New General Assembly of Partners aims to broaden global focus on Habitat III

Eugénie Birch, president of the new General Assembly of Partners, displays a copy of "The City We Need" declaration at a briefing during the PrepCom 2 talks in Nairobi. (UN-Habitat)

A new global initiative will seek to raise attention and recruit expanded constituencies to define and press for a New Urban Agenda through the U. N.’s Habitat III process, ahead of the major cities conference set to take place next year in Quito.

Formally called the General Assembly of Partners for Habitat III, the undertaking was announced in mid-April in Nairobi at major preparatory talks for next year’s conference. (See the assembly’s Nairobi Declaration here.) The network has its roots in the World Urban Campaign, the network of academic, business and advocacy groups that formed in 2009 to work collaboratively with (and staffed within) UN-Habitat in defining new urban policy ideas and directions.

But the General Assembly of Partners (GAP) is intended to reach far more broadly, to welcome virtually any organization or stakeholder group across the world interested in sustainable urbanization. The constituencies approached for membership will range from city policymakers to organized groups of women, professionals and academics, as well as business and trade unions. It will also include indigenous peoples, foundations, parliamentarians, farmers, children and the media — and any others that may arise.

Further, the GAP is not meant to be a permanent organization. Rather, it’s designed as a mobilization effort to work to make Habitat III a historic success through the global embrace of a strong New Urban Agenda, the intended outcome document from the Habitat III conference. But beyond that, the GAP is not expected to be an ongoing entity.

The World Urban Campaign (WUC), by contrast, will continue in its role as a group of urbanists associated with UN-Habitat, up to and past Habitat III. Eugénie Birch, of the University of Pennsylvania, the campaign’s current chair, is also the first president of the GAP.

Asked whether the GAP model was a typical one in U. N. processes, former U. N. official Nicholas You, also a former WUC chair, said no. For most U. N. conferences on specific topics, member states are briefed on salient issues. But, You said, the GAP is different. “It’s an evolutionary movement so that the partners” — in civil society, worldwide — “can talk among themselves, find the common interest, and go forward with a powerful message.”

Queried at the Nairobi “PrepCom 2” sessions about “any gaps in the GAP,” Birch responded, “We definitely have holes. This is just the start of a new operation.”

The World Urban Campaign, she noted, has never included members from, for instance, farming or indigenous groups. But the GAP is reaching out to these and others. In May, the GAP will also undertake a major campaign to enlist business and industry interest, representation of which was almost completely lacking at the PrepCom 2 talks.

“We want to fill the GAP,” Birch said. “The members so far are just 100 or so. We want to have thousands of members.”

Still, the new effort is not starting from a blank slate. The World Urban Campaign, for example, created an aspirational “City We Need” declaration, launched in 2014, a revised version of which will likely constitute part of the GAP’s formal input into the Habitat process.

Likewise, an “Urban Thinkers Campus” was modelled at Caserta, Italy, in October, and nearly 20 such conferences are now planned for coming months (full details will be made available here). Further, outreach to media, with a focus on the dynamics and importance of urbanization, occurred within special sessions at the Caserta conference and was strengthened at PrepCom 2.

Meanwhile, the broadened policy links between cities worldwide has been modelled by organizations such as the Huairou Commission, which presses the idea that women’s rights and roles are deeply intertwined with urban spaces.

In Nairobi, the importance of connective partnerships was expanded upon by Ana Marie Argilagos, of the Ford Foundation. While “20 years ago philanthropy tended to be more project oriented,” she said, “philanthropy is now more strategic and working to achieve social change by working on systems change — and philanthropy is partnering with others, including government.” (Citiscope receives funding from the Ford Foundation.)

What the GAP founders clearly hope to spark is a global conversation on the status and role of cities and their potential, tying urban futures to 21st-century potential for peoples and interests across the globe. It’s a broad ambition: The sponsors aim not just to create alliances that impress the nation states at Quito, but to contribute to making Habitat III the critical turning point toward a unifying global urban agenda for this century.

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