Can Habitat III prompt new focus on urban journalism?

Bridging the GAP | As global leaders gather in Quito next week to adopt the New Urban Agenda, a little-discussed part of this process has focused on educating reporters and editors on the city as a story.


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 16 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.

During the preparations for Habitat III, next week’s major U. N. summit on sustainable urbanization, the example of climate change has loomed large. Here is a global, existential issue that has political buy-in at the highest levels, overwhelming public discourse, and robust science undergirding innovation and (most) policymaking. Could the urban discussion, which many supporters see as just as vital, ever hope for such mobilization?

Many of those who have been shepherding the Habitat III process over the past two years certainly believe so, and they have increasingly been contextualizing their efforts as an attempt to put in place the foundations of a global urban “movement”. And again taking a cue from the climate discussion, they have included in the preparations a notable although rarely discussed focus on the media.

Next week, global leaders — and, reportedly, nearly 50,000 others — will gather in Ecuador’s capital for the Habitat III conference, where they are set to adopt a new global vision on sustainable urbanization called the New Urban Agenda. By the time they arrive in Quito, 22 formal media trainings will have taken place on five continents under the auspices of the Habitat III Secretariat. Those Urban Journalism Academies included the participation of around 700 journalists from local and global media, organizers say. (A capstone event will take place in Quito on 18 October.)

[See: ‘I love cities, but they don’t all love me back,’ advocate for disabled says before Habitat III]

The idea started at the World Urban Forum in Medellín, Colombia, in 2014. But even then it was undertaken with an eye toward Habitat III — and its legacy, organizers say. (Citiscope has been involved in some of the UJAs and also is involved in a network of editors and reporters working on Habitat III.)

“The idea was simple although pioneering,” said Rosa Suriñach with the Habitat III Secretariat. “The purpose was to make urban knowledge, data and analysis accessible to journalists and communications professionals, so they might be able to create awareness on urban issues through stories and media coverage.”

Suriñach said the attempt was a call for the media’s participation in a global debate that was lacking its presence. Like climate journalism, this new focus — sometimes called urban journalism — looks at issues from the most global to the most local level, from how actions taken in the community affect the global and vice-versa. That’s a potent tool, backers say.

“One of the main impacts of the UJAs is the global exchange of media experiences and best practices and to bring international examples closer to local professionals,” Suriñach said. “Our hope is that media will play a crucial role in following up the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, improving the democratic control and participation on how urbanization is effectively put in place both at local and global level.”

From 2014 to 2016, she said, Internet references to “urban journalism” have increased exponentially. The UJAs series may also be continued in the future, including through an online platform and at future World Urban Forums. Practitioners say the field is burgeoning, too.

“The state of urban journalism is quite fragmented, since cities are not always among the main topics at national level even though these are the places where most of the challenges — such as economic growth, the integration of migrants, etc. — are taking place,” said Simone D’Antonio, an Italian journalist who has been involved in several of the Urban Journalism Academies over the past year.

“Nevertheless, in many countries some good experiences of urban journalism are coming out not only from the traditional newsrooms but from a wide range of actors such as bloggers, architects and urban planners, freelance journalists and more,” he noted. “In South African townships or in urban slums in Nairobi or Jakarta many great examples of urban journalism, often in collaboration with residents, are shaking up the debate. In some cases, they’re pushing more relevant media outlets to focus on urban issues — such as housing, urban transport, energy poverty — from different perspectives.”

Sounding board

The Habitat III process has actually made some history for the media. For the first time in a U. N. process, the run-up to next week’s conference has seen the media represented as its own stakeholder group. Media is one of the 16 “constituent groups” of the General Assembly of Partners, a global umbrella group that came together ahead of Habitat III.

In part, this unique inclusion is due to the proliferation of new media and the unprecedented reach of some of this media brought about by new patterns of news consumption, organizers say.

“Media, especially new forms of media, play an increasingly important role not only as a source of information but as a means of communication,” said Nicholas You, founder of the World Urban Campaign and a co-chair of the GAP media group. “Indeed, real change only occurs when the issues at stake and their policy implications make their way into the hearts and minds of people. The challenges of sustainable urbanization and their potential solutions are such that they require buy-in and a shared sense of ownership by each and every inhabitant of our cities.”

[See: Unified stakeholder vision on sustainable urbanization lauded, critiqued ahead of Habitat III]

Of course, journalists, editors and publishers are far from monolithic, despite the tidy usage of the catchall term “the media” — and neither are their readers. Those reporting on or in cities face massively disparate forces, from fickle readerships to outright violence and political repression, meager salaries to opaque official processes.

So what would the media, as a group, be looking for from the New Urban Agenda? The media constituent group has no agenda of its own, says You, who is also a Citiscope board member. Instead, the group aims to function as an independent messenger and a sounding board, seeking to integrate the views of the 15 other constituent groups — government officials, the private sector, academics, farmers, grass-roots groups and more.

“What are the issues that are of concern to the inhabitants of the city and how are these being translated into different stakeholder positions?” he said. “Conversely, how are the positions voiced by different stakeholder groups perceived by the inhabitants of any given city? But most importantly, how can the diversity of interests and positions of the various constituency groups be distilled into a common platform and a common agenda?”

Following the policy debate and public-input process during the formulation of the New Urban Agenda is one thing. Where many say the media’s role will become far more critical is after next week’s conference finishes up and everyone goes home — presumably, to get to work on turning the vision of the New Urban Agenda into a variety of realities.

[See: Habitat III loses proposed Multi-Stakeholder Panel — for now]

A key question that remains unanswered in the Habitat III process will be on how to formally track progress on implementation. In a last-minute compromise last month, U. N. member states agreed to agree to disagree on this contentious issue and, instead, to have the U. N. General Assembly take up this complex question and make a decision in coming years.

In the meantime, backers say, journalists have a variety of important roles to play, whether in watchdogging commitments from governments, the private sector and others, or in spreading key lessons of innovative response from one city to the next.

“What is clear is that we need, in addition to quantitative indicators, stories,” You said. “Stories of how different stakeholders working together are able to make positive change is what will inspire people and their communities to innovate and to learn from each other to make a difference. The media will thus be focusing on what works, how it worked and the lessons to be learned and shared.”

Communicating impact

Of course, stories of urban development and related lessons need not be focused specifically on the New Urban Agenda. But journalists working on urban reporting say the background of the Habitat III process will also help in their storytelling.

“The media is looking for inspiration on how to cover urban issues at the local and national level from a different perspective,” said D’Antonio, the Italian journalist. “The New Urban Agenda can be important to define the state of the art of the global urban debate, highlighting approaches and practices which are often less covered by media.”

[See: How will we know if the New Urban Agenda has been successful?]

This will find particular relevance in the developing world, D’Antonio says, given the New Urban Agenda’s focus on issues such urban innovations, social inclusion and more. (The document’s final draft text can be found here.) The new international agreement also is expected to impact on how international aid flows are structured, potentially leading to greater focus on urban-level projects rather than primarily on national-level funding.

Still, is this type of material of interest to readers, in any region? D’Antonio admits that a key priority for journalists working in this field in the coming years will be to make the issue “sexier”. The challenge will be “to communicate in terms of concrete impact on urban contexts, highlighting concrete examples and showing precise objectives and targets to be reached.”

Yet as an approach this has been done before, and indeed, is something that journalism is well-equipped to do. Again, particular lessons could be found in coverage of last year’s COP 21 climate talks in Paris. In the run-up to that summit, journalists around the world were able to report on a dizzying spectrum of interrelated issues — the human impacts of climate change, the intricacies of the political negotiations, the technicalities of the science and of the potential solutions.

“The New Urban Agenda can help journalists in finding new angles … on cities and to foster the use of data to analyze urban phenomena,” D’Antonio said. “Training editors in developing countries on how cities will be even more important in the next years as decisive players in national and global politics is one of the priorities to foster better coverage of the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.”

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