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Urban planning in the global village

Simeon Shtebunaev and Selasi Setufe

Can young architects and urban planners lead on sustainable urbanism with the UN and the Commonwealth?

Can the young built-environment professionals of the Commonwealth offer a global lead on truly sustainable cities? We believe so, and set out our case here. We apologise in advance for the blizzard of initials of all the various UK and international organisations, groups and initiatives involved. Stay with us and we’ll explain how all these fit together – because collaboration is vital for all our futures.

First, some recent background. On 9-18 July this year, the United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development took place in New York. On the agenda was a review of several ‘sustainable development goals’, part of the UN Agenda 2030. Among these was SGD11, looking at making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe resilient and sustainable.

Taking the floor on day three of the Forum, Maimunah Mohd Sharif, executive director of UN-Habitat, pointed to the main targets that SDG11 needs to deliver on – housing affordability (11.1) accessibility and adequacy of housing (11.3) and access to public space (11.7). In the week in which European Commission scientists presented preliminary findings that the world has urbanised at a much more rapid speed that we all suspected, architects and urban professionals should take note and engage with the international debate set to drive our profession globally.

Within the SDG11 Synthesis Report, led by UN Habitat and reviewing the progress towards achieving sustainable cities and human settlements, architecture and architects are barely referred to. Such omissions are not a surprise as the UN Habitat New Urban Agenda, adopted in Quito in 2016, equally made no reference to architects due to long standing disengagement with the political structures of the UN by our representative bodies. However, times are changing. The RIBA has established the Ethics and Sustainable Development Commission, published the UN Sustainable Development Goals in Practice document, engaged with the UN Global Compact project and was a founding member of the now influential UKBEAG (UK Built Environment Advisory Group), whose chair Janet Askew represents the UK at the UN High Level Forum. At the forum the UKBEAG was announced as professional partner to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Future Cities Programme.

As young members of the architectural profession, our future practice will be fundamentally influenced by political engagement, international development and co-operation. The Commonwealth Association of Architects and the Commonwealth Associations of Planners’ survey of the profession further emphasises the critical lack of capacity in some of the Commonwealth countries which are urbanising most rapidly and are among the most vulnerable.

But the Commonwealth itself is one promising route forward, being uninhibited by the political deadlocks of the United Nations. By operating through a voluntary membership it can encourage its members to act as leaders towards the delivery of sustainable urban practices. In April, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM) took place in London. The theme was ‘Towards a common future’, and the summit covered a renewed commitment to protecting the planet’s seas and oceans through the introduction of the Commonwealth Blue Charter, cyber security and trade. But more importantly, it recognised the importance of youth in deciding the future of our planet. The Commonwealth is unique in the strong voice of the Commonwealth Youth Council. It is the only international organisation to give its youth a high-level seat at the table. Indeed, with one billion young people, 60% of people in the Commonwealth are below the age of 30.

This year the Commonwealth Association of Planners’ Young Planners (CAP YP) and the Commonwealth Association of Architects’ Young Architects (CAA YA) came together to illustrate how young planners and architects can influence urbanism and sustainability through the development of a manifesto launched at the RIBA during the Commonwealth Youth Forum. All young planners and architects were asked: ‘How can Young People within the Commonwealth help deliver SDG 11 to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable?’

This passionate call was answered by Australia, the Caribbean, Malaysia, Nigeria, South Africa and the UK. Respondents showed the importance of sharing practice and ideas outside their own profession to shape a more sustainable society across the commonwealth. Others expressed the need to bridge the gap between ‘young’ and ‘experts’ and the need to listen to fresh ideas with better and deeper links to schools and universities. Some felt that young people should be given the space to contribute and the power to share knowledge and experience from around the Commonwealth, to advocate for ‘one world planning’ and reject the status quo, while capitalising on the diversity of Commonwealth nations. As RIBA national council members and co-vice-presidents for students and associates, we co-edited the manifesto and attended the Youth Forum. And together with CAA and representatives from INTABAU, Simeon presented a sustainability paper in front of Commonwealth high commissioners at Marlborough House in April 2018.


A major outcome of the Youth Forum proved to be the importance of simply being present and representing the profession. Climate change has long made its mark on Commonwealth policies. Sustainability has been a running theme and it is one of the main commitments in the Commonwealth Charter. Yet throughout the Youth Forum, the topic of building sustainable cities was hardly touched upon. Climate change is seen as an issue predominantly affecting agriculture, sea life and economy but not necessarily understood in our own habitats – cities, one of the major contributors to global emissions.

As the Commonwealth Youth Forum represented the youth leaders from across 53 countries, it is imperative that we architects and planners raise the importance of sustainable development as an essential part of tackling climate change. Bill Gates, a key speaker at the Forum, introduced a point that resonated with the audience strongly. Currently, the youth population on our planet is the biggest it will ever be. The demographic pyramid will start to slow down and we will plateau at around 11-12 billion humans in the next century. The next decades are crucial for us to battle climate change, so it is crucial that young people are educated, entrepreneurial and sustainability minded.

Together with the Commonwealth Youth Forum Declaration, an action plan was developed through workshops in which RIBA representatives took part. The plan decides the priorities and initiatives that the Commonwealth Youth Council will pursue over the next two years. Some of our recommendations were published in the final action plan under ‘A More Sustainable Future’ – such as the establishment of professionals and youth exchange network between Commonwealth countries and the establishment of Climate Change and Resilience Youth Hubs, points addressed in our Youth Manifesto. The Youth Manifesto and engagement with the Commonwealth Youth Forum attracted the attention of the UN Habitat Youth Unit who interviewed the authors via a video link. We have co-written articles with the Royal Commonwealth Society on the topic and we are exploring options at the moment with the Prince's Foundation for a joint project with the RIBA.

More collaboration rather than competition between different institutes is what is needed. The RIBA and RTPI together with their Commonwealth Counterparts have set a precedent for how our voices can be heard at a high political level. More than ever there is a need for architects and urban planners to situate their practice within international agendas.

Contact Selasi and Simeon if you would like to collaborate. Download the manifesto here

Links to UN Habitat videos : 



How can young professionals be better represented in city decision making processes?

How can young professionals support all youth to play a more active role in sustainable urbanism in their cities?

What do you think are effective models of collaboration between cities, young professionals, and local communities, while considering those left behind?

What are some examples of projects where youth contribute to the localization of the SDGs and New Urban Agenda?


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