What is Habitat III?

Paul Aitchison

What is Habitat III?

“Habitat III” is shorthand for a major global summit, formally known as the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, that was held in Quito, Ecuador, on 17-20 October 2016.

The United Nations called the conference, the third in a series that began in 1976, to “reinvigorate” the global political commitment to the sustainable development of towns, cities and other human settlements, both rural and urban. The product of that reinvigoration, along with pledges and new obligations, is the New Urban Agenda, which sets global strategy around urbanization for the next two decades.

Thirty thousand people from 167 countries ultimately attended the four-day event, according to official figures, including some 10,000 global participants. Organizers said that this contsituted the strongest participation ever recorded by local authorities, civil society and other stakeholders at a U. N. conference.

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What was the opportunity in this event?

The conference was the first time in 20 years that the international community, led by national governments, collectively took stock of fast-changing urban trends and the ways in which these patterns are impacting on human development, environmental well-being, and civic and governance systems worldwide.

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In turn, Habitat III also offered a potent opportunity for the international community at all levels to harmonize its understanding of the problems and opportunities posed by current trends in urbanization. This includes poverty, quality of life, environmental degradation, climate change and other concerns on the one hand, as well as the economic, social and creative boons provided by cities on the other. Global actors were able to use the run-up to Habitat III to work toward agreement on a broad and collective approach to start to both address and capitalize on these issues.

A significant part of the potential opportunity came exactly from this breadth of discussion. At the table in making this decision were the nearly 200 national governments that make up the U. N. General Assembly. Yet they were buttressed by a broad variety of crucial actors, including cities, the private sector and civil society.

Still, the exact roles of these latter entities remained contentious. While they were able to offer formal recommendations, officially they were considered mere observers to the process.

What exactly is sustainable development?

There are many ways to define sustainable development. Indeed, for better and worse that number of definitions has only risen as the term itself has moved to the centre of the international development discussion.

One touchstone in defining sustainable development was offered in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development. This was a body mandated by the U. N. General Assembly due to mounting concerns over deteriorating human and natural environments. In the commission’s final report, these experts defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

That definition does suggest a staggeringly broad swath of concerns, touching on national sovereignty and policymaking, international governance around natural resources, private-sector profit motives and consumer trends. It is important to note that sustainability in the development context is not limited to natural resources and environmental concerns but also takes into account economic and social issues of equality.

For its part, the commission’s report placed particular priority on meeting the essential needs of the poor. It also warned that current development priorities weren’t paying adequate attention to the limits of natural resources to supply human communities — and that poor countries were not going to be able to follow the same resource-heavy path to development trod by much of the West.

How does this definition of sustainable development fit into Habitat III?

The World Commission on Environment and Development did much to mainstream a recognition that economic and social development needs to seen in the context of an interconnected system of balances — that progress in one area can, and often does, mean deterioration in another.

There are arguably few contexts in which these tradeoffs can be seen more readily than in today’s urban areas, where notable human progress is fuelled by natural resources extracted from rural areas. This overarching process offers a very robust engine for human betterment. But it is also one that affects different communities very differently, and one that has quickly made large parts of our towns and cities increasingly uninhabitable, with ramifications for the well-being of the entire planet.

Bringing these concerns and opportunities into better — and long-term — balance is a fundamental goal of sustainable development broadly and of the Habitat III conference more particularly. In fact, this balance is all the more relevant following the September 2015 adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, a 15-year guideline to tackle the global development agenda. It includes a landmark standalone Sustainable Development Goal on cities and human settlements, which gave the concerns of Habitat III extra impetus within the U. N. system.

Who’s putting Habitat III on?

As a formal conference in October 2016, Habitat III and its outcomes were requested by the U. N. General Assembly, the United Nations’ most representative body. It is the nation states of the General Assembly, too, that defined the conference’s parameters, scope and intended results.

Habitat III was thus a U. N.-wide initiative, and that’s a very key distinction. Further, close observers note that even well before the conference, interest levels throughout the U. N. system and beyond were notably high, suggesting that Habitat III could see some of the broadest participation ever for a U. N. summit.

This process was closely shepherded by the United Nations’ lead agency on urban development, the Human Settlements Programme, more commonly referred to as UN-Habitat. The conference’s secretariat was based at UN-Habitat’s headquarters in Nairobi, and the event’s secretary-general was also the agency’s executive director, Joan Clos. Further, one of the key goals of the conference was to introduce reforms to UN-Habitat’s own mandate in order to position the agency to oversee the development goals that come out of Habitat III.

In turn, the Habitat III Secretariat received formal input from a variety of increasingly active alliances. This included the World Urban Campaign, a broad global network of urbanists — from civil society, city and business groups — aligned with UN-Habitat and its agenda. The World Urban Campaign also launched an initiative, the General Assembly of Partners, to harness civil society energy ahead of Habitat III. That group will now be continued in the aftermath of Habitat III.

In addition, local officials coalesced under the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments, which hosted the Second World Assembly of Local and Regional Authorities in the days leading up to Habitat III.

Why was Habitat III held in Quito?

Quito officially offered to host the Habitat III conference in early 2013, on the initiative of the city’s then-mayor. Quito’s bid ultimately went uncontested, and the U. N. General Assembly decided to accept the offer in December 2014.

Quito has received accolades in the past for being a leader in planning for climate change-related adaptation, while the current government has put housing and quality of life at the centre of its development approach. In 1978, Quito was also singled out to receive formal accolade from the United Nations for the city’s success in preserving its historical core. Along with Krakow, Poland, it was dubbed an inaugural World Heritage City by UNESCO.

Some see Quito’s clear interest in historical preservation having resulted in strengthened importance being placed on this issue at Habitat III. More broadly, the Ecuadorian government says it saw the New Urban Agenda as an opportunity to bring the views of Latin America and the Global South together with a new international commitment to sustainable development.

Why does the Habitat III process matter?

Habitat III was not be the first time that the world has gathered to consider and debate a collective approach to current trends impacting on towns, cities and other urban areas. Yet while such summits have taken place twice in the past, this third conference had a weight of responsibility and expectation never before experienced.

Recent years have seen a historic shift in where the world’s communities are living and working. Starting around 2009, more people around the globe began living in urban rather than rural areas. Further, these trends are only picking up speed, with nearly three-quarters of the world’s population expected to live in towns and cities by the middle of this century.

Given the problems of equity, energy consumption and environmental degradation that can already seem intractable in many urban areas, the effects of this shift are confounding for everyone. Cities occupy less than a tenth of the world’s land area yet they suck up three-quarters of all energy use. Metro areas also account for the vast majority of carbon emissions.

Further, historically high levels of inequality are today being felt most prominently in urban areas, where two-thirds of people are thought to experience worse inequity than they did two decades ago.

Habitat III was thus a major opportunity for the international community to substantively engage with and strategize around these complex issues and many others.

How did Habitat III fit into broader international discussions?

The conference’s timing was seen as potentially energizing several external processes that culminated in 2015.

The first was an international climate accord aimed to replace the Kyoto Protocol, negotiations towards which took place as the particular impacts of climate change for urban areas and the poor have become increasingly understood. The resulting Paris Agreement in December 2015 set the global agenda around both mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change for the crucial decades to come.

The second international process that directly impacted on Habitat III was a new set of global development goals meant to focus the international community’s efforts to combat poverty through 2030. Several of these Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are directly, and even explicitly, linked with the health of urban areas, while their success will invariably rest on local-level implementation.

Habitat III was the first major U. N. summit after both the climate and SDGs processes concluded. While this timing was not necessarily by design, the overlap in these three agendas — climate, development and cities — is so powerful as to now offer major complementary energy to each process.

Further, those synergies can now be used to clarify and strengthen new climate- and development-related obligations as the Habitat III process moves forward. Indeed, perhaps most importantly, many looked at Habitat III as an important opportunity to cement the implementation of these other pledges.

What outcomes resulted from Quito?

The Habitat III conference was tasked with coming up with what’s being referred to as the New Urban Agenda, an urbanization model that sets fresh priorities and strategies that take into account the evolving patterns of the new century. The final version of that document is available here.

First and foremost, this is meant to inform and harmonize the work done in agencies across the United Nations system. The new agenda will also impact significantly on the development priorities and programmes financed by the broader multilateral system — the World Bank, regional development banks and others — and by governments engaging in their own bilateral funding.

Nation states were also asked to make a range of unique commitments in alignment with goals and implementation targets associated with the New Urban Agenda. These commitments, including national urban policies, may offer the first comprehensive approach on the issue ever formulated by some countries.

In turn, that new framework and resulting wave of policy and substantive action created a structure for engagement and accountability that will touch on nearly every aspect of urban development planning.

Who should care about this Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda?

Certainly those involved in urban planning, transport and local-level governance, as well as those “urbanists” who follow the related discussions, will find the debates leading up to Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda’s subsequent implementation to be vital.

Yet so too will a broad cross-section of international development practitioners and scholars, including those working in applied technologies, clean energy, health, education, gender, microfinance, governance and more. Those involved in the significant changes currently taking place within foreign aid, including the rise of private sector financing and public-private partnerships, will likewise have much to learn from and contribute to this forum.

For similar reasons, much of the Habitat III agenda, as well as the debates around setting that agenda, will be of key interest to broader civil society. Those that should be gearing up to follow the discussions around imlementation include environmentalists, sustainable agriculture proponents, legal advocates, labour and rights watchdogs, housing proponents, immigration workers, even historians and anthropologists, and many others.

Finally, a key opportunity of the Habitat III process was a strengthening of the role of local-level governments in the future urban agenda, including through direct engagement at the international level. As such, the evolving discussions leading up to and following the Quito conference will be of particular interest to mayors, village heads, local development administrators, board commissioners and others.

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