November 16, 2016

Reflections on Habitat III: A Hopeful Future for Sustainable Urban Development

By: Habitat III Delegation

Over 300 diverse participants joined together at Habitat III to spell out the word INCLUSION as part of a live aerial human art project titled "INCLUSION: A Vision for Unity," which aimed to elevate the way in which people think about inclusion around the world and show that cities should be accessible and inclusive to all. Photo credit: @worldenabled, Q Specter, and DIAUD Network

Many voices rang through Quito’s Casa de la Cultura as it hosted the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) on October 17-20, an all-UN meeting convened every 20 years. The Ecuadorian halls buzzed as more than 40,000 participants attended a dizzying array of plenaries, roundtables, side events, and networking activities. Their voices also filled the extraordinary exhibits in the Asamblea Nacional where Penn IUR had a well-placed and well-attended display of faculty and student urban-focused work and hosted more than twenty speakers. Wherever one went in those few days, the expectant enthusiasm, buoyant passion, and hopeful anticipation were noticeable as the conference participants debated and discussed the Habitat III outcome document, the New Urban Agenda, a roadmap for creating an enabling environment for the planning and management of urban spatial development worldwide. After the UN General Assembly’s 193 members ratify the agreement, urban governmental and non-governmental leaders will begin its implementation.

Non-governmental actors have a special role in implementation. For example, in the university world, researchers and academics can begin the ongoing work to create and share knowledge; pilot innovative strategies and solutions; offer monitoring employing qualitative and quantitative tools; and provide capacity-building instruction for the work at hand. Other groups have additional skills to contribute. Likely, they will continue to find areas of mutual collaboration.

Armed with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s message that the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities, urbanists are prepared to engage immediately and thoughtfully. They will, however, have to temper their expectations. While ultimately extraordinarily rewarding, achieving the New Urban Agenda’s goals will take time and be fraught with challenges. Nonetheless, the aim is to build a world where cities and human settlements are inclusive, safe, productive, resilient and sustainable, where urban-rural synergies are maximized and nations have mastered balanced territorial development. The overall goals of these aspirations are: to eradicate poverty in all its forms and dimensions; to promote equally-shared opportunities and benefits of urbanization; and to facilitate the sustainable management of natural resources in cities and human settlements in order to protect and improve the urban ecosystem and environmental services, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, and promote disaster-risk reduction and management.

The University of Pennsylvania sent a 24-member delegation to Habitat III. Among them were Penn IUR Advisory Board member Paul Farmer, faculty members: Stefan Al (City and Regional Planning), William Burke-White (Richard Perry Professor of Law and Director, Perry World House); Mark Alan Hughes (City and Regional Planning, Director, Kleinman Center); Wendell Pritchett (Presidential Professor of Law); Eduardo Rojas (Historic Preservation, School of Design); Daniel Aldana Cohen (Sociology, School of Arts and Sciences); and nine doctoral students from the Graduate Group in City and Regional Planning. Below are reflections from the delegation about their experiences and the challenges ahead.

—Eugenie Birch, Penn IUR Co-Director and Lawrence C. Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research and Education Chair of the Graduate Group in City and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania

Stefan Al | Habitat III Reflection

William Burke-White | Habitat III Reflection

Daniel Aldana Cohen | Habitat III Reflection

Laurent Corroyer | Habitat III Reflection

Chandan Deuskar | Habitat III Reflection

Paul Farmer | Habitat III Reflection

Sa Min Han | Habitat III Reflection

Mark Alan Hughes | Habitat III Reflection

Krista Iskander | Habitat III Reflection

Chaeri Kim | Habitat III Reflection

Sirus Joseph Libeiro | Habitat III Reflection

Wendell Pritchett | Habitat III Reflection

Mary Rocco | Habitat III Reflection

Eduardo Rojas | Habitat III Reflection

David Stanek | Habitat III Reflection

Patricio Zambrano-Barragan | Habitat III Reflection


Stefan Al, Associate Professor of City and Regional Planning, Penn Design and Penn IUR Faculty Fellow

I traveled to Quito thrilled to participate in Habitat III, my first Habitat conference. Given that the next Habitat occurs twenty years from now, it was an opportunity I did not want to miss — and so reasoned more than 40,000 others. On my first day, I was overwhelmed by masses of people sandwiched between security fences in five-hour lines, against a high-altitude (and low oxygen) backdrop of the Andean foothills. Equally impressive was a conference lineup that included hundreds of events with some of the world’s most eminent urbanists, from politicians to activists, and designers to researchers. 

Quito was visibly overwhelmed as well. The city struggled to host its largest event ever, which put the city in a global spotlight and became the talk of the town. Quito is an emblem of the challenges facing urbanizing places in developing countries, marked by air pollution, traffic jams, and informal settlements. My last day at the conference was cut short thanks to yet another typical challenge: a power failure left half of the country without power, and my conference room pitch black — with the audience shining cell-phone flashlights to illuminate the presenters’ faces. 

My personal highlight was Habitat Village, an urban laboratory where some of the ideas of the New Urban Agenda were actually implemented. These included roadways that had been pedestrianized, black asphalt painted bright yellow, and parking lots decked with planters and seats. Where used to be cars now were outdoor cinemas, concerts, and places to sit. Habitat Village made the ideals of the New Urban Agenda – that we need urban planning and design for better cities—tangible, even if it was just for a few weeks.


William Burke-White, Richard Perry Professor of Law, Director, Perry World House and Penn IUR Faculty Fellow

Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda are impressive examples of multi stakeholder engagement. Accordingly, they both reflect the strengths and challenges of participatory mechanisms. The public portion of the Habitat III conference should be recognized for its inclusiveness, with hundreds of events that engaged a multitude of stakeholders; however, the effort to condense many voices into a limited number of events at times detracted from the quality of the interactions. The New Urban Agenda presents a laudable vision for sustainable urbanization but goes into little detail about human rights or the significance of legal frameworks, aside from acknowledging that existing international agreements will be respected. This is far from an explicit commitment to a human rights approach that some called for, and reflects the consensus of signatories.

We are entering a moment when the transference of information and resources across multiple layers of governance, both vertically and horizontally, is critical to sustainable and inclusive policymaking. Given our new technologies, it should be more feasible than ever, but connecting, federal, city, and municipal government to global frameworks will require an enabling environment. This will require further examination of subsidiarity, which will be at the heart of implementing and achieving both the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals.


Daniel Aldana Cohen, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania

As a faithful reader of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, I conduct my research on inequality and climate politics in New York and São Paulo by focusing on urban actors in different social classes in each city. In Quito for UN Habitat III, I found myself doing the same. I took a cable car a thousand kilometers above the conference site with leaders of São Paulo’s most environmentally engaged housing movement; I learned about backroom wheeling and dealing in São Paulo’s mayoral administration from a senior political appointee inside the conference’s rigid perimeter; and I discussed New York’s newest climate initiatives with city planners at the booth of Penn’s Institute for Urban Research, located in the conference’s looser exhibition space. A few times, I found myself in circles where people from different continents and social realms talked to each other.

To a researcher, the official proceedings of the conference were out of reach, its official programing tightly scripted. But as a space of convergence, the meeting was a revealing crucible. Beneath a surface discourse of common causes, I found more good intentions than signs of concrete progress. Quiet frustration felt ubiquitous, even if the reasons diverged. Still, some grounds for optimism: I found that thinking about sustainability and the right to the city idea, among urban actors of the North and South, was increasingly entwined. I hope that Dickens won’t be a helpful guide to Habitat IV.


Laurent Corroyer, Doctoral Student, City and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania

With hundreds of presentations over four days, Habitat III was a buzzing hive of 40,000 attendees amongst whom frenzied local kids muddled through in a relentless search for prospectuses and flyers. Most sessions I chose to attend dealt with urban resilience. Presenters’ interests ranged from the challenges of financing projects to the participatory methods and design strategies that can be elaborated to enhance the resilience of communities and their physical environments. Although shared definitions remain to be worked out, Habitat III’s urban resilience sessions collectively shaped a rich and effective knowledge for practice while underscoring the persisting doubts and uncertainties on how to replicate best practices at the local level. My only regret is to have missed the perspectives and savoir faire of the communities directly affected by these projects, those vulnerable to natural disasters, armed conflicts and financial crisis. I have no doubt, however, that some of these voices must have been heard amidst the main venue at the Casa de Cultura  the country, university and business booths at the Exhibition Hall, the “Villages” that showcased experimental projects, the alternative events organized at the Quito School of Architecture, and the resistance movements that discussed a counter urban agenda. I have no better hope than to imagine that in 20 years from now, against the backdrop of the enthusiastic participatory motto of Habitat III, organizers will sustain their efforts to include all voices into the formal spaces and schedules of Habitat IV.


Chandan Deuskar, Doctoral Student, City and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania

At Habitat III, I attended sessions both on topics close to my own area of research (e.g. the launch of the Global Human Settlements Layer and the new Atlas of Urban Expansion), as well as those that were largely new to me: postal addressing in slums, new town development, and an obscure branch of urban theory called “ekistics.” The session on postal addressing – which described a small, localized, but apparently effective effort in a slum in India – contrasted with the New Urban Agenda’s focus on “integrated” solutions. The New Urban Agenda uses the word “integrated” 29 times, implicitly rejecting small, cheap, quick, opportunistic interventions like this. Similarly, neither new town development nor “ekistics” are discussed in the New Urban Agenda.

Attending these sessions made me wonder how these more esoteric or controversial ideas in practice and research will be treated in a post-Habitat III world. The New Urban Agenda is fairly expansive and touches on a range of ideas. If there are ideas in the New Urban Agenda that are not being considered in a particular context, the document is useful in its ability to draw attention to them. But what about the reverse situation, in which an idea exists in practice or research but is not in the New Urban Agenda, like new town development or small-scale interventions? Or when new ideas emerge in the future that are not in the New Urban Agenda? Will governments and international organizations, in their attempts to align themselves with the Agenda, sideline or ignore these ideas? It will be important to ensure that the New Urban Agenda does not end up representing a new urban orthodoxy.


Paul Farmer, FAICP, Former CEO of the American Planning Association and Penn IUR Advisory Board Member

The UN adopted its New Urban Agenda (NUA) in Quito last month after two years of preparatory work, with Sustainable Development Goals having replaced the twenty-year old Millennium Development Goals. Did the world notice? Should it? UN-HABITAT holds its urban summit only once every 20 years, with its “mini-summit” World Urban Forums (WUF) every other year. Having attended the last five WUFs, Habitat III felt eerily similar to me. With a bit more ceremony and more attendees, H3 sessions were basically the same as those at gatherings now frequently held throughout the world. That’s actually good news as urbanists seem to be coalescing around both important issues and myriad, context-based initiatives. However, “group think” needs to be avoided and I heard few debates or challenges to increasingly common views. That’s a concern. After WUF II in Barcelona in 2004 again used urban planning as a scapegoat for everything wrong with human settlement programs, planners decided to both examine our own profession and reform it. By WUF III in Vancouver, the Global Planners Network presented the New Urban Planning through the Vancouver Declaration adopted by almost two dozen nation-based planning organizations such as the American Planning Association. That effort has continued to grow, and it was encouraging to see urban planning as a key component to urban progress in H3 in Quito and embedded in the New Urban Agenda. Now, as with any plan, implementation of place-appropriate ideas of the New Urban Agenda becomes the true test of H3.


Sa Min Han, Doctoral Student, City and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania

The Habitat III forum was composed of three parts: 1) a main building where the conferences, sessions, and social events were held; 2) the exhibition area; and 3) the UN Habitat villages that spread from the conference center to downtown Quito.

I attended several sessions related to neighborhood resilience and climate change, which are my areas of concentration. The primary topics addressed in most of the sessions focused on instant, straightforward action and changes in cognition, especially for the local governments and communities. One notable presentation by executives from developing countries and 100 Resilient Cities shared their experiences with the aftermath of natural disasters, including means of recovery and fund raising for rebuilding.

In addition, the exhibition area was especially interesting. This was an ideal place to learn about “hot” global issues, as well as to compare and contrast policies from all over the world. The conference was full of participants both international and local, and offered many events; at times, it felt like a global festival.

There were even unintentional social opportunities while waiting in line for more formal activities. I met many mayors, government officers, private developers from Korea, professors, and fellow Ph.D. candidates with interests similar to my own. I am certain that the relationships I formed at this conference will strengthen my future studies on this topic.

For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.


Mark Alan Hughes, Professor of Practice, PennDesign, Faculty Director of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and Penn IUR Faculty Fellow

Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador was a memorable gathering of people deeply committed to cities in many different ways. As part of a Penn faculty contingent gathered by PennIUR, I presented on the role of cities and states in meeting national pledges on emissions reductions to mitigate climate change. I tried to emphasize that subnational governments are necessary actors but that they will necessarily be more motivated by the benefits of adapting to emerging local impacts from climate change than by the benefits of mitigating the future global impacts of climate change. In a cruel twist, the more that national governments rely on cities and states, the more we should expect that mitigation pledges will fall short as local governments focus on adaptation measures rather than emissions reductions. The general conversation in the conference was about implementing the national pledges and this presentation is a critique of the conventional wisdom. These conferences are important opportunities for actors to share ideas and programs. They also build political will for future action.


Krista Iskandar, Doctoral Student, City and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania

The New Urban Agenda serves as a human-centered urban development guideline to address current and future settlement patterns. The extensive process to reach the consensus of the New Urban Agenda has brought together nations to understand the locality of challenges and share perspectives on solutions. Looking forward, implementation and monitoring of such commitments are critical.

Three areas of growing advocacy that I found most compelling in implementation discussions at Habitat III are the need for governments to lean in: for integrated urban policies; to strengthen civic engagement; and to mobilize capacity and support in accommodating such change. Policies should not be designed as silos, and must consider ways to capture positive outcomes of urbanization. Civic engagement should start early in the planning process and policies should seek to foster community from their implementation. Lastly, capacity support spans from capacity building incentives to leadership in government structural reform.

In addition, private institutions’ engagement should not be disconnected from this process. The language of economic value should be a strong rationale to entice private institutions in becoming agents of change. However, translating development issues into economic value is neither clear nor simple. Therefore, our role as planners and academics is to create insights to bridge such understandings between public and private institutions as well as civil society to create an inclusive environment working toward the shared goal of inclusive and sustainable cities.


Chaeri Kim, Doctoral Student, City and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania

Crowded. Delayed. Confused. This is how I felt while waiting in a long security check line to enter the main venue of the United Nations Habitat III. There were thousands of people, but only five X-ray machines for security screening purposes. I was unsure whether I stood in the correct line for registered participants versus the line for unregistered ones.

This experience reflects the essence of the UN Habitat III. There were people from different countries, backgrounds and cultures, with diverse interests. Today, urban areas are crowded, urban policies are delayed in implementation, and urban residents are confused as to whether their “habitats” are economically, socially, equitably, and physically sustainable.

After ten minutes of waiting in the security check line, I started to talk to people around me. There were some language barriers, but we chatted and shared our feelings and thoughts. I believe similar interactions occurred in the side events, special sessions, and in the Agora, where the main plenary meetings were held. Although there were some differing opinions regarding the New Urban Agenda, I witnessed meaningful discussions with a strong sense of determination to improve the cities. I hope that  Habitat III motivated all participants involved, as well as observers around the world, to create more sustainable cities.


Sirus Joseph Libeiro, Doctoral Student, City and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania

I was struck by the sense of urgency and immediacy on the urban question, prevalent not only in the major sessions, but also in various side events. In the days leading up to the signing of the New Urban Agenda, I had the opportunity to attend sessions on a variety of topics ranging from integrated regional planning, urban data collection and processing, resilience and sustainability, housing, and metropolitan governance. The following common themes were present in all sessions: the importance of collaboration across different levels of government; capacity building for officials; and the critical role played by ensuring financial backing and sustainable practices. Since the agenda avoided setting country-specific targets, the discussions in the modes and norms of how planning was to be reformed by making it more holistic (integrated, taking into account a wide range of concerns) were particularly relevant. While the predicament of getting 193 nations to agree upon a common agenda is daunting, the broad nature of the document raises challenges for ensuring its monitoring and implementation.  

I was particularly glad to attend a session unveiling the Quito Papers, which are an intellectual reflection on the design, form, and nature of future cities. Constructed as a response and critique of the Athens Charter to create a functional city, these papers posit an alternative vision of porous, complex, and complicated urban spaces, and highlight the challenge of how to plan for this urban reality. In the discussion moderated by urbanist Ricky Burdett, sociologists Saskia Sassen and Richard Sennett joined Joan Clos, Secretary General, Habitat III, in outlining the salient points of the new manifesto: embracing the complexity of cities in an open system, protecting city spaces and habitat, and acknowledging the limits of planning.


Wendell E. Pritchett, Presidential Professor of Law and Education and Penn IUR Faculty Fellow

The Habitat III convening in Quito, Ecuador was a fabulous opportunity to connect with leaders from all around the globe who share the same commitment to equitable and sustainable urban development.  What most impressed me about the convening was the commonality of experiences and concerns shared by the participants.  Forty thousand people contributed to the event, and my discussions kept returning to the question of how we can exploit the real societal benefits of urban development to enable poor and disadvantaged members of our communities to fully develop their potential.  While there are massive challenges ahead in succeeding on this mission, I left feeling optimistic because of our common vision and purpose.


Eduardo Rojas, Lecturer in Historic Preservation, School of Design, University of Pennsylvania

In a 175-paragraph document, 193 countries committed to implement a comprehensive and integrated set of good urban management practices in the coming 20 years. The New Urban Agenda (NUA) extracts lessons from the experience of well-managed cities and the latest academic and practitioner-generated literature, and includes a section on means of implementation (paragraphs 126-160). Given the diversity of issues and the complexity of the solutions advocated in the Agenda the task of adopting even a small part of the resolutions poses a daunting urban governance challenge for most cities and particularly for rapidly growing cities in less developed countries that generally lack capacity to implement them. The only option for implementing the NUA in these cities is to focus on the recommendations that are more pertinent to the local conditions and set priorities supported by the community to target their scarce institutional and financial resources. This would not be an easy task as the majority of cities in the developing world face significant challenges to make these types of choices in a transparent manner involving all the relevant stakeholders. Assisting cities in the developing world to make these choices is a first task for the international cooperation community interested in the implementation of the NUA. This is an indispensable step to make the NUA a viable agenda in developing countries and not just an ambitious commitment that may be almost impossible to implement.


Mary Rocco, Penn IUR Post-Doctoral Fellow, University of Pennsylvania

As nearly 40,000 urbanists converged on Quito for the convening of Habitat III, the air crackled with enthusiasm about cities, the people who inhabit them and their collective future. Panels, talks, plenaries, roundtables, exhibitions, performances and other events overwhelmed even the most savvy conference attendee.  The emphasis on inclusion and cities for all resounded not only in the New Urban Agenda (NUA) but in the many conference sessions. The Art for Inclusion project, headed by Dr. Victor Pineda of World Enabled, consisted of people sitting on the ground holding umbrellas to spell out the word INCLUSION. The resulting image captured from the air demonstrated a strong statement of the need to bring together even the most vulnerable in the planning and implementation phases to come. In addition, the General Assembly of Partners (GAP), a stakeholder platform formed to support Habitat III, demonstrated the possibilities of stakeholder involvement: at its Fifth Plenary Meeting, the officers reported that in 17 months more than 1,400 organizations and individuals self-organized to provide input into the NUA. The more than 200 member attendees, then voted to continue the platform into the next phase of Habitat III, implementation. In so doing, they noted the need for inclusive data collection and collaboration among civil society and local governments and authorities and underscored many opportunities posed in the NUA. The challenge will be to maintain the momentum and enthusiasm—that crackle of excitement— in the implementation of a sustainable urban future that is inclusive and just.


David Stanek, Doctoral Student, City and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania

On the third day of the conference, Saskia Sassen (Columbia), Richard Senate (NYU), Juan Clos (executive director of UN-Habitat and secretary general of Habitat III), and Richard Burdett (London School of Economics) presented a vision for the future development of cities that makes them  open, inclusive, and human. Their vision, detailed in a series of essays fittingly entitled, “The Quito Papers,” seeks to displace the modernist, city-as-machine ideal presented in the 1931 Athens Charter that has been co-opted and perverted by capitalist interests to create placeless, dehumanized spaces. Unsurprisingly, like Camillo Sitte in the late nineteenth century and the New Urbanists in the late twentieth, the group called on the exemplars of our planning heritage—the 1811 plan for New York City’s grid and Cerda’s 1855 plan for Barcelona for example—to illustrate the ways in which plans can and should accommodate change, leaving room for the production of place that foregrounds culture, not capital. In other words, culture and heritage should be at the center of planning practice and education, not treated as an occasional indulgence when budgets or time allows. If planning becomes as central to the production and reshaping of cities throughout the world as the New Urban Agenda envisions, cities should become more human than those envisioned in the Athens Charter, but relegating the role of culture to the fringes of planning and planning education risks humanizing cities in ways that reflect the planner rather than the communities for which we plan.


Patricio Zambrano-Barragan, Doctoral Student, City and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania

We were out of time, but the moderator allowed for a final round of questions. A young man, who introduced himself as an activist from Brazil, addressed the Ecuadorian experts to my right. “What about politics?” Our panel, a comparative analysis of urban legislation in Colombia, Brazil, and Ecuador, had been heady and in the weeds; it framed the debate as a question of how to regulate land markets, how to capture and distribute surplus value from development, and how to balance public and private interests on our cities. After two sweltering hours, the room remained packed; I even recognized people I’d met while growing up in Quito that I’d have never guessed cared about Habitat III. The young man continued: “What about politics? How will Ecuador’s new land use legislation guarantee the right to the city?” See, the audience had it clear. For all the conceptual talk about inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable cities, ultimately what matters is how these concepts play out in the spaces and communities where we live. Habitat’s host country may succeed where Brazil and Colombia have fallen short, or fail where others have gotten it right. Regardless, for me, that final question brought home an important point: Habitat III, as exciting as it was, is over. It’s time for the hard task of making the New Urban Agenda a reality and doing as planners must— navigating politics in space.


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