New Urban Agenda discussions ‘must translate into useful action’, New York event told

The first Urban Thinkers Campus in the United States was held 24 October.

A participant looks over the agenda for the New York City Urban Thinkers Campus, 24 October. (Vladimir Weinstein)

NEW YORK — Hundreds of participants at the recent New York City-hosted Urban Thinkers Campus, a key part of the run-up to next year’s Habitat III cities conference, received a sobering dose of skepticism from the event’s keynote speaker, Brent Toderian, a Vancouver-based planning consultant.

The sought-after speaker has dabbled in international urbanist diplomacy, having spoken at World Urban Forums and organized a mayor’s summit at the Copenhagen climate negotiations. But he confessed that he sometimes finds such endeavors an “unwelcome distraction”.

“I can be an occasional skeptic about how high-level conversations about cities land in the trenches,” Toderian said. “They must translate into action that’s useful for cities and practitioners like me.”

[See: Can the New Urban Agenda spark the local action needed?]

As members of the audience rattled off policy recommendations for the New Urban Agenda — the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III — they were also reminded that this contribution was just one of more than two dozen other Urban Thinkers Campuses. (Citiscope was an organizing partner in the New York City campus, which was jointly put on by the New School and the Municipal Art Society.) The results of each of those deliberations will find their way into the Habitat III outcome only at the insistence of the national governments who negotiate the document.

Toderian told the crowd about the message he had carried to Copenhagen during the 2009 climate change conference — an event that was widely seen as disappointing in its failure to produce a comprehensive global agreement. That event’s shortcomings set the stage for the Paris climate talks later this year, where cities are expected to make a strong case that local governments are best poised to act on climate change.

[See: U. N. General Assembly to discuss Habitat III rules on 3 November]

At Copenhagen, Toderian recalled, “Our motto was ‘Nations talk, cities act’. That slogan must change to ‘Nations act’ in order for cities to take them seriously.”

G-word

The Urban Thinkers Campus, then, made a point to connect the rarified talk with the immediate urban context. While the finer points of the New Urban Agenda were debated at U. N. Headquarters, participants were taken out to see for themselves the stark realities of urbanization present in New York’s changing neighborhoods.

Long a city of working-class immigrants, for the last two decades New York City has become a global destination for the wealthy, looking for a stable opportunity in which to park their assets by investing in real estate. Meanwhile, the surging local economy, driven by a Wall Street banking sector that has largely recovered from the Great Recession of 2008, has also had a ripple effect on rents in a city where 64 percent of residents are tenants, not owners.

“I can be an occasional skeptic about how high-level conversations about cities land in the trenches. They must translate into action that’s useful for cities and practitioners like me.”

Brent Toderian
Planning consultant

In June, to the cheers of housing activists citywide, a city board voted to enact New York’s first-ever rent freeze, good for one year. That decision was spurred by grass-roots organizing on the part of groups such as Equality for Flatbush, a campaign based in the Brooklyn neighborhood of the same name whose motto is “Don’t get mad about gentrification — get involved!”

[See: Habitat III must rethink the role of housing in sustainable urbanization]

The “g-word” has been a constant topic of conversation in residential neighbourhoods throughout the city. But it has been particularly fierce in Brooklyn, the largest borough by population and one increasingly popular with new residents of the city or those relocating from pricier neighborhoods closer to Manhattan.

“Gentrification is a deliberate, concerted act — selling and catering to people with higher, flexible and disposable income,” Equality for Flatbush’s Imani Henry said.

That transformation has occurred in Brooklyn neighborhoods in part through pernicious and sometimes illegal behavior on the part of landlords, who offer to buy out tenants in rent-stabilized apartments so that they can charge much higher rates to newcomers. When longtime tenants refuse to leave, they are sometimes subject to retaliation, such as deferred maintenance or noisy construction, to force them out.

[See: In New York, global mayors gather to commit to the SDGs]

These tactics are often targeted at a select vulnerable minority. “The most discriminated in terms of affordable housing are black and brown women,” Henry said. The results are typically changes in neighborhood demographics and disruptions in the fabric of communities.

“Do we hold developers accountable?” Henry asked. “We are fighting with landlords to fulfill their obligations in rent-fixed apartments.” There are 33,000 rent-stabilized units in Flatbush alone. According to the Furman Center for Real Estate at New York University, there are just over a million such units in the city as a whole, representing nearly half of its total rental housing stock.

Supportive revitalization

The city’s current story is not entirely one of confrontation, however. In the South Bronx, a neighborhood whose blocks upon blocks of vacant and destroyed buildings became a poster child of U. S. urban decay in the 1970s, a remarkable comeback is afoot.

“Tourists come looking for the devastation,” said James Rausse, director of capital programmes for the Office of the Bronx Borough President. “Guess what? They don’t find it anymore.”

“Tourists come looking for the devastation. Guess what? They don’t find it anymore.”

James Rausse
Office of the Bronx Borough President

Strangled by highways and saddled with industrial zones, the South Bronx has been the city’s dumping ground for decades. Last year, 40 percent of the area’s residents lived below the poverty line, while more than a third spent over half their income on rent — well above guidelines for affordable housing.

But on a tour of the neighborhood to highlight how local issues in the Bronx connect to the New Urban Agenda, Rausse was bullish.

He pointed out a new hotel in the Bronx Opera House that boasts an occupancy rate well above hospitality industry averages. A market modeled on Philadelphia’s boisterous Reading Terminal is on the way. And earlier this year, an art collective invited residents inside a shuttered but majestic Beaux-Arts building, the former Bronx Borough Courthouse, to imagine a new life for the civic landmark.

All of these could be signs of gentrification — Brooklyn, circa 2004 — but Rausse and allies such as the non-profit developer Community Access are careful to insert as much affordable housing into the mix as possible. This includes “supportive housing” that targets the mentally ill, homeless and residents with substance-abuse problems — constituencies traditionally underserved if not outright rejected by the housing market.

[See: Connecting housing with sustainable urbanization in the New Urban Agenda]

Along the way, Bronx boosters have proven that affordable housing can also feature cutting-edge sustainable design, like in the highly efficient Via Verde mixed-income development. That award-winning project anchors a block soon to be dwarfed by 1,000 units of affordable housing in La Central, a USD 345 million development, also mixed-income, that is proposing a whopping array of amenities: retail, community centres, swimming facilities, open space, a rooftop farm, a music studio — even an astronomy lab affiliated with a local high school.

Urban lab

From Brooklyn to the Bronx, the U. N.’s hometown is a living urban laboratory of what has gone wrong, and what can go right, in the life of a city.

At the intersection of community organizing and public policy, conflict can yield to collaboration in an effort to produce the “just city” or the “equitable city”, two variations of “The City We Need” highlighted at the recent Urban Thinkers Campus.

When negotiators sit down in a room at U. N. Headquarters next April to draft the New Urban Agenda, they would do well to cast a long gaze out the window, up and down the East River, to seek inspiration.

Note: This report has been updated.

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