphasised by “right to the city”. This narrative also pushed the need for local and regional leaders to have a seat on the global discussion tables without the influence of national governments, for migration is a global issue. The infrastructure theme provoked the urban finance issue as local leaders are in quest for direct access to international finance for their cities and towns.

The Post- Habitat III

The success of the Habitat III conference lies mainly in the successfulness of the New Urban Agenda. As a global policy and strategic guideline until 2036. The success of the New Urban Agenda, however, is constrained by its non-binding nature and lack of practical advice to the local and regional leaders on how to drive the urban agenda differently. The agenda outlines the need to produce evidence from implementation. What the agenda misses though are indicators of implementation progress and ways of measuring progress. As the dust settles from the flagship conference, what remains to answer is how does the Agenda incentivise city inclusiveness in the hostile forces of cities as economic engines? How will it keep the excitement of empowered local leaders intact for the next 20 years? Empowerment of local governments was a key outcome of the Agenda. Coming to implementation possibilities of local government power and financial autonomy being considered a zero-sum game can constrain the whole framework of the agenda.

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