Cultural rights pushed as ‘key pillar’ of sustainable development

A dancer performs during the UCLG Culture Summit in Bilbao, 19 March. Advocates are urging the international committee to formally integrate considerations of local culture into new sustainable development approaches. (Agenda 21 for Culture, UCLG Culture Summit, © Bilbao Council)

At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, world leaders solidified a vision of sustainable development that rested on three central ideas: economic growth, social inclusion and environmental balance. Over the last quarter-century, those categories have driven the sustainable development agenda.

But some worry that this approach leaves aside important considerations. At a recent gathering in Bilbao, Spain, attendees continued the push for recognition of a fourth pillar: culture. The meeting was convened by United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), the global network.

Such a discussion comes at a particularly interesting time, given the international community’s current process to move into an entirely new era of sustainable development. Advocates are pushing, among other things, for culture to be included in the new Sustainable Development Goals, which are to be finalized in September.

Bilbao is a poster child for arts and culture being used as a tool for sustainable urban development. The city earned this distinction largely due to the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which opened in 1997. Its presence has transformed a post-industrial port town into a global cultural icon.

The first UCLG Culture Summit met 18-20 March at the Alhondiga, a historic winehouse that Phillipe Starck, the French designer, transformed into a centre of culture and leisure. On the eve of the event, the venue was renamed the Azkuna Zentroa in homage to Iñaki Azkuna, the former mayor of Bilbao who charted the city’s new course during the 1990s. He passed away last year.

At the summit, a series of high-level speakers worked to drive home the importance of culture, both as an economic development tool and as a source of identity in a globalizing world. Current Bilbao Mayor Ibon Areso, for instance, offered lessons learned from his city’s remarkable turnaround.

In addition, Daniel Innerarity, a professor at the University of the Basque Country, drew on the Basque people’s experience living in an autonomous region within Spain. His presentation highlighted the intangibles of culture — those elements that go beyond technocratic policies and measurable results.

Finally, Farida Shaheed, the United Nations special rapporteur on cultural rights, took the stage to deliver a powerful keynote address about culture as a force for change. She particularly emphasized the important role of civic leaders in fostering cultural exchanges at the urban level.

UCLG has worked to promote culture within the sustainable development paradigm since 2010. That year, the group mandated its Committee on Culture to develop a policy statement, “Culture: Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development”. Among other directives, that document called on local and regional governments to “Include a cultural dimension in all public policies”.

In 2004, UCLG was tasked with coordinating the Agenda 21 for culture, a reference document for cities to establish local cultural policy. UN-Habitat and UNESCO approved the document the same year. Just last year, UCLG awarded its first international award associated with the initiative, called Culture 21, to the City of Belo Horizonte, in Mexico City. Nominations for the second iteration of the award will take place this year.

Such activities have cemented UCLG’s role as a leading champion outside of the United Nations for culture’s role in sustainable development. As such, it is expected that the group will push for the inclusion of culture on the New Urban Agenda in coming months, as part of the Habitat III process.

Habitat III, meanwhile, will be held in Quito, among the first World Heritage Sites ever listed by UNESCO. As such, advocates for the culture agenda will have an exceptional backdrop — and key opportunity — to make their case at next year’s conference.

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