Habitat III Is the Citizens’ Conference of the United Nations

Plaza Grande in Quito, Ecuador, 2015                                                                              ©Jess Kraft / Shutterstock.com


More than half of the world's population today lives in cities. By 2050, the world's urban population is expected to nearly double, making urbanization one of the twenty-first century’s most transformative trends. While cities have gone through massive transformations that have resulted in unprecedented economic growth and prosperity, we need to rethink the way we live in and manage cities to ensure a sustainable future for all.

Although urbanization may contribute to the world's challenges, cities possess immeasurable potential to deliver the innovations required for addressing or reversing many of them. Cities have the strongest capacity to serve as agents of positive change, lift millions out of poverty, pave the way for social equality and stem the tide of climate change.

It is in the pursuit of fulfilling this potential and capacity—during an era in which sustainable urbanization is imperative—that the need for a new urban paradigm becomes clear. An action-oriented plan aimed at effectively addressing the complex challenges of urbanization, the New Urban Agenda will be the focus of discussions at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), taking place from 17 to 20 October 2016 in Quito, Ecuador.

Habitat III as a milestone in sustainable development

Based on the idea that the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities, elaborated in the outcome document of the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, entitled “The Future We Want”, there is indeed a global acknowledgment of the transformative power of well-planned urbanization in relation to development. The pursuit of the New Urban Agenda couldn’t have come at a better time, not only because of the role that it has in meeting the objectives of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, but also due to its capacity to gather all voices and commitments to address an unprecedented urban context.

The Habitat conferences have been convened every 20 years since 1976, when Habitat I was held in Vancouver, Canada. Habitat II took place in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1996. This year, Habitat III is set to present a historical paradigm shift of urbanization as a tool for development. The Conference conveys a clear message that the pattern of urbanization needs to change in order to better respond to the challenges of our time and to address issues such as inequality, climate change, informality, insecurity and the unsustainable forms of urban expansion.

Since Habitat II, cities have grown much more in area than in population—a clear sign of the lack of well-planned urbanization and the alternative proliferation of spontaneous city growth. Urbanization that goes unchecked can exacerbate current challenges, such as increased demand for mobility and consumption of energy, environmental degradation, augmentation in costs of urban services per capita (water, sanitation, drainage), increased cost of public space and infrastructure per capita, decreased productivity of urbanization, and fewer economies of agglomeration. Hopefully, Habitat III will provide the opportunity to reverse these unsustainable trends and to adopt a framework of urbanization that is planned and can lead to social and economic expansion, making cities work for all.

The New Urban Agenda: changing the way we live in and manage cities

It is necessary that Member States reinvigorate their commitment to sustainable urbanization, raising substantive subjects in the discussion over the New Urban Agenda.

Firstly, public space is gaining recognition as a key element for urban social interaction and inclusion, health and well-being, economic exchange, cultural expression and dialogue. Committing to promote safe, inclusive, accessible, green and quality public spaces in cities and villages may transform the way we interact with our urban environment in a holistic approach.

On the other hand, local and regional governments must become important actors in this new urban paradigm. These are the institutions closest to citizens facing daily challenges, including those relating to housing, jobs, basic services, infrastructure, transport and many other aspects that affect their lives in a very tangible way. The willingness of national Governments to foster stronger coordination and cooperation among national, subnational, and local governments is a giant stride forward in the way cities are managed.

Furthermore, a paradigm shift is only possible if we are able to focus on and plan in advance for compact, dense and mixed cities. The implementation of integrated planning that aims to balance short-term needs with long-term desired outcomes of a competitive economy, high quality of life and sustainable environment is essential to create well-designed cities.

The process towards Quito: the Habitat III legacy

The road to Habitat III itself has become one of the most valuable legacies of the Conference. The process towards Quito is a benchmark of inclusion in the history of Habitat conferences. It has compressed innovative and wide-range participatory platforms to allow all voices and views to be included into the discussion of the New Urban Agenda. In the last two years, the United Nations system, stakeholders and partners, local and regional governments, and Member States have been able to collectively articulate the approach to a new urban era. Apart from national and regional processes and the conduct of three sessions of the Preparatory Committee, the Habitat III process has convened 11 Regional and Thematic Meetings, resulting in a participants’ declaration; 22 issue papers; 10 policy papers elaborated by 200 independent experts; online urban dialogues; and an ample scope of participatory activities, including Urban Breakfasts, Urban Walks, and Urban Journalism Academies.

In addition, informal hearings with local authorities, associations and other stakeholders were held to allow them to discuss the ‘zero draft’ of the New Urban Agenda with United Nations Member States. This was the first consultative process to recognize and treat subnational governments as a specific constituency, which represents a milestone for the international municipal governance movement. Some of the platforms raised by the Habitat III process, such as the Policy Units, the local authorities hearings, and the Quito Implementation Plan for the New Urban Agenda, may set a great precedent for future United Nations conferences and summits.

At this point, I look forward to seeing you in Quito in October. The Conference will only succeed if all of us, at all levels, take responsibility and make commitments for future urban generations. Habitat III is about the people of the cities, the people of the world, and, above all, the people who are most in need. It is the United Nations conference for and by all citizens.