WICI at Habitat 3 Conference

WICI member Jessica Tran writes about her experience at the Habitat 3 Conference at Quito with WICI!

Here is her blog post about the experience!

Habitat 3: A Call to Action

As a member of Women in Cities International, I had the opportunity to attend UN Habitat 3 in Quito, Ecuador, meet with Executive Director Kathryn Travers, and learn more about sustainable urban development. The conference was expected to formalize the New Urban Agenda and discuss implementation and action. Attendance was estimated at 30,000 people including both international visitors and locals. With that many people descending on Casa de la Cultura there were sure to be crowds and long line ups (including 5 hour waits to get a conference badge!). Anyone who found themselves in one of these notoriously long lines inevitably had time to glance over the conference program at least once or twice. The four-day conference (six days counting the Women’s Assembly and Mayor’s Assembly held on the preceding weekend) was full of side events, training sessions, urban talks, roundtables, assemblies, dialogues, and special sessions. It was difficult to decide which events to attend and which events to miss. Although I couldn’t possibly attend even a fraction of all the events, I had the opportunity to experience a wide range of topics and global perspectives. Attending with WICI enabled me to approach and engage in a variety of sessions, using my background in policy and sustainability. I was particularly interested in how the New Urban Agenda would address social and gender inequality, public transit, public space and the elusive ‘Right to the City’ for all. With those things in mind, I set off to as many sessions as possible, pen and paper ready, to learn more about the solutions to the problems that ail our cities.

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Signs like this throughout the venue called for action on sustainable urban development.

The sessions varied greatly in topic and the speakers came from all professional backgrounds – academia, government, civil society, non-profit, farming, engaged citizens, etc. Many connected the goals of the New Urban Agenda to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Session organizers did their best to incorporate examples from cities around the world and gave helpful tips on how to apply these specific examples to our own urban context. With SDG #5 calling for gender equality and women’s empowerment and SDG #10 calling to reduce broader inequalities, it was incredibly refreshing to see this representation reflected in the number of women and women’s groups pushing for action in Quito. The call for all to act on behalf of women’s rights was strongly felt with much acknowledgement that these issues effect everyone, not just women.

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Me (right) with Executive Director of Women in Cities International, Kathryn Travers (left).

I met some amazing people and, in particular, some amazing women working on projects in many countries. CoDesign Studio, based in Australia, is introducing tactical urbanism into neighbourhoods through ‘The Neighbourhood Project’ by mentoring and helping to fund community-led programs to increase liveability and placemaking. Similarly, Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), works in underserved communities throughout the United States, Africa, and Latin America to transform physical spaces into ‘productive public spaces’ or PPSes. SymbioCity is a Swedish company that ‘builds synergies for sustainable urban living’ by connecting urban systems to reduce resource consumption, improve ecosystems, and alleviate poverty. Janette Sadik-Khan, the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, helped officially launch the Global Street Design Guide (check your local library or ask your university to order a copy!). I give these examples for several reasons. First, as a self-proclaimed urbanist, I only just learned about these great initiatives at Habitat 3. Second, the founders and employees were present and eager to share their stories and engage with other attendees. And finally, sharing their work will hopefully inspire others to start similar projects of their own.

Evidently some cities are ahead of the curve in turning policy into action. At a side event organized by SymbioCity, Ilmar Reepalu, former mayor of Malmö, Sweden, emphasized Malmö’s high local tax revenue. The ability to collect these taxes gives the local government the autonomy, resources, and power to make decisions and implement policies that align with the New Urban Agenda. At one point he stated “we have the power to take 100% of income if we want to”. This has very powerful implications when considering how financing the New Urban Agenda will work in practice. On the other hand, a separate session with various Western planning associations on public engagement emphasized a more indirect approach. When asked how insulated local planning departments are from national politics, the answer was that they are not insulated at all. It seems the strategy of many planning departments within the United States, Australia, and even Canada is to talk around the subjects of climate change and resiliency. They actively avoid these ‘controversial’ terms and instead focus conversations around managing flood risk and other concerns. Planning professionals in these circumstances are aware of the need to address climate change, build resiliency and focus on sustainability but political considerations can limit their use of this language when engaging citizens. This highlights the fact that each city must operate within its own political climate and implementing the New Urban Agenda will be highly context specific. Local culture, history, and economics will dictate actionable items more than anything else.

Though Habitat 3 was full of ideas and examples, one thing is clear: the New Urban Agenda and the SDGs will be expensive to implement and require substantial financial backing. There was a strong call for national governments to legitimize and give a voice to local governments. At the Mayor’s Assembly, over 40 mayors from all over the world, (including from my home town of Kitchener, Canada) called for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda and what it means for their city. Oftentimes local government’s important role in addressing our climate issues and reaching our sustainability goals is underemphasized. With the Paris Agreement garnering so much attention last December, the focus has been on what national governments will and won’t do to meet their emissions targets. While this is no doubt important, it can be quite abstract. In the meantime, decisions are made on a daily basis about municipal zoning policies, investing in public transit, composting and recycling initiatives, public space, combating gender inequity, and improving air quality. It is worth mentioning the decisions these local policymakers and municipalities are making have direct impacts on how citizens connect to their cities.

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Outside the venue Casa de la Cultura, Quito, Ecuador.

I left Quito with mixed feelings about certain emerging trends and tools used in the context of sustainable urban development. For example, the notion of ‘master-planned cities’ (a trend particularly prevalent in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia) in which cities are manufactured to rapidly provide all the amenities that typically build up organically over decades and sometimes centuries. This phenomenon and its many political, social, and economic complexities have been studied extensively by Dr. Sarah Moser of McGill University, who presented on the subject. My concern is that this trend is an evolution of gated communities (some are even governed by CEOs), structured to avoid questions of access, rights, and inclusiveness that cities have been grappling with for decades. There are some entrenched development tools that will be painful and messy to disentangle and reimagine: suburbs, highways, car-centered development, gated communities, and so on. Changing these structures will undoubtedly create friction that will test whether we can transform our cities and maintain what is beautiful and unique about them while meeting the promises we made in Quito to develop sustainable urban environments. Hints of development tools that could be at odds with the New Urban Agenda and SDGs’ call for inclusive cities are not only found in these grand schemes but also appear in more nuanced ways. At a session promoting gender responsiveness, Public Services International called for resistance to privatization because, among other reasons, it fails to construct equality. They advocated ‘public-public’ and ‘public-community’ partnerships to ensure universal and gender-equal access to services. In contrast, events focused on ‘smart’ cities or the ‘internet of things’ advocated more public-private partnerships to move the New Urban Agenda forward. Clearly, such competing perspectives will influence and affect the implementation of ideals such as the ‘Right to the City’, equality, and urban accessibility.

The experience of Habitat 3 sent a very strong message for everyone to take examples, projects, initiatives, contacts, and networks with them to their home countries and cities, in hopes of creating momentum for decades to come. One of the things I will take away from this conference is that it is not enough to just be a ‘global citizen’. After settling back into everyday life post Habitat 3, I’m left with many questions about implementation and action items and I am constantly thinking about how we will meet our goals and if they truly are universal. If you’re just learning about UN Habitat or shocked to learn that the Habitat conference won’t take place again until 2036, you may have a lot of follow up questions and don’t know where to start. The answer I have come up with so far is rather simple and a bit ironic at the same time. Despite the grandeur of the international conference, the best starting point is local, on the ground engagement with neighbours, community members, politicians, and local government on the issues outlined in the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda. From there, we can begin to talk about scalability, and connecting local themes to international frameworks and evaluate our collective progress come Habitat 4.

Jessica Tran is a member of WICI. She has a MSc. in Environmental Policy and Regulation from the London School of Economics and Political Science and received her Bachelor’s from the University of Waterloo’s Environment and Business program. She currently lives in Illinois promoting public spaces and inclusiveness and is looking for ways to engage citizens in local government and sustainability.

WICI at Habitat 3 Conference