Unified stakeholder vision on sustainable urbanization lauded, critiqued ahead of Habitat III

‘The City We Need 2.0’, adopted last month, is the result of one of the most decentralized U.N. processes ever.

When it comes to the hot-button issue of urbanization, the diverse interests of civil society came one step closer to a coherent vision last month with the unanimous adoption of “The City We Need 2.0.” The document is also being hailed as the result of one of the most decentralized processes ever to take place under the United Nations.

The document, the culmination of a nearly yearlong gathering of ideas, calls for the United Nations’ Habitat III conference to facilitate the creation of just, affordable, compact, socially inclusive cities. The World Urban Campaign, a global advocacy effort for sustainable urban development administered by UN-Habitat, prepared the vision document in collaboration with its partners, drawn from the ranks of academia, business, grass-roots groups and professional networks. (Citiscope is a media partner of the World Urban Campaign.)

“Never before in the history of the U. N. has such a decentralized process been able to engage participants on that scale through a structured dialogue, giving a voice to non-state actors before a U. N. conference of this kind,” said World Urban Campaign project leader Christine Auclair.

The vision encompassed in “The City We Need” is drawn from the conclusions of 27 Urban Thinkers Campuses, daylong or even multiday events organized by campaign partners in cities around the world to hash out what, exactly, urban dwellers need. They ranged from formal talks with keynote speakers in places like New York City to informal occupations of public space, with debates spilling out into the streets in Recife, Brazil.

[See here for all of Citiscope’s reporting on the Urban Thinkers Campuses]

This approach in the run-up to Habitat III, slated for October in Quito, Ecuador, took its inspiration from “The Future We Want”, a global stakeholder engagement process led by the United Nations in advance of its new sustainable development agenda. To craft “The City We Need”, some 7,700 urban thinkers from 1,900 organizations in more than 110 countries participated, organizers said.

One way of achieving this common vision is through the New Urban Agenda, the U. N.’s 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III. “The City We Need 2.0” was adopted last month on the sidelines of the European Habitat meeting in Prague, where delegates hashed out a common European vision for Habitat III.

Good principles, ‘conservative view’

“The City We Need 2.0” consists of 10 statements of principles that define a common vision as well as 10 “drivers of change” in cities. A list of scalable “urban solutions” submitted by partners remains to be peer-reviewed, but will be made public soon.

“‘The City We Need’ is a document that outlines the World Urban Campaign’s collective view of physical, social, economic and environmental qualities that its members aspire to achieve,” said Eugénie Birch, president of the World Urban Campaign.

Others, too, have echoed this endorsement, like Magdalena García Hernández of the Iberoamerican Women’s Network for Budget Equality, which organized a month-long Urban Thinkers Campus in Mexico.

“It’s a truly splendid document that reflects in large part our proposals,” she said. “I like the beauty of its style and the cadence of its prose — the repetition as a discursive method.” Each principle in the document begins with the phrase “The city we need…”

“‘The City We Need 2.0’ is a document that succeeds in expressing the challenges that we face to construct a better future,” said Maíra Brandão of the City Research and Innovation Lab at the Federal University of Pernambuco, which organized the Recife UTC. “The text reveals the richness and innovation developed collaboratively by the several Urban Thinkers Campuses around the world where diverse groups found a space to hear, converse, discuss, dialogue and construct images and strategies to pursue the city we need.”

Others, however, are more tepid in their endorsement. “‘The City We Need 2.0’ [has] given a voice to the diverse opinions of the partners of UN-Habitat and goes some way in allaying the fears that partners issues will not be fully reflected in the New Urban Agenda,” said Douglas Ragan of UN-Habitat’s youth unit, which organized a UTC in Nairobi. “Yet still more has to be done, especially for those potentially most marginalized urban voices of women, youth and children.”

[See: Present and future: Habitat III must acknowledge young people’s role in shaping our cities]

Brandão echoed this sentiment. “The potential that youth bring to transform cities isn’t completely addressed by the document,” she said. “The propositions end up being timid in this respect, without pointing an eye to the future as it relates to the important role of youth as protagonists in the transformation of ‘The City We Need 2.0’.”

Like any document that must synthesize a disparate set of events, “The City We Need 2.0” does not entirely please some with very specific concerns. Pablo Aguilar of the Colegio Nacional de Jurisprudencia Urbanística in Mexico advocates for the New Urban Agenda to be a legally binding document and hosted an Urban Thinkers Campus on that theme. To that end, he called the new document “a conservative view that contains good general principles.” In light of his advocacy position, he expressed disappointment that “the declaration is very light on the legal issue.”

[See: Mexico City event looks at legal underpinnings of New Urban Agenda]

Ellen Woodsworth of Women Transforming Cities, a Vancouver-based NGO that co-hosted an Urban Thinkers Campus in January, had several line-item edits to offer. She felt the document is missing a reference to elected municipal officials, does not acknowledge the lack of funding for cities to address crises, does not address transparency in government when there is no equitable representation and does not discuss the crisis of a growing aging population.

“I think the document is not willing to make a clear statement about global income inequalities,” she said. “Without addressing the inequitable distribution of the wealth, governments will not be able to run cities in ways that will address the growing crises outlined in the ‘The City We Need’.”

Above all, she faults “The City We Need 2.0” for not adopting an “intersectional” lens that would cover gender, race, income and age. “I think the statement lacks cohesion,” she said, “because it does not have an overarching value statement at the beginning of the document that calls on governments to put an intersectional lens on all city policies, programmes, budgets, funding, staffing and governance to ensure equitable and appropriate city solutions in relation to gender, race, income, age and culture.”

[See: Habitat III is a critical opportunity for grass-roots women]

Olenka Ochoa, a Habitat IIIpolicy unit” expert from Peru, echoed this sentiment. “The city we need must have a women’s agenda, and the gender perspective should be transversal in the design and development of plans, policies and monitoring,” Ochoa said. “Women are half of the world’s population and should not just be considered a vulnerable sector.”

Proof in the pudding

Ultimately, “The City We Need 2.0” is just one document among many that will be tossed into the mix when the Habitat III Bureau and Secretariat hash out the first or “zero” draft of the New Urban Agenda, which is due out in early May. As Ragan said, “The proof will be in the pudding — the zero draft.”

As such, expect to find some of language of “The City We Need 2.0” in the draft. And if not, there will surely be some pointed lobbying by the civil society groups that worked so diligently on this vision.

Either way, the vision laid out in the new document itself will continue on past Habitat III. So too will the Urban Thinkers Campus process, with several World Urban Campaign partners speaking up recently about their intention to host more such events starting in 2017. Those sessions will focus on a specific question: How do we make the city we need into reality?

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