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What’s the UN got to do with planning?

07 April 2016 Author: Richard Blyth

I have to confess that I’m not really a UN kind-of-guy. I know what it is of course, and I could hazard a guess as to how many members it has (a good pub quiz question). I know it’s better to have it than to have a world war, but like most people on the whole I don’t follow its proceedings very closely.

So it was intriguing to be able to attend the meeting of European Habitat in Prague last month. This was one of the regional lead-up meetings to the big UN-Habitat III conference in Ecuador in October this year. UN Habitat III – its full title is the ‘Third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development’ – is so called because there was one UN-Habitat Conference in 1976 (in Vancouver) and one (Habitat II) in 1996 (in Istanbul).

The views of civil society on the promotion and implementation of ...sustainable cities and communities are critical, as most of the world’s population now live in urban areas where some of the biggest threats and solutions to global challenges such as climate change and population health are to be found.

I went into the main chamber, and yes, there really are desks for UN member states with labels like “Uzbekistan” and “United States” on them – although they were quite hard to see from the back, which is where civil society sat, being very civil.

But there was more to it than that, because for a few years the UN has supported a specific stakeholder engagement project for Habitat III to run alongside the role played by the member states (whose total number is…?). This goes further than the non-governmental (NGO) conferences held alongside the various climate change talks; rather this is a fully fledged role with a right to be heard.

Over the past eight months, the World Urban Campaign (WUC), part of UN-Habitat, has been sourcing views from citizens, stakeholders and organisations from all over the world through 26 'Urban Thinkers Campus' events held in various cities. The views of civil society on the promotion and implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 11 on sustainable cities and communities are critical, as most of the world’s population now live in urban areas where some of the biggest threats and solutions to global challenges such as climate change and population health are to be found.

The resulting The City We Need (TCWN) 2.0 document is a manifesto prepared through the contributions of more than 7,602 men and women from 122 countries and 2,256 organizations, representing 14 constituent groups. I attended the meeting of the WUC – also in Prague – at which the final draft of the document was adopted. It contains various suggestions from the RTPI, which joined the Campaign in 2015 and attended the 25th Urban Thinkers Campus in Germany in February. The manifesto not only represents good sense, but the good sense which comes from a very broad stakeholder base.

Prague

Me learning to be a UN insider, speaking at European Habitat (Photo credit: Dr Nicola Headlam).

The meetings were chaired by people with good experience of UN processes, and what struck me was the phrase they used: “We now have language”. This didn’t mean that the Tower of Babel was raised up again and everyone spoke with one tongue, rather it meant that we have “agreement on a text”. Considering the scale of the WUC this is an impressive achievement.

The challenge now is to build on TCWM in the months to come. The WUC achieved some successes in the drafting of the Prague Declaration by member states. There will be other opportunities in the coming months leading up to Habitat III in Quito, where the RTPI will also be represented.

Why should planners be involved in this? Does being a UN insider make any difference to British and Irish planners and planning? Put simply, there are two main reasons why these words matter.

Firstly, civil society across the world will be able to hold governments across the world to account judged against the contents of the New Urban Agenda for sustainable development. This gives greater power to communities to demand better living conditions, sanitation, transport, employment opportunities and so on.

Secondly, despite its difficulties and dysfunctions, the UN is still influential. Money will be spent, and decisions made, according to this agenda. So what it contains is important, that it is friendly to planning is important, and that planners have influenced it is important.

Richard Blyth

Richard Blyth

Head of Policy, Practice and Research, RTPI - @RichardBlyth7