Towards the New Urban Agenda

A delegation of University of Melbourne scholars participated in Habitat III - Towards a New Urban Agenda

Statement by Prof Carolyn Whitzman, the Representative of the University of Melbourne at 7th plenary meeting of Habitat III, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development.

United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, Quito Ecuador 17-20 October 2016

A delegation of University of Melbourne (UoM) scholars recently participated in Habitat III, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (October 17-20 2016), to develop a New global Urban Agenda. The New Urban Agenda was officially adopted in Quito, Ecuador in the last plenary of the Habitat III conference.

The agenda provides a 20-year “roadmap” to guide sustainable urban development globally. The text of the New Urban Agenda itself was agreed well before Habitat III at the UN General Assembly in September, during an extraordinary informal negotiation session that lasted for more than 30 hours. This allowed the focus in Quito to shift towards commitment and action. Under the banner of the “Quito Implementation Plan“, commitments ranged from the development and enhancement of national urban policies, to integration between different levels of government.

The conference also saw announcements of new sources of international development assistance for countries to provide better access to housing and shelter for millions more people worldwide.

Sustainable urban development for all

More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. So it makes sense that the New Urban Agenda will significantly shape the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The 2030 agenda is built around a series of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most relevant to the New Urban Agenda is SDG 11, which aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. However, the New Urban Agenda has been criticised for lacking direct links to the targets set out within Goal 11.

Unlike their predecessors the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs apply to all UN members states equally.

While most of the world’s rapid urban growth is in the Global South, challenges abound in the cities of Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and East Asia. In these regions, upgrading existing infrastructure and avoiding “carbon lock-in“ - where old, carbon-intensive structures prevent the adopting of lower carbon alternatives - will require significant transformative efforts.

Much of Habitat III focused on the application of new technologies and the harvesting of big data, particularly in these established urban centres. Under the umbrella of Smart Cities, using open data networks for better urban planning provided an optimistic, technology-based future for cities. However, questions about the security, ethics, and oversight of large-scale information gathering remain largely unanswered.

Also included in the New Urban Agenda are renewed efforts to help developing countries urbanise. These build on earlier work under the Millennium Development Goals and Habitat II. Related commitments focus on emerging concepts, such as urban resilience and inclusive public spaces.

Commitments from individual countries under the Quito Implementation Plan were underwhelming. Instead, civil society and academia led the way with a range of commitments to new initiatives. This included a new $15 million Terwilliger Centre for Innovation in Shelter funded by Habitat for Humanity, and $2.3 million by the C40 Cities Finance Facility to upscale urban climate action. A full list of commitments to the Quito Implementation Plan can be found on the Habitat III website.

Towards Habitat IV

All countries will need to step up their commitments if the aspirations set out in Habitat III are to be achieved. Key concepts, such as integrated planning and models for local-national government cooperation, will need further work.

Although Habitat IV will not take place until 2036, a four-yearly review process has been agreed upon, building on the biannual World Urban Forum.

Also included in the New Urban Agenda is a review of UN-Habitat’s role in its implementation. It is not yet known whether a new “UN-Cities“ entity will emerge when the review concludes in 2017.

From a planning perspective, 20 years is a short space of time to change the trajectory of global cities. However, the unplanned changes in our cities over the next two decades are almost equally unimaginable.

With the New Urban Agenda as a road map, it is hoped that we can rise to the challenge of creating more liveable, resilient and sustainable cities. Because without global urban transformation, we cannot achieve sustainable development as a whole.

The University of Melbourne Delegation

The Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (MSSI), Melbourne Social Equity Institute (MSEI), and Melbourne School of Design (MSD) are jointly coordinating and supporting the UoM delegation to attend Habitat III.

The delegation is led by Professor Carolyn Whitzman (Melbourne School of Design), and also includes Professor Mark Burry (Melbourne School of Design), Lucinda Hartley (Alumni, Melbourne School of Design), Melanie Lowe (Research Fellow, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health) and Alexei Trundle (PhD student, Australian-German Climate & Energy College).Three competitive travel grants ($5,000) have also been awarded to University of Melbourne PhD students and an early career researcher:

  • Hayley Henderson: PhD student, Melbourne School of Design (Urban Planning)
  • Hesam Kamalipour: PhD student and Research Assistant, Melbourne School of Design (Urban Design)
  • Dr AndrĂ© Stephan: Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Construction and Environmental Assessment)

The University of Melbourne delegation: (from left) Dr André Stephan, Prof Carolyn Whitzman, Hesam Kamalipour, Dr Melanie Lowe, Hayley Henderson, Alexei Trundle and Justyna Karakiewicz.

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Official Statement from the University of Melbourne