U.N. increasingly looking to its urban agency on crisis response

A UN-Habitat employee works with residents to reconstruct their homes in Aceh, Indonesia, in 2005. (Veronica Wijaya/UN-Habitat)

NAIROBI — From the Syrian civil war to post-earthquake Haiti, countries around the world are in need of rebuilding — a process planners believe must start with sound land-use decisions to avoid planting the seeds of future conflicts.

A year after the United Nations established a joint effort to tackle the issue, national governments have authorized the creation of a voluntary fund to support rapid deployment of the international body’s lead agency on urbanization, UN-Habitat. The hope is that increased funding will enable planners, architects and urban design teams to reach more places more quickly as the world’s sectarian conflicts, climate-related and natural disasters, civil wars and refugee crises show no sign of abating.

The move came this month in Nairobi at the biennial board meeting of UN-Habitat. While the agency has been under fire in recent years from U. N. member states, the “Global Alliance for Urban Crises” was one of two UN-Habitat programmes singled out to receive a positive endorsement from the 58-member governing body in the form of a resolution.

While the resolution authorizing the fund did not set out specific numbers, the agency’s newly approved budget for 2018-19 includes USD 84 million annually for “risk reduction and rehabilitation”. That’s the largest amount for any single area of the agency’s work.

“Responding to post-conflict situations must go beyond limited national interventions to an international integrated plan of action,” Ann Nafi Aussi Balbool, Iraq’s minister of construction, housing and public municipalities, said in Nairobi. Iraq sponsored the resolution, which also notes the call to action on this front by the New Urban Agenda, the global agreement on the future of cities adopted last year.

[See: Summit aims to ‘substantially increase’ local strategies on disaster risk]

Balbool argued that the new strategy needs to provide “momentum and support to ensure peace and pave the way for the reestablishment of life and building, and the achievement of sustainable development standards in those urban areas.”

Tailoring response

A year ago this month, more than 65 organizations, from mayoral networks to U. N. agencies, came together at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul under the banner of the Global Alliance on Urban Crises. Their stated goal was to tailor humanitarian response to the urban context, in recognition that cities are often the places most affected by wars and natural disasters, as well as the places to which most displaced people will ultimately return.

UN-Habitat, which co-chairs the alliance along with the International Rescue Committee, has been particularly active in such global hotspots. They have pilot projects to experiment with participatory planning in the Syrian cities of Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. In the Somali cities of Kismayo and Bosaso, where there are functional local governments, they have been preparing urban plans for internally displaced people, whose status doesn’t usually bring in the same level of resources as refugees. Across the border in Kenya, UN-Habitat prepared a basic layout for the Kalobeyei refugee camp that was approved by the local county as an official town plan to guide future growth.

“Five months ago there was nothing; now there are basic services. Ultimately, this will be permanent,” said Rogier van den Berg, who runs the agency’s Urban Planning and Design Lab. The hope is that Kalobeyei will avoid the fate of Kakuma, a 25-year-old refugee camp with 150,000 people, which initially was expected to be temporary and so lacked basic amenities such as schools and shops that later had to be retrofitted into the camp. “All refugee settlements are supposed to be temporary, but the average age [of such camps] is 17 years,” van den Berg noted.

[See: Providing shelter in urban Iraq: Where the displaced meet the poor]

Based on the Lab’s research, UN-Habitat planners believe there is a short window of opportunity in such scenarios. “From zero to one year, a city evolves,” van den Berg said. ”If you do better, it provides better opportunities, because the structure is never going to change.”

That challenge is made all the more difficult by site selection, something UN-Habitat does not control but, going forward, hopes to influence for the better. As van den Berg pointed out, national governments, who he says view refugee camps as a burden more than an opportunity, tend to offer throwaway land, not choice locations with good road connections and ample natural resources. “Often refugees and displaced people end up in the worst place on Earth,” he said.

Van den Berg, a Dutch architect, left private practice in Amsterdam to start what is effectively a design firm housed inside a U. N. agency. Although the massive bureaucracy creates challenges largely unheard of in private practice, he says having the United Nations’ resources and imprimatur are invaluable for this kind of work to serve the world’s most vulnerable. “A U. N. agency can go into these places in a way that a planning firm or consultant cannot,” he said.

Ghani’s urban shift

Afghanistan is another challenging place where UN-Habitat has had a beachhead for a quarter century, weathering the Soviet invasion, mujahideen-related conflicts and the Taliban. Srinivasa Popuri of UN-Habitat’s Asia office travels to Afghanistan every two months, and he insists that the agency has buy-in from the highest levels of the Afghan government to ensure that reconstruction efforts focus on the planning and development of the country’s cities.

“When President [Ashraf] Ghani took office, he shifted his focus toward urban. He strongly feels that urbanization is inevitable in Afghanistan and could clearly see the role of cities as economic drivers of growth — but there was no documented evidence.”

Srinivasa Popuri

“When President [Ashraf] Ghani took office, he shifted his focus toward urban,” said Popuri. “He strongly feels that urbanization is inevitable in Afghanistan and could clearly see the role of cities as economic drivers of growth — but there was no documented evidence.”

[See: Sustaining peace in an urban world]

That’s where UN-Habitat came in. The agency helped prepare the State of Afghan Cities Report 2015, which painstakingly reviewed satellite data of the vast mountainous country parcel by parcel, in an effort to plot future urbanization. It predicts that the country’s cities will double in population over the next 15 years.

As a result, Popuri said, Ghani “also felt that unless he and his government provides a guided process for urbanization, it is going to be totally chaotic, as everyone flocks to the urban centres for employment.” Unplanned cities, in that case, would lead to religious extremism, foreign migration or additional internal displacement, many experts fear.

In 2002, Afghan cities such as Mazar, Kandahar, Herat and Jalalabad had been largely destroyed and lacked any functional government. But as part of the Urban National Priority Programme, UN-Habitat has been advising the Ghani administration on how to build up municipal institutions.

Now those cities have mayors, independent local governance and municipal advisory boards. And in Kabul, the national government has a formal office on municipalities. Further, 750,000 Afghan households have received formal land tenure and are paying property taxes to the national treasury.

“These cities are now clean,” said Popuri. “There is formal economic activity. The traffic is controlled. There is little pollution.”

[See: Could special economic zones be a win-win for refugees and host countries alike?]

Other U. N. and humanitarian field teams have been chased out of Afghanistan by warlords and Taliban holdouts. But Popuri insists that his agency’s quarter-century history there has established local trust. “They know Habitat is working for the people without any politics or strings attached,” he said.

In work around urban risk reduction and rehabilitation, it appears that the agency has increasingly gained the trust of donor countries across the globe, too.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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