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Habitat III: the verdict from a young planner

02 November 2016 Author: Frances Thompson

Habitat III Blog Visual

This is the second of a series of posts on the major Habitat III conference held in Quito, Ecuador, in October.

The week before last I was lucky enough to attend the UN’s Habitat III conference in Quito. I was funded by my university after a competitive application process which resulted in two planners among eight students being chosen to attend. Habitat III was one of my first experiences of the planning profession – only two weeks previous to the conference I started my first planning course, having chosen to take up the subject at Master’s level.

Now that the jetlag is wearing off and I am getting stuck back into lectures and coursework, I wanted to take the time to reflect on Habitat III and my experience as a young planner at the beginning of my career.

Planning is on the international agenda

One of the first things I noticed at the conference was that planning professionals were included in the discussion at nearly every event I attended. Planners were present in panels and audiences alike, and some of the best speakers I saw were planners. Politicians made frequent references to the value of planning. Public health, international development, architecture, and housing professionals spoke of the importance of working with planners in order to combine expertise.

At a time when local authority planners in particular are under political and financial pressure, it was encouraging to see planning recognised on the international stage.

Quito

UK planners are leading international engagement

The launch of the UKBEAG was one of the most inspiring moments of the conference for me. Seeing the RTPI, RIBA and IstructE collaboratively working to become involved in development challenges on a global scale opened my eyes to how planning can be a truly international career where you can contribute to an incredibly broad range of progressive projects.

I also witnessed the Global Planners Network working together to ensure that planning continues to be represented at the UN in the most effective way possible post-Habitat III. Several of the planners involved in this work admitted to me that they found it tough work – not everyone is a fan of planning in the various UN professional groups the GPN is a part of.

But planners from the UK are clearly determined to have their say on the international agenda and are expanding and strengthening their collaboration with partners around the world.

Our government was (almost) absent

On the other hand, it was a bit of a kick in the teeth to see hardly any UK government presence. That is not to overshadow the great work of Rubina Kurruna from DfID – but while the US, France, Canada, Germany, and many other states sent city mayors and ministers to Habitat III, there was an absence of UK politicians. I even tweeted Sadiq Khan to this effect, saying that I would love to have seen him at the conference (he didn’t reply).

At a time when our central government is clawing back their reserved rights to make planning decisions from local authorities, it was sad that there was so little interest in the biggest international built environment event for a generation.

‘Smart cities’ were the target of smart businesses

The New Urban Agenda contains just one modest clause relating to the use of smart technology in cities. From the conference line-up, you would be forgiven for assuming that the topic dominates the 23 page document.

Private tech firms were everywhere, on numerous occasions dominating the panel discussions on smart cities. I saw some genuinely exciting technological initiatives being showcased at Habitat III, but I was still dubious about the amount of floor space given over to what could easily be called free advertising. My uneasiness about smart technology comes from my concern about the limits of big data in terms of understanding urban spaces.

Furthermore, I think the looming presence of tech firms at the conference raised questions about who gets to do planning and how in our future cities. The most promising accounts of smart city technology I saw were those that used open data and open source applications through participatory means, not those that relied on contracting work out to private companies.

Young people must seize the opportunity to engage with planning

The UN event brought home to me the global nature of challenges facing young people today. Young people across the world face discriminatory wages, unaffordable and inflexible housing, the burden of climate change, serious threats to LGBTQ+ rights, and more. The number of young professionals and students at the conference reminded me how rare it is to see younger people included in formal politics in the UK (not to mention the seriously refreshing experience of seeing some all-female panels).

Rather ironically, the youth and women’s (initially separate) events – held on Saturday before the advertised start date of the conference, when the venue was significantly quieter than later in the week – were merged together to create one forum for all the ‘vulnerables’, as one of my colleagues cynically put it. However, this was most definitely outweighed by the diversity of conference-goers and panellists.

What I hope is that events like Habitat III led by the UN will encourage young people to look at the planning profession as a means of getting involved in politics and sustainable development with the opportunity to work and think at an international scale. In the UK, as in other countries, there is a shortage of planners, and Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda showcase the importance of planning and the relevance of the profession to the challenges our cities are facing.

The New Urban Agenda is provocative

The creation of New Urban Agenda is no mean feat and it was inspirational indeed to see the vision set forth by built environment professionals and politicians. Obviously, the even bigger challenge will be tangible results.

The conference has come at an interesting time in my for me as I will be able to track the progress to Habitat IV over my working life, and I have no doubt that it will stay in my mind as I enter the planning profession. The New Urban Agenda contains some outrageously ambitious clauses, not least a call to end land speculation. But it’s a document that wilfully approaches planning from a utopian perspective and challenges us to consider the future of urban development that we want, what can be done to achieve that and how planners can play a role.

Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda represent one of the biggest opportunities to step back and see the bigger picture that planning professionals have outside their day-to-day working lives. And the chance to witness planners thinking on that scale and in partnership with international colleagues in Quito last week was a privilege.

The RTPI is a friend to students and young people

Before heading to Quito, I emailed the RTPI to ask if I might be able to contribute to their blogs about the conference. The Habitat III team (Trudy Elliott, Phil Williams and Marion Frederiksen) could not have been more welcoming and were keen to include me in the RTPI’s presence at Habitat III. I was immediately invited to not only write a blog piece, but to meet the team at the conference and attend a Global Planners Network meeting – a pretty amazing experience for someone just weeks into their planning course.

The planners I met were always keen to find out where I was studying and how I had discovered the profession, and happy to chat and answer my questions. I couldn’t have had a better first experience of the professional community I hope to join and I am excited to continue my involvement with the RTPI as a young planner.

Frances Thompson

Frances Thompson

Frances Thompson is a Masters student in Town and Regional Planning at the University of Sheffield. She can be contacted at fnthompson1@sheffield.ac.uk