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Will Habitat III Define the Future for Your City?

Is your city represented at Habitat III?
Every 20 years there's a global UN summit on the future of human settlements, this year it's called Habitat III and it's potentially of significant relevance to all of us in the UK - what will Habitat III mean for you and me and for the rest of the world's citizens?

Have you heard of Habitat III? I hadn’t until relatively recently, and when I began to research it, I was shocked I hadn’t read more about this critical UN conference about our world’s cities.

What is Habitat III?

If you’re like me and you’re unsure of what Habitat III is all about, here’s a very brief overview: –

  • It’s a global United Nations’ conference
  • It takes place every 20 years
  • It’s happening this year – in October – in Quito in Ecuador
  • It’s all about debating, discussing and deciding on urban policy
  • Member states, UN agencies, NGOs, grass-roots organisations, universities, foundations, multilateral institutions and multinational companies are all actively involved in the conference, and indeed the lead up to it
  • The lead up to Habitat III involves multiple preparatory committees around the world, as well as regional meetings and thematic conferences
  • The draft text of the UN Habitat III Quito Declaration was hammered out earlier this year; it’s called the New Urban Agenda
  • This will formally be adopted in October at the United Nations’ Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, Habitat III
  • The future of where you live and how it evolves and develops could ride on the outcome of this hugely significant conference…

What’s the Point of Habitat III?

Habitat III is driven by member states, and for ease of this process a Bureau of states has been authorised to oversee and bring together the conference.

This Bureau is made up of Chad, Chile, Czech Republic, Ecuador, France, Germany, Indonesia, Senegal, Slovakia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Other nations are mobilising and getting actively involved by hosting preparatory committees, meetings and conferences, thus demonstrating their significant commitment to the New Urban Agenda…

But hugely conspicuous by their absence from any clear and direct involvement in Habitat III and the lead up to it, as far as I can see anyway, is the United Kingdom.Habitat III the future of YOUR city

Whilst The Guardian newspaper has been a great source of information for me now I’ve discovered Habitat III, it is a relatively lone voice in the UK talking about this conference, which could frankly change the face of every city – including your city.

So, we all need to take note of what’s going on before it’s a bit too late! After all, 20 years is a heck of a long wait before Britain can have its say at the next Habitat conference.

Current Criticism of Habitat III

Some journalists, civic leaders and indeed city representatives have suggested that Habitat III is lining up to be fairly autocratic. I absolutely understand this point – after all, how can you disseminate lofty global decision making down to those who have to implement the decisions or who are affected by them?

I.e., the concept of a New Urban Agenda in which sustainable development goals are set or reinforced is all well and good, but how do a city’s citizens become informed about the expectations that the participants at Habitat III have?

Those the ideas will affect and impact upon will be the last to know…

The last Habitat conference was held in Istanbul in 1996, and in the 20 years since, the core issues of the resultant agenda – which were adequate housing and sustainable human settlements – have slowly gained traction…but they remain on the table for this year’s conference too, as they haven’t yet been fully embraced or achieved.

In part this may come down to the sheer complexity of taking an ideology of a global organisation and turning it into practical, workable steps on a location by location basis.

Also, reading a piece written last year by Neal Peirce, editor-in-chief of Citiscope.org, which is a news service covering innovation in global cities as well as the lead up to Habitat III, I note that some countries have actively campaigned to exclude cities from the conference.

Errrrr, this is the first global summit in 20 years focusing exclusively on urbanisation, and as Neil Peirce puts it, “from the global economy to climate change, cities offer our best hope for solutions” – yet some nations want to exclude their participation?

That’s mad.

What’s more, surely it critically undermines any authority Habitat III hopes to have?

After all, if someone is making decisions about the environment in which you live and that directly affect you, you want and need to be an active part of that process surely? Having your urban environment well represented at the conference is a core part of that.

However, as stated, Britain as a whole, not just our cities, are conspicuous by their absence in terms of involvement with and representation at Habitat III…so we Britons mustn’t simply consider criticising the summit, we have to criticise our own nation’s lack of representation at the summit.

I’ve contacted the UN to find out why Britain is nowhere to be seen – but haven’t received a response!

What Could Habitat III Mean for You?

To understand what this year’s conference could mean for you and your city, we could choose to look back at the impact of the previous summit in Istanbul.

The outcome document agreed upon in 1996 at the Habitat II conference called for adequate shelter for all, and sustainable human settlements in an urbanizing world, according to Citiscope.org, and: “Since then, over 100 countries have adopted constitutional rights to adequate housing, a major success of the Habitat Agenda…Its main provisions worked their way into the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of 2000 with a target of achieving “cities without slums”.”

The relevance of this for British people living in the UK could be said to be relatively negligible. So what of the New Urban Agenda that is likely to be ratified in Quito?

Well, it will focus on sustainable development.

Citiscope frames it thus: “The New Urban Agenda, coming on the heels of the crystallization of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, will seek to create a mutually reinforcing relationship between urbanization and development.”

Habitat III Journalism Project #H3JournalismImmediately this seems to be of much more relevance to Brits – it really resonates.

In the UK, like in most of the world, there has been a consistent in-flow of citizens relocating to the major urban hubs.

This trend shows no signs of stopping for at least the next 20 years – on a global scale – which is why this year’s Habitat agenda is very relevant.

The Guardian says: “Some commentators believe this move to urban living is good for the environment because of denser housing and greater use of public transport. Studies have shown city dwellers on four continents have smaller carbon footprints than their countries’ national averages.”

However, city living can be hard – on all continents. The stress on everything from services to transportation, from air quality to personal security is palpable… our cities in the UK are not an exception.

I therefore feel strongly that the outcome of this year’s Habitat III summit could be of huge relevance to us in the UK, especially with the strong focus that’s expected to be placed on the relationship between the environment and urbanisation.  I can’t wait to read about the outcomes from Quito.

Finally, it’s important to mention that the outcome of the Habitat III conference will be the creation of an agenda – an agenda is not binding, but it serves to guide the thinking, planning and actions of nation states, city and regional authorities, civil society, foundations, NGOs, academic researchers and UN agencies.

Let’s just hope someone remembers to send a copy or two to us here in the UK.

Image citation: featured image copyright James Neeley

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