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Reflections on Habitat III

04 November 2016 Author: Geoffrey Payne

Habitat III Blog Visual

This is the third in a series of blogs following the major UN Habitat III conference held in Quito, Ecuador, in October.

Approximately 30,000 people, including 10,000 international visitors, descended upon the Ecuadorian capital of Quito between 16th-20th October for the UN Habitat III conference. A total of 167 countries were represented at an event that not only brought much of the city to a stop, but also filled all the hotels and taxis, providing a welcome boost to the local economy.

Cities have always been the engines of social and economic development, though managing the process of rapid growth has presented central and local governments, international development agencies, the professions and, most of all, the mass of the people themselves, with unprecedented challenges.


Quito, Ecuador.

When Habitat I took place in Vancouver in 1976, the world urban population was about 1.5 billion, or 38% of the global population. By 2015, it had increased by 2.37 billion, to 3.94 billion, or 58% of the 7.3 billion total population. As if this is not enough to manage, forecasts predict that a further 2.5 billion will be added to urban populations by 2050, equalling the total world population in 2010.

Does the New Urban Agenda (NUA) agreed by all member states at Quito provide the conceptual and methodological framework for addressing this challenge? Does it create the basis for socially equitable and environmentally sustainable, as well as economically efficient urban areas to provide homes, services and jobs for the existing urban populations and the projected increase during the coming decades?

The general consensus is that the NUA falls well short of the framework needed to address the challenges we face and pays insufficient attention to the key role of local governments and leadership. Although the document addresses many of the key issues relating to increased need for housing and infrastructure and acknowledges the challenge of climate change and disaster risk management, it is not adequately grounded in the harsh realities facing the world.

In fact, it appears unaware of the current major threats to social, economic and environmental sustainability, despite the term 'sustainable' appearing 136 times in 23 pages. Many of the reports produced by teams of experts were more focused and forceful in addressing the issues, but these were diluted considerably in the process of negotiating a final text.

However, it would be unfair to put all the blame for this on the UN, since it can never have more authority over member governments than they are willing to give it. On the plus side, the event provides a great opportunity to raise the issues of urban development and the need to accommodate vast numbers of people, including the poor and other vulnerable groups, and generate jobs, transport and services in ways that do not make unreasonable demands on the environment.

Rapidly urbanising countries face two key challenges. On the one hand they need to absorb ever-increasing numbers of people, many of them poor, with limited resources and institutional capability, and at the same time improve the living conditions of millions of people in substandard, insecure housing.

When the UK urbanised in the nineteenth century, we were the leading world power controlling a vast empire and our population was small in comparison to populations being faced by cities. Yet even then it took the best part of a century to develop the policies, institutional capability and legal framework to manage the transformation from a largely rural, feudal society, to a modern democratic industrial power.

Many countries urbanising today have often been independent for far less time than this, are not in positions of such global influence and have to cope with far higher numbers, not to mention in some cases the legal and institutional legacy of colonialism.

However, the abiding impression of Habitat III as I boarded the plane home was that these differences pale into insignificance compared to the pressures now facing low and even middle income people in countries at all levels of economic development.

For example, obtaining affordable and secure housing in locations reasonably clear to employment locations and social facilities. In the 20 years since Habitat II in Istanbul, the world has witnessed the 1998 Asian financial crisis and the 2008 ‘sub-prime’ crisis that has led to the current global recession and political instability. Both these crises were largely due to excessive speculation in property and the promotion of home ownership to groups for which this was not the most appropriate option. Yet governments and development agencies added fuel to the fire until the bubbles inevitable burst. We are still living with the consequences of these failures, so the need for a new urban agenda has never been more urgent.

Of course, events like Habitat III provide marvellous opportunities to network, promote new ideas and raise awareness to a wider audience. Whether we can look back in another twenty years and way that Habitat III was a watershed will probably depend upon whether this awareness can influence the current and upcoming generation of politicians, professionals and administrators to translate words into action on the ground. The conference demonstrated that the examples needed exist. What is needed is the political will. There can be no excuses for failure.

Geoffrey Payne

Geoffrey Payne

Geoffrey Payne is an international housing and urban development consultant focusing on developing countries. He is particularly experienced in land tenure issues and has worked in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.