Building the legacy of the 21st century

The UN Habitat III conference set the scene for the next 20 years of urban development. What will the role of architects be?

The city of Quito in Ecuador hosted the third UN Habitat conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development from 17-20th  October. A one in 20 years event, it marked the adoption of the New Urban Agenda. This, two years in the making, creates an overarching framework for national and local urban policy around the globe.

A distinct shift to thinking holistically about development was noticeable. For the first time implementation took centre stage and business and civic organisations were invited to the table. The three key principles countries committed to were: leave no one behind; sustainable and inclusive urban economies; and delivering environmental sustainability. The New Urban Agenda is not a legally binding document, but it will work alongside the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Climate Agreement.

The conference was free and open for registration to anyone, which fostered a much more diverse debate. Side events featured NGOs representing grassroots issues questioning national delegates and UN officials. The UK delegation was led by the Department for International Development (DfID) and was represented through various institutions. However, the lack of a national pavilion and the presence of any high ranking local government or government officials was clear.

The RIBA was represented by vice president international, Peter Oborn. The event provided a launch pad for the UK Built Environment Advisory Group (www.ukbeag.org) – a collaboration between the RIBA, the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Institution of Structural Engineers. The group aims to bridge the divide between the development and humanitarian sectors. It will engage with agencies such as DfID and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to help support policy development while providing access to its members and global networks at times of need. The UK group was created as a contribution to the Global Alliance for Urban Crises, launched at the first World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul earlier this year, the purpose of which is to help communities better prevent, prepare for and respond to urban crises.

The notion of sustainable development needs to adapt to the challenges of climate change, rapid urbanisation and unpredictable patterns of migration. At Habitat III there was a clear realisation that engaging civic society will be the critical step to achieve sustainable development around the world. And while the vision was very clear, the steps needed to achieve it were missing. The New Urban Agenda document adopts the ‘right of the city’ as a guiding principle – the concept that every citizen has the right to occupy and access all parts of the city they live in, and governments are encouraged to enshrine it into their national law. The inclusive development of the document also reflected the desire to engage wider communities but ultimately many aspects have been blocked by some national governments, such as LGBTQ rights or explicit references to democracy. It will be up to the UK government to re-examine the document when adopting it within national policy.

At the UN transnational political manoeuvring is expected. However, what was clear from the conference was the increased tension between national and local governments – a live issue within the UK. Cities will be the main actors at the delivery stage and at the World Mayors Forum calls were made for a local government seat at the UN table and direct access to international finance. Municipal finances were a contested issue and public-private partnerships were discussed as a mainstream alternative to funding public projects. It would be safe to say that such international sentiment will only accelerate the devolution process that has started within the UK.

Data driven policies and digital city governance are key principles within the agenda. Building professionals must adapt to work alongside a new type of consultancies in the future – ones dealing with the issues of the digital or smart city. At Habitat III Smart Cities rhetoric was challenged and the current private service delivery model was questioned. Fostering home grown innovation will be the key to enabling cities to take the full potential of emerging technologies. Within the technology debate there was a distinct lack of architectural input. Whether it is smart cities or a different concept, integrating technological solutions within projects will become the norm and architects should be aware of those challenges.

It was acknowledged throughout the conference that the worldwide shortage of adequate housing has been exacerbated by the commodification of the home through increasing private-sector provision. When money can be made from land speculation it is not in the interest of a private developer to solve our housing crisis, so a new approach is needed.

Across the Global South, informal resident-built settlements proliferate in response to the acute pressures of mass urban migration into areas already suffering from insufficient government-funded housing. In India ‘out of a total stock of 170 million houses, 120 million are created by people,’ said Kirtee Shah of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights.

At the conference, organisations such as ACHR and Slum Dwellers International campaigned for government acknowledgement and support. UN special rapporteur Leilani Farha called for homelessness to be treated as a crime against humanity and for governments to be proactive in providing the basic UN Human Right to Adequate Housing.

The concept of ‘Community-led housing’ as a solution has been championed by organisations such as UrbaMonde and the Building and Social Housing Foundation and received the commitment of UN member-states.

We need to weaken the monopoly of private provision but, given the current UK political climate, it is unlikely we will return to the mass government housebuilding of the post-war era. An alternative way of supplying the volume of building required is suggested by the ‘community-led’ examples of our European neighbours and countries such as Uruguay where 25 percent of housing is provided by co-operatives. Recent legislation that makes local councils responsible for providing serviced plots to meet the demand on their self-build and custom-build register is a step in the right direction.

Employing this new legislation, it is incumbent upon architects to drive for further change in the way they direct existing clients and equip themselves to work with these new client-groups, offering a diverse approach to design in which human values lead the process rather than market capital. Practices will need to facilitate a participatory co-design process to allow for the input that the resident groups will demand and to take the opportunity to extend a consultancy and facilitation service to some aspects of the process. An example could be found in the current work of Architype and Jon Broome Architects with the Rural Urban Synthesis Society (Community Land Trust) in Lewisham, London.

Rowan Riley and Simeon Shtebunaev are MArch students at the University of Sheffield. They attended Habitat III through the GLOSS Global Leadership Scheme of the Faculty of Social Sciences.

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