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Can UN Habitat III effect real change in our cities?

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There are fine words at the core of the New Urban Agenda, but there are better ways to reach the goals of the Habitat III conference, says Zoe Green

Zoe GreenUnderstandably, there are many people with high expectations of the New Urban Agenda, the outcome document that the UN hopes will guide the urbanisation policies of member states. This is because it makes clear the UN view that cities hold the key to a sustainable future and global prosperity.

There are certainly negatives in unplanned growth, not least the emergence of reactive policy decisions that aim to make the best of a bad situation. Congestion, urban sprawl, pollution and crime are all intensified when settlement size increases. There is also the toll that rapid urban growth can have on infrastructure, the environment and the social fabric, in addition to the shared cultural values of existing and new communities.

Yet, whilst a laudable aspiration, it’s fair to question whether the New Urban Agenda will influence government policies effectively. Will it, for example, genuinely help to develop better ways to manage urbanisation?

Early drafts suggest that the agenda is more a pledge of goodwill. Read it. You’ll see page after page replete with phrases such as “we call for”, “we commit to”.

The rhetoric is great, but we must question the reality. It is not a legally binding document and implementation rests on the ‘good intentions’ of national and largely city governments to enact the principles, despite the fact that no city mayors are invited to the conference.

"The rhetoric is great, but we must question the reality"

All cities are contextually different and experiencing different rates of urbanisation alongside different challenges. The capacity of governments to act is important and it is right for events such as this to raise the challenges faced. But we must recognise that situations, responses and outcomes vary across the world.

Quite simply, UN Habitat is not operating at the right level to effect the scale of change it aspires to.

Rather than pledges from governments, we need a conference to strengthen the institutional, governmental and financial frameworks for cities, not a glitzy talking shop. Rather than offering another long list of commitments or repeating a lot of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, we need an event where cities are actively involved in meaningful debate.

The UN should consider working with bodies such as the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy to talk specifically about the challenges faced. The C40, a network of the world’s megacities focused on addressing climate change, provides a similar group. Each of these is already doing good work.

Although it can’t hurt to have some more commentary on the subject, whether the result of the benefits will justify the thousands of flights to be made to Quito remains to be seen.

Zoe Green is manager in the cities and urbanisation team at PwC

Photo | iStock

Read more about Habitat III

A history of Habitat

Habitat III - What's in it for me?

What’s on the Agenda? The New Urban Agenda Assessed

How a city in Ecuador will shape life in the 21st century

Two minutes with... Carolina Proaño

Why Habitat III must reflect the century of the city

Sustaining notes: Sustainable Development Goals and the UK


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