Live from Habitat III: The New Urban Agenda, Urbanization and the Role of Local Government Drive Opening Plenary Sessions

The Official Opening Plenary of Habitat III. Photo by Agencia de Noticias ANDES / Flickr 

WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities is reporting on Habitat III from Quito, Ecuador. Follow our daily coverage on TheCityFix.

Habitat III, the third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, officially began on Monday, October 17th in Quito. Members of the United Nations and urban leaders from around the world gathered for two Opening Plenary sessions on Monday. Both sessions focused around three main elements, as speakers strove to unite the participants toward implementing a strong, robust and effective New Urban Agenda.

Monday morning kicked off with the Official Opening Plenary of Habitat III. President of Ecuador Rafael Correa began the session with optimistic messages for the future of the New Urban Agenda, as well as the need for strong implementation. Throughout the plenary, esteemed participants spoke to the meaning of the conference and what the resulting New Urban Agenda (NUA) means for the future of global urbanism. The meeting highlighted three major topics, which will be thoroughly discussed throughout the rest of the proceedings:

1.   The New Urban Agenda

Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon, followed President Correa’s remarks by discussing the importance of the New Urban Agenda. According to the Secretary-General, the NUA is an action-oriented document, whose success will depend on collaboration of all countries and stakeholders. The document reflects the broad participation of governments and urban actors, and it will set standards for sustainable development, helping the world re-think how we build, manage and live in cities. The Secretary-General concluded his remarks: “Habitat III is laying the foundation. Let us build upon it.”

During the opening plenary, Joan Clos, Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), said the “New Urban Agenda opens the doors to a new stage in prosperity and hope for the future.” Clos framed the document as a set of strategies to reduce and re-direct negative urban trends, calling for a new development model to promote equity, prosperity and sustainability. This sentiment resounded throughout the day’s proceedings, with Pascal Smet, Minister of the Government of the Brussels-Capital Region, responsible for Mobility and Public Works, noting in the second plenary session that; “all cities should be owners of their own futures.” The New Urban Agenda was lauded as a platform for cities to build capacity to take on global challenges accompanying urbanization, but also as a chance for participating countries to create a cohesive vision and platform for implementation. Delegates from Bulgaria called participants to action, to create and maintain a sense of: “collective vision and to streamline efforts.”

2.   Urbanization as a Strategy for Urban Development

Joan Clos called for urbanization to be seen as an investment in the future, a strategy for transformation, noting that; “the cost of urbanization is minimal in comparison with the value it can generate.” Cities must channel urbanization to represent new opportunity for all—generating more jobs and opportunities for urban residents. Clos also addressed the need to rethink our mobility system and change the physical shapes of cities, to prevent urban sprawl and socioeconomic inequality. The future of urbanization must lead to equal rights and fundamental freedoms rather than inequality.

While cities are expanding rapidly to accommodate a growing population, Peter Thompson, President of the UN General Assembly, said that “urban planning has not kept pace with urbanization.” He noted that one billion people live in urban slums where they lack access to water, sanitation and energy, and 75 percent of cities have higher levels of income inequality than they did 20 years ago, during Habitat II. In order to successfully combat this issue, the development community must utilize a “Master Plan,” composed of the Paris Agreement, SDGs and other important polices and action agendas, to transform our world. Post-Quito, the NUA will join this Master Plan, and its effective implementation will require the expertise of collaborative stakeholders.

Previous global agreements, like the Sustainable Development Goals, factored large in discussions today, as foundational to the vision of the New Urban Agenda. At the forefront is Sustainability Development Goal 11, which focuses on sustainable cities and settlements. Habitat iii is heavily focused on bringing this vision for cities to fruition. Many participants in the second plenary session later in the day emphasized that the success of the NUA also hinges on robust implementation and monitoring schemes. The Minister of Regional Development of the Czech Republic outlined the path ahead as one; “from paper to actions and concrete steps” to make the NUA stick.

3.   The Important Role of Local Government 

Drawing from his experiences in city office, Mayor of Quito Mauricio Rodas spoke to the essential role of local officials in promoting sustainable urban development. He believes that local governments play a key role in empowering equality in cities. With an eye to social inclusion, local governments are able to address unique challenges to creating sustainable, livable spaces for all.

City officials are able to understand the needs of the people and work as a liaison between the national government and residents. Many participants in the plenary sessions highlighted the imperative to empower local governments to live up to their obligations. Delegates representing France in the second plenary session noted the need to acknowledge the; “role of local governments as legitimate partners in defining and following up on the New Urban Agenda.” Shipra Narang Suri, Vice President of the International Society of City and Regional Planners, called fellow plenary participants to action: “Our task starts now… we must find a way to deliver the promises of the New Urban Agenda…implementation may not be a legal obligation, but it is certainly a moral imperative…the vision has been articulated, the place to start is here, the time to start is now.”

Follow our daily coverage of Habitat III on TheCityFix.

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