How Habitat III can Shape our Cities in the Years Ahead

Urgent action is needed for securing a sustainable urban future around the globe. That was the driver for Habitat III – the major conference on the future of cities – held in Quito, Ecuador last week. The atmosphere, however, was not one of panic or deluge. Rather, participants shared a sense of clarity – and unity – on the goal to reinvigorate sustainable urban development.

We have analyzed and discussed the challenges that our cities are facing and have [agreed] on a common roadmap for the 20 years to come.

Joan Clos, the Executive Director of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat)

If the New Urban Agenda represents the set of values accepted by theinternational community, then all facets of urbanization – development, design, policy, economics – must strive to reflect these principles. Results-based decision-making from city administrations and local actors will put these values into practice. From public procurement, to financing, to urban policy, rethinking these processes can make room for new actors and models which could introduce the innovative, adaptive, and holistic solutions cities need.

Existing urban centres face an unavoidable change in mindset; smarter tools, wide access to technology, and a people-first focus are shaping how we manage the cities of tomorrow. New master-planned cities, as we’ve examined in the past, are designed and populated from scratch and present an opportunity to embrace the principles of the New Urban Agenda from the get go.

Smart Cities, Smarter Citizens

Results-based processes will require a bold shift away from rigid systems of urban management towards models that draw upon local ingenuity and a growing body of evidence. Charbel Aoun, a director at London’s Future Cities Catapult, points to Barcelona’s open approach to urban problem solving as a model to follow. In an open call, local residents devised ingenious ideas to help the city manage a energy costs more efficiently. One example – controlling the temperature in public transit systems with a real-time feedback app. Barcelona’s open approach is pivotal: “the city otherwise would have never thought of solutions like this”, Aoun concluded.

It doesn’t matter if we call it smart city, connected city, tech city. All that matters is that it is about the city.

Charbel Aoun, of Future Cities Catapult on ‘Harnessing the Role of Technology and Innovation for the New Urban Agenda’

Barcelona also counts among the cities now taking new approaches to public procurement that appeal to innovative companies that would not typically bid on public contracts. As technology, data, and a renewed focus on people-centered design puts forward disruptive solutions, it is now clearer than ever that we must actively include new ideas from the structures we use to govern our cities. This lesson is most apparent in the mobility sector, where local authorities are taking on new roles in the face of a new technological landscape.

The Habitat world conference is not without criticism. Previous editions were marked by a lack of progress in the implementation of their ideals. In the wake of Habitat III, the great challenge now is to ensure action and positive results in urban development in the coming decades.

The New Urban Agenda is a vital instrument to ensure the policies, tools and strategies we create put people first. In one notable example of citizen engagement, the city of Seoul uses online governance platforms to engage tens of thousands of residents for ideas on how to improve the city. More than 500 policies have resulted from ideas residents submitted using these tools, reflecting both the value and efficiency of people-centered connected cities.

New Master-planned Cities and the ‘New Urban Agenda’

New master-planned cities are a major trend in greenfield urban development – a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. An increasing number of new city projects are emerging in different regions around the world, aiming to develop new urban centers, spark economic development and provide new lifestyles. Notably, these projects represent extremely large amounts of private-sector ambition and investment.

These cities are being developed, planned, and populated from scratch. The private sector is prepared to invest billions of dollars in these urbanization projects, providing the much needed funding for housing, new infrastructure, and quality urban environments. It is a positive sign and, in various regions, the public sector could not keep up without it.

These master-planned cities could be an ideal place to implement the policies and principles of the New Urban Agenda. The panel on new cities, a collaboration between McGill University, Yachay City of Knowledge, Carleton University, and NewCities, made one thing clear: the world cannot afford investments of such magnitude without producing positive, equitable impacts and outcomes. These major greenfield developments must avoid leaving people behind, increasing inequality, and social exclusion. They should also commit to sustainable development models.

The Yachay new city project is working to incorporate Informal settlements that have emerged surrounding development site, while construction of university and research facilities continue in parallel.

The New Urban Agenda can inform the social contract needed between developers, designers, and residents to translate best practices and policies to tangible outcomes for a sustainable urban future. This panel highlighted some important steps taken in Yachay City of Knowledge, a state-led new master-planned city in Ecuador. On a social level, Yachay has committed resources to assist planning and integration of informal settlements that have sprung up surrounding the site. This inclusive approach, as well as sustainable environmental and construction methods are helping to test out best practices in action for new city development. New cities, however, require an enormous investment. Critics call Yachay a top-down state project and tool for the president’s own economic agenda – while the corruption and inequality of existing Ecuadorian cities require serious investment.

In the 20 years since the previous Habitat meeting in 1996, the focus has zoomed in on the importance of resilience and social sustainability in urban development. Cities and the infrastructure that supports them are increasingly recognized as vital, not only for economic growth, but as social determinants of health, wellbeing, and upward mobility. For the growing majority of the world’s population, the next two decades will be defined by the cities that embrace these values.