Mission accepted?

Architects were thin on the ground at the UN’s Habitat III conference but they must now engage with its agenda – for the profession’s sake and humanity’s

How can new pieces of city be sustainable and create much needed homes? MAD's design for Chaoyang Park Plaza Beijing holds some answers.
How can new pieces of city be sustainable and create much needed homes? MAD's design for Chaoyang Park Plaza Beijing holds some answers.

I have a guilty pleasure: disaster films. Every time I watch a movie about Armageddon, alien invasion or an asteroid about to whack Earth into oblivion I wonder, what would I do? What could this middle-aged architectural historian – with his lack of Bear Grylls skills and a B in O-level physics – bring to the table besides an sensitive understanding of cultural meaning of ruins, a cursory knowledge of Heinrich Wölfflin and a dab hand with a mushroom risotto, none of which are particularly relevant when little green men are about to unleash their mega-weapon?

Arma­geddon might be a year or two off yet, but dip your toe into Twitter or the news these days and you’re likely to come away a little dispirited, such are the legion of disasters and problems (or that modern-day euphemism, ‘challenges’) piling up in humanity’s in-tray.  The UN’s New Urban Agenda is full of them. Reading the 30-page document, one can’t help reciting its text in your head with the voice of fictional leaders of the free world from those movies – Morgan Freeman, perhaps, from Deep Impact, or Bill Pullman in Independence Day. Chiselled jaw. Serious voice. Concerned look into the middle distance. Resolute acceptance of the rocky road ahead. Where to begin: slums, favelas, climate change, mass-migration, disease, segregation, ever-widening inequalities, pollution, housing crises in even advanced economies... and on and on. 

Our real-life stand-in for Morgan Freeman is Joan Clos, former mayor of Barcelona, that poster-boy for modern-day urban nirvana, and now executive director of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat), which last year gathered 193 countries in Quito, Ecuador for the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, or Habitat III

The UN has met like this every 20 years since 1976, when worries of imminent Armageddon were equally in the air, if less numerous in cause. After the 1973 oil crisis, energy poverty was high on the agenda of Habitat I, along with nuclear annihilation and environmental degradation (remember ‘acid rain’?), issues that stubbornly remain in humanity’s in-tray under a deep stack of other problems that also require immediate attention.

Cities might be throwing up many of the world's problems but they also hold the key to the solutions as at Dharavi in Mumbai.
Cities might be throwing up many of the world's problems but they also hold the key to the solutions as at Dharavi in Mumbai.

The result of Habitat III – the New Urban Agenda – is, as Clos describes, a ‘common roadmap for the 20 years to come’. Having to secure the agreement of 193 nations is no mean feat, the consequence being that the Agenda is designed to please all of the people, all of the time. There is nothing in it anybody but international drug cartels and the most rabid member of the Alt-Right could disagree with. Problems are identified, and solutions fixed upon in the most nebulous and intangible of shapes. Every other paragraph sings with those buzz words du jour: ‘sustainable’, ‘inclusive’, ‘resilient’ and that particular favourite of RIBA Journal’s editor – ‘vibrant’, words with which everybody agrees, but nobody seems able to precisely define. 

Clos’s roadmap, therefore, describes a destination which sounds adorable, if rather fuzzy around the edges, a lovely place, bursting with ‘prosperity and quality of life for all’. One might call it a 2016 vision of utopia, written, purely coincidentally, I think, on the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s original. ‘The New Urban Agenda will help to end poverty and hunger in all its forms and dimensions,’ it declares, ‘reduce inequalities; promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth; achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in order to fully harness their vital contribution to sustainable development; improve human health and well-being; foster resilience; and protect the environment...’ 

Fabulous. Show me the way. If only we could focus on where we’re going a little better. It’s all gone blurry. Is that the way? Or that? Or will 2016’s utopia be as intangible as 1516’s: ‘utopos’, literally ‘no place’.

And there’s the rub. One thing, though, is clear. If we do manage to avoid Armageddon during Clos’s 20-year journey, the many problems facing the world are likely to be at their most acute in cities. On current trends, by 2050, 70% of the Earth’s population will be living in them. Conversely, if solutions are to be found, they are likely to be found in cities. The built environment is both cause and cure. 

It makes perfect sense, then, that the RIBA has chosen to make the New Urban Agenda the focus of this year’s International Week in July. ‘As soon as I heard about the Agenda,’ says RIBA President Jane Duncan, ‘I was determined this should be at the heart of everything we [the RIBA] want to be.’ 

However, she adds, ‘architects are almost unaware of it’. No wonder. There were few architects at Habitat III, and, perhaps as a consequence, the New Urban Agenda document mentions neither ‘architects’ nor ‘architecture’. This is a distinct shift from both Habitat I and II in 1976 and 1996, and a particularly telling one from that other agenda-setting document, the Athens Charter of 1933, whose own roadmap to utopia was written by the most influential architects of the day, setting us off towards a destination of freeways and high-rises, a condition most of us around the world have now reached in our cities, even if it looks rather less enticing in reality than our utopians had led us to believe. 

Ma Yansong of Beijing-based MAD will be speaking at the RIBA's international conference.
Ma Yansong of Beijing-based MAD will be speaking at the RIBA's international conference. · Credit: Penn Wang

One could read the absence of architects and architecture in the New Urban Agenda in many ways, but at the very least it marks a slip in the status of architects in recent decades, a slip that should profoundly concern the profession. Rightly, wrongly, for whatever reason, nobody – at the most influential meeting about the future of the built environment for two decades – thought to involve architects. That speaks volumes.

As a result, Duncan believes, ‘architects have been on the back foot with it’. She wants them to put their best foot forward. ‘Architects are not part of the picture right now, and that HAS to change,’ she says – both for the profession and – cue Morgan Freeman voice – for global humanity. If architects do not engage with the Agenda everyone suffers. The profession effectively confirms its irrelevance, and ‘global humanity’ misses out on the creative solutions that architects can potentially come up with to deal with the problems facing cities. ‘The world is going to need architects to engage with this,’ says Duncan. The question is, how?

The week’s centrepiece is a day-long conference specifically addressing this question, with experts from both inside and outside the profession including architects Ma Yansong, Francis Kéré, Sir David Chipperfield and Urban Think-Tank, sociologist Saskia Sassen, urbanist and digital expert at Arup Dan Hill and, of course, Joan Clos himself. In the morning, Clos will explain the implications of the Agenda, followed by sessions identifying and analysing the potential roles for architects in making his roadmap a little less fuzzy, giving it form and shape. In the afternoon, Duncan has plucked out three areas in the Agenda of particular relevance to architects – housing, social inclusion and cultural identity and heritage. 

For all its grim reading, the Agenda is essentially an optimistic text. It has to be. The alternatives are far worse. In this it shares a sensibility with the architectural profession. Architects are nothing if not positive in their thinking. Give them a problem and they will wrestle out a solution, even from an in-tray of problems as teetering and high as the Agenda’s. Problems such as mass migration to cities or climate change might not appear as dramatic as an imminent asteroid or alien invasion, but they could prove just as disastrous. The question is, architects, what will you do?


The day-long RIBA International Conference Change in the city: opportunities for architects, exploring the expertise that architects can offer in the creation of 21st-century cities, is the centrepiece of  RIBA International Week, 3-7 July 2017. See more at architecture.com/internationalweek.