Bridging the GAP: What are researchers, academics bringing to the New Urban Agenda?

With scholars putting cities under the microscope, Habitat III is an opportunity to cement a formal role in the urbanization discussion.


This story is part of an occasional series on the General Assembly of Partners (GAP), the main vehicle for civil society to organize and advocate ahead of Habitat III, the U. N. urbanization summit in October in Quito. The GAP represents a wide range of interests, which have coalesced into 15 constituent groups. Citiscope is profiling these groups about their preparations on the road to Quito with a focus on why sustainable urban development matters to their constituents.

Two of the most memorable figures at the world’s first major “human settlements” summit — the Habitat Forum, held in 1976 — were architect R. Buckminster Fuller and anthropologist Margaret Mead.

While coming from different fields, the two speakers, who reportedly enchanted audiences at the Vancouver event, had something in common: They were both professors. Fuller taught at Southern Illinois University and Mead was tenured at the University of Rhode Island, later serving as president of the American Anthropological Association.

Forty years later, the academic community has come together in the hopes of a more formal role ahead of Habitat III, this year’s successor to that landmark urbanization summit. More than 1,000 scholars have joined the General Assembly of Partner’s academic group. Further, they encompass a wide range of disciplines — not just expected ones like urban planning and architecture but also law, public health and the natural sciences.

This push comes, in part, because of a perceived dip in academic engagement at Habitat II, held in Istanbul 20 years ago.

“We want to be recognized as a stakeholder, because in 1996 universities and research centres had no formal presence at all,” said Sahar Attia of the Architecture and Urban Planning Department at the University of Cairo, who is co-chair of the GAP’s research and academia group.

[See: UN-Habitat’s vision of sustainable urbanization is good — but not enough]

In Istanbul, she recalls, the civil society arena was dominated by NGOs. And while several scholars attended in an independent capacity, they were not consulted by national committees or otherwise able to offer official input on the Habitat Agenda, the conference’s outcome document. A successor to that agenda is currently under negotiation by national governments, called the New Urban Agenda.

Sahar believes this oversight missed out on a critical contribution that the academic community can make to the conversation about urbanization. “We spend time, money and effort on teaching, researching, inventing or writing books,” she said. “Governments could benefit from these efforts. We want to share our [knowledge] production for the welfare of cities.”

Defining metrics

For many, the views of academics can offer a counterpoint to what governments and NGOs report, which can be skewed by political or other interests.

“We spend time, money and effort on teaching, researching, inventing or writing books. Governments could benefit from these efforts. We want to share our [knowledge] production for the welfare of cities.”

Sahar Attia
Architecture and Urban Planning Department, University of Cairo

Enrique Silva, senior research associate with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, is the GAP group’s other co-chair. The academic conversation ahead of Habitat III comes with “a healthy skepticism and critical disillusionment within the academic community over the way that the Millennium Development Goals were designed and the indicators that were used there,” he said.

[See: Cities respond: Testing the urban SDG indicators]

The MDGs were a key framework that guided global anti-poverty efforts over the past decade and a half. This year, they were replaced by a new framework that will be in place through 2030.

Urban historian Mike Davis lambasted the MDGs’ methodology for informal settlements in his 2006 book, Planet of Slums. More recently, University of California at Los Angeles professor Ananya Roy has taken a critical eye toward the MDGs on everything from development financing to media representation to impact on urban form.

As a result of this critical discourse, Silva said: “The one area that we honed in on quickly was the need to contribute on the definition of indicators and metrics. Within that is better data-collection mechanisms, much more sophisticated ways of designing indicators that are more effective and more consequential to the issues that Habitat is trying to promote.”

Such a focus is timely, as the U. N. continues to debate how best to measure the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that the world body adopted last year to replace the MDGs. It is expected that the New Urban Agenda, in turn, will provide a road map to the implementation of Goal 11, the “urban SDG”.

Already the community is making inroads. Academics were a staple among the 200 “policy unit” experts convened to generate the raw material of the New Urban Agenda. Sahar served on her country’s Habitat national committee, as did Silva’s institution in the United States.

[See: What did we learn from the Habitat III ‘policy units’?]

And was Sahar’s voice heard by the Egyptian government? In response, Sahar offers an enthusiastic “yes”, pointing to a direct pipeline that her committee had to the Minister of Housing. “Sometimes governments need to be oriented,” she said.

Science of cities

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Sahar noted that Saudi Arabia has been exceptionally open to the academic community. At the first Saudi Urban Forum, in March, the national government opened a tender specifically for universities to help the country overhaul its planning system.

Both Sahar and Silva are hopeful that the final New Urban Agenda will make a strong call to build capacity in the planning arena, which would create more such opportunities.

“If we want to give a mandate to governments to contribute in the New Urban Agenda implementation, there should be capacity-building, especially in developing countries,” Sahar said. She suggests that educational institutions are best equipped to train the bureaucratic workforce in planning, design, finance and legislation that will shape the cities of the future.

[See: Science has a key part to play in planning the future of cities]

Academics also are advocating strongly for the New Urban Agenda to take an “evidence-based approach”, as befitting a trend toward thinking of urban systems more scientifically — that is to say, the “science of cities.”

“As a community, we study everything under the sun,” Silva notes. “But we aren’t everything under the sun. What sets us apart is the scientific systems, methods and approaches to generating knowledge and data, and applying that data to solve problems.”

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