50,000 gather in Quito for Habitat III, a once-in-a-generation summit on the future of cities
This story originally appeared in Citiscope and was republished via the Habitat III Journalism Project.
By Gregory Scruggs
The future of cities will be shaped this week high in the Andes mountains, as nearly 50,000 people converge for a summit aimed at adopting a new global vision on how to plan, build and run cities equitably and sustainably.
The event — formally the U. N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, commonly known as Habitat III — is only the third time in history that world leaders, mayors, business directors, practitioners, academics, activists and others have gathered to strategize on the cities of the future.
By the end of the four-day conference, national governments will adopt a voluntary, non-binding agreement known as the New Urban Agenda. The document, which was finalized in September following four months of negotiation, is an urbanization strategy designed to guide national policies and local priorities over the next 20 years.
Ahead of the conference, attendance was confirmed for representatives of around 140 national governments, including at least 11 presidents, in addition to U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. (Final participation numbers have not yet been confirmed.) The mayors of Barcelona, Bogotá, Dakar, Madrid, Montréal and Surabaya are among the big-city leaders in town. Joan Clos, former mayor of Barcelona and current head of UN-Habitat, will preside over the conference as its secretary-general.
Mayors make up perhaps the most concerted delegation here outside of the national governments. At least 200 mayors from around the world are expected to attend this week’s events along with delegations from some 500 cities, according to organizers. They aim to share their perspectives on managing cities as they tackle issues such as climate change, poverty, health care, education, transportation, refugees and more.
Large mayoral delegations also met last week in Bogotá, Colombia, and again Sunday in Quito in a bid for what they call “a seat at the global table” of international decision-making that affects cities.
Pivot to implementation
First and foremost, however, the focus here is on the 23-page text up for adoption. The New Urban Agenda is the first U. N. document to address the shape, form and function of cities since the world became majority urban a decade ago. By 2050, more than 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities, current projections suggest.
“This week’s conference and the strategy that will come out of it also are seen as a key opportunity to make the case that cities can and need to play a prominent role in addressing many of the world’s most intractable issues, including climate change, poverty and inequality.”
With diagnoses and prescriptions for cities in rich and developing countries alike, the document seeks to offer a comprehensive toolkit of 21st-century urbanism. For instance, it calls for compact cities, polycentric growth, transit-oriented development, adequate public space and reining in sprawl.
Habitat III organizers see these prescriptions as important technical guidance. But this week’s conference and the strategy that will come out of it also are seen as a key opportunity to make the case that cities can and need to play a prominent role in addressing many of the world’s most intractable issues, including climate change, poverty and inequality.
Advocates say this would constitute a significant turnaround in global thinking on urbanization. For decades, urban areas have been seen negatively, as producers of pollution, traffic, crime and inequality. The New Urban Agenda urges a notably different vision: one that focuses on “urbanization as an engine of sustained and inclusive economic growth, social and cultural development, and environmental protection”, according to the text. That is widely seen as a landmark characterization in such a high-level agreement.
As a U. N. document, the signatories of the New Urban Agenda will be national governments. But the international audience that has come to Quito is here to push national representatives both to act on the New Urban Agenda’s provisions and to consult with them in the process.
Indeed, organizers say that the main focus of this week’s summit will be on implementing the agreement. Many of the hundreds of events scheduled to take place on the conference’s sidelines will seek to address this complex question — announcing formal commitments, unveiling monitoring frameworks and strategizing on how various constituencies can participate in turning the high-level aims of the New Urban Agenda into reality.
The text of the agenda was finalized last month following four months of negotiation, culminating in a handful of last-minute compromises among national governments. As a result, the content of the New Urban Agenda has been known for more than a month, and there are not expected to be any political negotiations this week.
Rather, the high-level officials who are in Quito on behalf of their governments will participate in daily plenary sessions. There, they are expected to offer perspectives from their national experiences of urbanization — and related lessons learned.
Here, too, a key component of the official conference will be on implementation. Individual countries, cities, U. N. agencies, multilateral institutions, universities, corporations and NGOs are expected to announce a series of commitments to what organizers have deemed the Quito Implementation Plan.
Yet civil society is well represented here in Quito, and much of their energy will be on formulating strategies and carving out specific roles for themselves in an implementation process that will stretch through 2036. Over the weekend, several major interest groups — including women, youths, the business community and local authorities — held daylong assemblies on their concerns about urbanization. That dialogue will continue with a series of stakeholder roundtables this week, covering farmers, indigenous peoples, trade unions, professionals and more.
Physically, the Habitat III conference has taken over a huge chunk of central Quito, shutting down several major roads. The primary zone includes the recently renovated Casa de la Cultura Benjamín Carrión — a round, 1950s-era building that is home to museums, libraries and theatres — where most of the official events will occur. Outside, a large public park called El Arbolito houses pavilions dedicated to Ecuador, Quito and the New Urban Agenda itself.
“As a U. N. document, the signatories of the New Urban Agenda will be national governments. But the international audience that has come to Quito is here to push national representatives both to act on the New Urban Agenda’s provisions and to consult with them in the process.”
A nearby exhibition hall is set up as a veritable trade show of urbanism. On offer are hundreds of booths and exhibits on the latest research from universities, as well as a showcase of national government housing and urban policies as well as the advocacy efforts of international NGOs.
Other areas of the city are actively participating, as well. The nearby neighborhoods of Mariscal and La Floresta have been transformed into the “Habitat III Village”, where governments and NGOs have installed a mix of temporary and permanent interventions in the streetscape. The projects highlight urban innovations in the flesh, described as an opportunity to “experience the New Urban Agenda in the streets of Quito”, according to organizers.
Several weeklong events also are taking place that are pointedly outside of the Habitat III process. These “protest” and “alternative” events, featuring groups and thinkers who disagree with major portions and priorities of the New Urban Agenda and the way in which the preparations for this week’s conference have taken place, are being held primarily at local universities. Sociologists Saskia Sassen and Richard Sennett, two of the academic world’s leading theorists of urban life, will speak at the “Toward an Alternative Habitat III” parallel forum. By the end of the week, several of these events seek to offer alternative visions and strategies on urbanization.
This week’s events mark the first time that Quito has hosted a U. N. summit, although the city is no stranger to major gatherings. Pope Francis visited last year, with an estimated 1 million people attending his public Mass. The city also is home to the headquarters of the UNASUR political union of South American countries.
Habitat III, as its name implies, comes on the heels of its two predecessors. The first of these gatherings took place in 1976 in Vancouver; it led to the birth of UN-Habitat, the international agency that specializes in urbanization. Architect R. Buckminster Fuller, anthropologist Margaret Mead and Mother Theresa were among the attendees for the event, the world’s first gathering on human settlements.
Twenty years later, the Habitat II conference, held in Istanbul, was billed as the “City Summit”. It is credited with galvanizing a global movement around urbanization — one that has led directly to the thousands massing this week in Quito.