Habitat III – the power of cities for global transformation

Cities are at the forefront of sustainable development and are often more progressive than nations. This was again in focus in Quito 17-20 October at Habitat III, the third UN conference on housing and sustainable urban development which attracted more than 30 000 visitors. The “New Urban Agenda” was adopted pointing out the importance of our rapidly urbanizing cities to develop in a way that suits both people and planet. Our role as architects, urban planners and designers, is to work as practitioners in a specific physical location to make this sustainable development happen.

The New Urban Agenda, Global Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement

Over the course of about one year, three important agreements have been adopted: the New Urban Agenda, The Sustainable Development Goals (also called Global Goals or Agenda 2030) and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change agreed at COP21. Since more than half of the world’s population live in urban areas and cities account for 70 % of global GDP as well as global GHG emissions, the role of cities is crucial for reaching goals in all three of these agreements.

What is Habitat III and the “New Urban Agenda”? 

The New Urban Agenda (NUA) is an internationally negotiated document that calls for compact cities, polycentric growth, mixed-use streetscapes, prevention of sprawl and transit-oriented development. The document is action oriented and aims to set global standards of achievement in sustainable urban development. The ambition is to rethink the way we build, manage and live in cities through cooperation with partners, stakeholders and urban actors at all levels of government as well as the private sector.

White’s participation is part of our continued work towards sustainable cities and our commitment to Global Goals, reflected in our strategic plan.

We were represented by Ulrika Stenkula, Viktoria Walldin and Johan Dahlberg (pictured below).
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Some reflections:

  • Urban land is growing faster than population i.e. urban areas are becoming less dense, globally.
  • We have to tread carefully in the new digital age and need to ensure that new technologies are used to break urban segregation.
  • Modernistic ideals from the 20th century have to be replaced by human centered planning
  • Collaboration is key. Collaboration between different disciplines in our field of practice but also between researchers, policymakers and practitioners. Between cities. Between different groups in society.

Urbanization – conflicts and new perspectives

This topic of urbanization was of course prominent in seminars and in the exhibition. One interesting fact that was brought up during a seminar organized by London School of Economics (LSE) is that urban land is growing faster than population growth. This has different implications but one is that, globally, cities are expanding even though about half of them have adopted compact agendas. The drivers for urbanization differ greatly. In Europe, growth of urban land happens primarily because of economic growth and increased wealth while in other parts of the world it’s mainly because of population growth, for example migration.

“If cities have inequalities accumulated over time and you put rational market logic on top of that, the market will reproduce the inequality” – Karen Seto, Yale

Digitalization for everyone

Digitalization has been discussed in both a broad context and in detail with practical examples) Learnings from earlier technological breakthroughs have taught us that we have to make sure that the benefits of new technologies are equally shared in society. In a seminar on Smart Cities, Victor Vegara, from the World Bank, said that “A smart city can’t be unfair. A smart city can’t be poor. If a smart city only benefits the rich, it’s not smart”. World-wide, only a third of the population has access to the internet. Will new ways of collecting, analyzing and visualizing data only increase the gap between those with access and those without or can they be used as a driver for equity in cities?

During the same seminar, Gary Fowlie also discussed the use of data, saying that “Economic theory is fine as long as everything stays the same… We have always used data to make decisions. The challenge now is that it comes from many sources and the more data you have, the harder it is to take it and make useful knowledge … More data is not necessarily what we need. Smarter data is.”

 Human centered planning and poverty reduction

Often discussed at the seminars of Habitat III was the fact that cities are for people. The cities that were developed during the 20th century largely departed from modernistic ideals. Richard Sennet from NY University described it well during Urban Talks around the Athens charter developed by le Corbusier in the 1930’s: “[The idea that] a city can be organized like a beautiful machine is a modernist dream of efficiency. Today that dream has turned into a nightmare”. Joan Clos, Director of UN Habitat, pointed out that “the plan does not make the city. What makes the city is the interaction.” Together with Ricky Burdett, LSE and Saskia Sassen, Columbia university, they put forward the “Quito papers” as a reaction to the Athens Charter which they claim is responsible for today’s isolated tower blocks which are disconnected from the surrounding city. In their vision cities are “porous”, “complex”, “synchronous” and “incomplete”.

While these four come from a strong academic point of view, their ideas raise questions that are relevant for our everyday practice. What cities are we building? Who are we building them for? What ideals form our thinking of what a city is? And how much can you plan for in a city?

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The panel on research and practice

Habitat X Change pavilion, organized by the International Council for Science, Future Earth and the Potsdam University of Applied Sciences, created a collaborative space connecting science, visualization and design for the future of cities. Together with the Minister of Housing Peter Eriksson and Executive Director C40 and others, Ulrika Stenkula took part in a panel when Future Earth’s Urban Knowledge-Action Network was launched. The ambition with the Urban KAN is to bring together researchers, policymakers and practitioners to co-produce the knowledge needed for sustainable cities.

According to Peter Eriksson:

  • it’s important to implement the New Urban Agenda particularly in the context of the UN SDG’s. To achieve these goals, we need science to guide decision makers
  • we need collaboration between researchers, local and federal governments, international science-policy fora, civil society and the private sector.

Ulrika emphasized the importance of new business models to implement sustainable development on regional or real estate level.

What the New Urban Agenda implies for our Swedish context will be explored further on December 16th at Global Utmaning’s day seminar: Nordic Urban Ways – Implementing the New Urban Agenda at ArkDes. We will get back with more information about that.