By Irina Paraschivoiu (LSE)
In June 2016, the United Nations will convene the Habitat III Conference which will set the agenda for international cooperation on urban issues for the next 20 years. And in April this year, the World Urban Forum 7 (WUF) held in Medellin managed to bring together 142 countries, 139 mayors, 42 ministers and more than 22,000 people under the theme “Urban Equity in Development – Cities for Life”. The WUF is by far the world’s largest conference on cities, bringing together local, regional and national governments together with academia, practitioners and civil society groups to discuss the most pressing issues of global urban development. But the WUF 7 in Medellin was in somewhat different from previous Forums, and most certainly different from the previous one I have experienced (WUF6), namely in its essential role of paving the way to the Habitat III Conference.
As an official UN Conference, Habitat III has the potential of going further than the non-legislative WUF in linking its outcomes to impacts on national legislation, which essentially will shape the development of our world’s cities. And, unsurprisingly, UN-Habitat (the United Nations Human Settlements Programme) is there to make sure urban development will be at the core of the Post 2015 Development Agenda, which will be following the Millennium Development Goals.
The process of reaching the international agreement that Habitat III aims for is essentially a political one. Although UN-Habitat urges, in its guidelines for national reports, to inclusive and participatory processes at the national level, their quality is likely to be closely linked to national contexts, political will and capacity of stakeholders for cooperation and dialogue. In fact, some have criticized the WUF 7 for its over-optimism which tends to neglect the exclusionary process in itself and the danger of “sleepwalking into Habitat III”. What remains from this debate is that ensuring a transparent contribution to Habitat III requires both bottom-up and top-down efforts at a national scale. Governments need to take a proactive stance in making sure their most pressing issues are reflected in their national reports and in the resolutions of Habitat III. That means developing a vision and going further and beyond guidelines in order to truly make a contribution to the global urban agenda. Civil society groups must put forward their visions as well, if there is to be an open and democratic process of shaping urbanization.
Most relevant to this blog, experts, practitioners and academics should make their voices heard, criticize, assess and help improve the strategies and goals which policy makers must set, based on much necessary scientific evidence. This is clearly illustrated through the debates over compact city form which illustrates that sustainable urbanization cannot be achieved through a one-size fit all solution.
Central to the success of the Forum (and, consequently, of Habitat III) is the capacity to operationalize aspirations and notions at the urban level, turning them into practical concepts. What makes the WUF a valuable place to meet is the way in which abstract notions take the shape of best practices, which can be transferable to different contexts. Under the theme “Cities for Life”, WUF 7 voiced the concerns of increased inequalities in cities, both in the developed and developing world, ranging from unequal access to shelter, income disparities and access to public services. “Equity” (as opposed to “equality”) is seen as a more appropriate response to disparities, namely in that it refers to access to opportunities, so that all urban dwellers can benefit from the prosperity of cities.
In practice, equity is reflected in urban planning through strategies of participation in designing urban plans, provision of housing and urban design which doesn’t enhance unequal relations. How stakeholders act to trigger change and the strategies used to this purpose are the most worthwhile experiences at the Forum. For example, the “Lessons learned by in-between countries” networking event introduced the experience of a variety of organisations from Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe. Case studies included participatory methodologies in urban planning, research tools for monitoring quality of life in cities and infrastructure investments which increase accessibility for lower income groups.
The “Medellin Declaration” encouraged governments to develop plans which are grounded in principles of equity, to advance greater social cohesion, increase participation and promote balanced development through increased resilience, upgrading of slums, and access to basic services. The success of the urban agenda, however, is dependent on the recognition of different models of urbanization and the need to exchange ideas and best practices. Agreeing on a model of urbanization, outside of the space of a global conference, means considerable and consistent efforts on behalf of all stakeholders (local, regional, national, international). Habitat III may not provide the unique solution to sustainable urbanization, but it can be an opportunity for improvement that should not be dismissed.