What have we learned from the Habitat III policy units? (Part II)

In late April, technical groups presented thematic findings around housing and sustainable urbanization to national governments at the United Nations. Here’s a summary of the last five papers and discussions.

Mircea Steriu, of the International Association of Public Transport, briefs member states during a Habitat III meeting at the U.N., 28 April. (Francis Dejon/IISD/www.iisd.ca/habitat/3/oeicm/28apr.html)

UNITED NATIONS — In late April for the first time, the United Nations turned its full attention to preparations for this year’s Habitat III conference on housing and sustainable urbanization, hosting a week of meetings between national governments and experts who have been working on the New Urban Agenda — the two-decade strategy on urban development that will be finalized in October in Quito. The agenda’s first draft was released the following week, on 6 May.

With formal negotiations on the draft agenda just about to start, the meetings were an opportunity for  member states to hear directly from the 200 global experts and urbanists who have been working as part of official thematic “policy units”. Each unit released a full report on their subject in February, and the April meetings went through each of these reports one by one. Citiscope was at U. N. Headquarters and published several reports on the political dynamics that characterized these sessions (see here, here and here).

But what about the technical discussions themselves? Here we have distilled a few of the highlights from these rich conversations around the last five reports from the policy units. Each of these summaries presents the concept behind the policy unit, the case that the unit’s paper made, and some of the comments that came out during the following discussion and debate.

This is the second of a two-part series. The article on the first five reports is available here.

6.     Urban Spatial Strategies: Land Markets and Segregation

The concept: Cities occupy space. Not outer space — actual physical locations, where a neighborhood is a certain distance from downtown. While cities can be measured by metrics such as mortality rates or percentage of children attending primary school, understanding their spatial dimension is crucial —  “where” may be the most operative question when analyzing urban areas. And where people end up in a city is usually a function of land markets, which assign value to specific parcels of land based on their location. In unequal societies, where a small number of the rich can afford the best land and a large number of poor must take whatever’s left, that can lead to spatial segregation and sprawl — one of the phenomena that the New Urban Agenda intends to tackle.

The case: Planning and urban design are the critical tools to curb the excesses of unregulated land markets, so appropriate legislation should allow for planners and designers to proactively shape urban form rather than react to unplanned private development. Intervention in the market with subsidies for low-income urban dwellers to encourage affordable housing in affluent areas can help prevent spatial segregation. High quality services — especially transportation — can ease the burden of living on the urban periphery.

[See: The challenges of land and inclusion for the New Urban Agenda]

The comment: This was the moment for planners to have their day in the sun in the Habitat process, and they found an ally in the world’s urban juggernaut: China. “The New Urban Agenda should focus on urban planning. We should let urban planning play a leading role,” said China’s representative to UN-Habitat, Li Zhe. “Without urban planning, everything will not be implemented. In accordance with urban planning, all the other things will fall into place.”

This endorsement of planning echoed the calls for “a place-based approach” from the European Union’s Isabelle Delattre, which Colombia’s Isabel Cavelier used as the platform to call for “integrated territorial development.” She explained, “In this context, competing demands for space, natural resources and investments need to be weighed and balanced according to overarching territorial development goals that are linked to social cohesion, economic prosperity and environmental protection.”

[See: The New Urban Agenda’s rural-urban conundrum]

Such a formulation argues for spatial strategies to address rural areas as much as urban ones. Or, as South African planner Christine Platt (a Citiscope board member) put it in a paraphrase of the U. N.’s “Leave no one behind” mantra: “No space should be left behind.”

7.     Urban Economic Development

The concept: Cities are the engines of the world’s economy, responsible for up to 80 percent of global gross domestic product. That economic power can lead to runaway greed that increases inequality, or it can be harnessed to equitably develop the very city that allowed for wealth accumulation to take place. For example, private capital that relied on a city’s existing infrastructure can be reinvested to improve the transit network, streets and bridges not just in affluent areas but across the city. What’s more, the urban economy is not just about the downtown headquarters of multinational corporations; it’s also composed of a legion of small businesses, including much of the informal economy — whether street vendors or home-based workshops. The New Urban Agenda thus must address economic activity at all scales.

[See: The New Urban Agenda must prompt planners to recognize informal labour]

The case: Support rather than criminalize the informal sector, which accounts for over half of the workforce in developing countries. Develop economic development strategies that offer “decent work” for all, especially chronically underemployed youths and women discriminated against in the labour market. Encourage a compact city with adequate infrastructure — these are the building blocks of “agglomeration economies”, or places where clusters of economic activity don’t compete but reinforce each other.

The comment: Representatives of grass-roots groups seized on this topic to press for the needs of informal workers. Speaking on behalf of Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) and Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI), a spokesperson said, “Women and the urban poor are generating income and contributing to the urban economy but often face arrest, harassment, criminal sanctions like fines and imprisonment — rather than business subsidies.” They called for a more forceful recognition of the informal economy with access to credit, assurance of social security and pathways to formalization.

[See: Can the New Urban Agenda fundamentally transform gender relations?]

Colombia’s Cavelier was heartened by the policy unit’s call to expand employment opportunities. “Your proposal to formulate a new type of economic development called our attention, with its suggestion of maximizing social benefits through decent work for all rather than maximizing profit,” she said.

But Canada’s Berthe Bourque reminded the audience of the interlinkage with how cities are managed. “As we look to the future, strengthening urban economies will require the improvement of urban governance, particularly at the local level,” she said.

8.      Urban Ecology and Resilience

The concept: Historically, cities have been viewed in opposition to natural systems. Large parks were carved out to provide city dwellers with a respite from urban life. Dense clusters of people and industry caused pollution and wreaked environmental havoc. That perspective has changed dramatically, as compact cities are now seen as a more sustainable alternative to suburban sprawl because of their low carbon footprint.

With large land parcels being scarce, landscape architects are now creating unique hybrids of the natural and the manmade that emphasize the existing ecology in urban systems. At the same time, global climate change is testing cities as they face increasingly intense natural disasters and concerning long-term trends such as sea-level rise. The natural world, once seen as apart from cities, is now encroaching upon them in dangerous ways, forcing cities to become more resilient in the face of this new normal.

[See: Equity can help cities win the sustainability race]

The case: Sustainability should be the order of the day whether cities are growing or shrinking. That means public efforts to reduce cities’ carbon footprints — fewer trips in private cars, more energy-efficient buildings, better management of waste disposal. Adopt sustainable patterns of production and consumption that source locally to feed the city rather than importing from far away. And crucially, adopt resilience strategies such as redundancy in infrastructure, flexible “soft” measures (like a coastal wetland that can absorb floods during a hurricane), and well-managed natural disaster and hazard plans.

The comment: This discussion was the most obvious place to make the connection between urbanization and climate change, which Colombia’s Cavelier took up with gusto. “[This is] the conference where we exchange ideas about how we inhabit our common planet,” she said. “Decades of shunting environmental considerations to the periphery has resulted in our current predicament of alarming degradation.”

[See: Habitat III must make climate change a top priority]

UN-Habitat’s Raf Tuts countered that the best way to tackle environmental deterioration is through planning. “Good urbanization, good urban planning, is a pre-condition for true urban resilience,” he said. “This requires a proactive approach from governments not to allow construction in high-risk or vulnerable areas; a well-planned, well-connected network of streets, public spaces and infrastructure with an inherent redundancy; and a sound regulatory framework with incentives to adhere to appropriate building codes.”

9.     Urban Services and Technology

The concept: First and foremost, cities must provide the basic elements for human livelihood. In order to thrive, urban dwellers need clean drinking water, a functioning sewer system, safe waste disposal, food security and sustainable mobility options. The earliest cities are evidence of this imperative, with archaeological evidence of aqueducts and sewers. But in a rapidly urbanizing world, many cities have become overwhelmed and do not provide adequate urban services to their growing population. The task for the New Urban Agenda is to ensure these basic dignities for all in the next 20 years.

[See: The right to pee: An integral part of the right to the city?]

The case: Integrated water planning that starts at the source and ends at the consumer’s tap. Prioritize investments in sanitation infrastructure. Make waste producers partly responsible for waste collection and disposal. Enhance public transit options in order to limit private automobile use.

The comment: As something of a grab-bag category, member states used urban services as an opportunity to harp on specific issues that are missing or need more emphasis in the Habitat III discussion. Norway’s Marit Viktoria Pettersen seized on mobility. “Using private cars is inefficient. But worse than that, it leads to deadly air pollution and contributes to climate change,” she said. “We also know that the poor, children, youth and the elderly are disadvantaged, since they do not drive cars. This means that their access to urban services, health, education and public space is restricted, especially if public transport possibilities are limited.” She pointed to Oslo’s intentions to go car-free in its city centre by 2019.

[See: Habitat III can revolutionize urban thinking on health and well-being]

Canada’s Bourque used the urban services discussion to lament an omission. “Canada notes that the concept of ‘healthy communities’ has been absent from all of the policy papers, and we view this as a missed opportunity, particularly in the designing of cities and for promoting better health outcomes for all citizens,” she said.

10.    Housing Policies

The concept: Cities are places where people live, and they have to live somewhere. As Steve Weir of Habitat for Humanity, the policy unit’s co-chair, said, “Housing is the roof over the city.” The type, size, quality and location of housing stock is a central consideration of the New Urban Agenda — after all, Habitat III is formally called the U. N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development.

At the national level, these two issues are often linked, with a minister of housing or housing and urban development tasked with the Habitat III portfolio. What’s more, most countries have housing policies, providing a prime opportunity to influence global policy for the better in order to reduce homelessness and provide decent, affordable housing for all.

[See: Homelessness is not just about housing — it’s a human rights failure]

The case: Housing policy should use every tool at its disposal to build more and maintain existing affordable housing stock, whose affordability is protected by law with policies such as inclusionary zoning, which mandates that a certain percentage or number of units remain affordable. “Exclusionary zoning has become predatory and speculative,” Weir said.

Subsidies should help low-income renters and homeowners, with an emphasis on rental housing. Housing should be considered jointly with other planning issues like transportation rather than conceived of separately. Priority should be given to upgrading informal settlements to meet basic living standards. The policy unit concluded that it would cost USD $929.4 billion to upgrade the world’s urban informal settlements in the next 20 years.

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

The comment: While the New Urban Agenda will ultimately be a document agreed to by member states, the U. N. agency tasked with implementing it has strong opinions on the matter. UN-Habitat’s Tuts made the case for the agency’s “Housing at the Centre” approach, which would anchor housing in all national and local urban development policies in an attempt to correct past ills. “Clearly, a lot of what has gone wrong with cities is related in one way or another to housing,” he said. “The way housing is being produced and consumed has shaped urban growth … by producing cities that are fragmented, unequal and dysfunctional.”

South Africa offers experience with informal-settlement housing policy. “Evidence and experience have also taught us that housing policies must be flexible, varied and adaptive — addressing a wide range of housing typologies, a full spectrum of tenure security options, and … market and state-driven approaches,” said Monika Glinzler, the country’s representative. “In South Africa, incremental approaches which prioritize in situ upgrading — where possible — have enabled us to scale up delivery while retaining valuable socio-economic and cultural ties within communities.”

[See: Habitat III must institutionalize ‘participatory’ urban development]

But the policy unit did come under some criticism from University of Pennsylvania Wharton School Professor Marja Hoek-Smit for its recommendation on a mortgage-interest tax deduction. “This is a hidden, non-transparent subsidy that serves those who can afford a larger mortgage more than those who can only afford a smaller loan; benefits more-wealthy regions more than poorer regions and does not support those poor households who do not file taxes,” she said. “Habitat III cannot possibly be recommending this type of policy, while country after country tries to phase this subsidy out.”

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