Six reports you may have missed at Habitat III

Urbanization tips from Scandinavia and China, culture’s role in building better cities, responding to climate change and migration — and more!

Participants peruse pamphlets and reports at the U.N. Pavilion on the grounds of the Habitat III conference in Quito, 19 October. (Habitat III Secretariat)

The flurry of activity last month during the U. N.’s Habitat III conference on sustainable cities was enough to make anyone’s head spin.

With book launches, announcements and receptions happening every hour, more than a few nuggets of wisdom slipped through the cracks.

So, here’s a taste of the fascinating urban research unveiled during those heady four days in Quito.

Nordic Urban Ways

Scandinavian cities have long been admired for their quality of life — and now, there’s evidence to prove that local leadership can take credit. This report, published by the Swedish think tank Global Utmaning, argues that Nordic countries have gone the furthest in decentralizing to allow cities to self-manage and self-finance, while the national government provides the basics of the welfare state. With research from nine Scandinavian cities, the authors conclude with a “vision to action” approach on leadership for sustainable cities, identifying the value of visionary decision-making, creating synergies, mobilizing supporting forces and creating continuity in planning. Global Utmaning will host a Habitat III implementation event on 16 December in Stockholm with the goal of translating the report’s recommendations into reality beyond Scandinavia.

Shanghai Manual: A Guide for Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century

In 2010, Shanghai hosted the World Expo under the theme “Better City, Better Life”. Hoping to give continuity to that mantra, the city proposed a World Cities Day at the conclusion of the blockbuster international fair. The U. N. adopted the idea in 2014, selecting 31 October as the annual day to commemorate urban life. Last year the day was marked in Milan; this year, in Quito.

[See: Between Habitat II and III, China changed everything]

To further bolster this cause, the Shanghai Municipal Government released a manual in 2012 to serve as a resource on sustainable urban development for mayors, urban planners and decision-makers in cities around the world. The chapters of the manual can be used as training modules in workshops and cover a range of case studies from around the world. (The link above goes to the 2012 edition, while an updated version from this year should be released online soon.)

Global Report on Culture for Sustainable Urban Development

The U. N.’s leading voice for culture, UNESCO, argues that cultural heritage is the key to sustainable development, in this new report. With urban areas home to nearly a third of the 1,052 sites on UNESCO’s fabled list of World Heritage Sites, the Paris-based agency believes it has learned a few lessons along the way about how a cultural lens can improve cities.

This study cites more than 100 case studies, including conflict and post-conflict situations. Following the destruction of invaluable sites such as the al-Askari shrine in Samarra, Iraq, in 2006 and the ancient mausoleums of Timbuktu in Mali in 2012, reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts have demonstrated the ability of culture to restore social cohesion between communities and improve livelihoods, the report argues, paving the way for dialogue and reconciliation.

[See: Cultural rights pushed as ‘key pillar’ of sustainable development]

The role of the creative industries in fostering long-term economic growth in cities also is highlighted here, in the case of Shanghai, which has been designated a UNESCO Creative City of Design since 2010. The Chinese city is one of the world’s major creative centres, with more than 7.4 percent of residents employed in the creative industries, the report notes.

“Culture lies at the heart of urban renewal and innovation. This report provides a wealth of insights and concrete evidence showing the power of culture as a strategic asset for creating cities that are more inclusive, creative and sustainable,” said Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO.

Investing in Urban Resilience

Climate change made up a significant chunk of the conversation at Habitat III, looking at issues of climate-safe infrastructure, related financing and international aid, and the impacts of global warming on urban systems. Particular attention was paid to how to integrate city authorities more closely into planning processes around climate-related preparations.

Bolstering cities’ resilience to a changing climate is starting to receive major focus from policymakers and investors alike, and none too soon: This new report from the World Bank warns that failure to make “significant” investment in urban resilience will result in 77 million more people falling into poverty by 2030.

[See: Fund seeks to strengthen climate action in cities]

Yet enormous investments also are needed in city resilience to many threats beyond those posed by climate change. Residents’ safety and well-being can be threatened by industrial accidents, shoddy building standards, civil unrest, conflict, the breakdown of a city’s own systems and more.

Meanwhile, a unique window currently exists to respond to these enormous needs, the report states. Some 60 percent of urban areas expected by 2030 are yet to be built, while less than 2 percent of institutional investment worldwide currently goes into infrastructure.

Forced Displacement in Urban Areas: What Needs to Be Done

Leaving no One Behind: Internal Displacement and the New Urban Agenda

In June, the United Nations announced that global forced displacement had hit an all-time high: More than 65 million people had left their homes due to conflict or persecution — 1 out of every 113 people worldwide.

Those unprecedented movements of people also have been increasingly exhibiting new tendencies, often heading to towns and cities where friends and family members already have fled. Certainly that is what has been seen as millions have moved toward Europe from West Asia and North Africa, but these trends are being seen throughout the world, too.

[See: U. N. summit on migration crisis fails to address front-line role of cities]

This stands in contrast to displacements of decades past, when large-scale displacement typically resulted in the international community setting up vast refugee camps until solutions could be found. This “urbanization” of today’s displacement poses multiple new complexities for national governments and international groups attempting to respond to the needs of refugees — and it’s a trend that few are expecting to change anytime soon.

Just ahead of Habitat III, two new reports offered snapshots of the issue. They also put forward recommendations for a burgeoning effort to bring together humanitarian groups with the city officials and urban planners that are among the first tasked with responding to the needs of new refugees.

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Gregory Scruggs

Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope.

Carey L. Biron

Carey is news editor for Citiscope.