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Habitat III - What’s in it for me?

Delegates at a conference

With the UN's Habitat III conference on housing and sustainable urban development fast approaching, planners need to think about how they will implement its goals, says Dr Shipra Narang Suri

Dr Shipra Narang SuriThe United Nations Habitat III conference is just around the corner. It has been in the works for nearly two years, and its outcome, the New Urban Agenda, is in the final stages of negotiation, with member states picking it apart for content, nuance and tone.

Although the New Urban Agenda is a non-binding document, - ie, we won’t be able to sue our governments any time soon if they don’t live up to the commitments they make therein – it is still extremely important, for two reasons.

First, because it comes right after the series of agreements signed in 2015, on sustainable development, disaster risk reduction, financing for development and climate change, and will be the first document to be adopted after the Sustainable Development Goals, which means that it should speak directly to the 17 Global Goals (especially Goal 11 on cities and human settlements).

Second, because it revisits the issue of urban development after two tumultuous decades marked by rapid and often chaotic urbanisation in the global South, recurrent and persisting economic crises, rising frequency and intensity of climate-related disasters, and continued wars and conflict. All of these have had a significant negative impact on the sustainability and livability of our cities and human settlements.

For planning, and planners, the New Urban Agenda brings good news. After decades of progressive marginalisation, in part politically-motivated and partially self-inflicted, planning seems to be back in fashion.

“Planning is no longer being seen as a ‘technical activity’, but a political process of engagement, negotiation and co-creating the city”

This is not sudden, however. Since 2006, when a number of organisations including the RTPI, Commonwealth Association of Planners, Canadian Institute of Planners, American Planning Association and others drafted the Reinventing Planning (PDF) paper, the interest in planning has been on the rise.

In 2009, UN-Habitat’s flagship publication, the Global Report on Human Settlements, was titled “Planning Sustainable Cities”. In 2012, The Future We Want emphasised the importance of well-planned cities in promoting sustainable development.

In 2014, at the seventh session of the World Urban Forum (WUF7) in Medellin, a key dialogue focused on urban planning and design for social cohesion. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's annual report in 2014 highlighted the contribution of urban planning to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

In 2015, UN-Habitat’s Governing Council adopted the International Guidelines on Urban and Territorial Planning, developed by UN-Habitat with the support of International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP) and United Cities and Local Governments.

The Guidelines are now UN-Habitat’s most downloaded publication, having recently hit the 100,000 downloads mark, and have been translated into 12 languages. But perhaps the most important milestone in planning’s re-emergence was its inclusion in the SDGs (Target 11.3 speaks directly to planning, with 11.7 and 11.a in support).

And now, the New Urban Agenda has at least 25 references to planning distributed across the document. In my view, this has important implications for the planning profession. First, planning is again being viewed as a central instrument to ensure equitable and sustainable development, combat climate change and increase resilience, whether in urban, rural or peri-urban settlements, growing or shrinking cities, in developing or developed economies.

Second, it is no longer being seen as a “technical activity”, which it has been reduced to in many countries, but a political process of engagement, negotiation and co-creating the city.

"The New Urban Agenda can be a catalyst for change, but the other ingredients – commitment, creativity and collaboration – must emerge from within the planning community"

Finally, it is emerging as an area of interest to local authorities and local leaders, who are beginning recognise its potential in transforming their cities.

But this is only one half of the story. For the planning profession to capitalise on these opportunities, it also needs some reflection. Wherever we work, we need to ask ourselves some tough questions:

  • Has planning evolved in a way that it can meet the challenges of climate change, disaster risk, conflict and previously unseen (and unforeseen) levels of migration?
  • Is it nimble enough, flexible enough, strategic enough, efficient enough?
  • Are we using the right tools, and are we able to make the most of the technology revolution sweeping the world around us?
  • Do we have the capacities, both in numbers and skill sets, to deliver what is being demanded of us?
  • And the oldest question of all – are we listening to, responding to, collaborating and partnering with the inhabitants of the cities, towns, regions, villages that we are planning for?

For organisations and networks such as ISOCARP, RTPI and others, now is the time to start thinking about what we will do to implement the provisions related to planning in the New Urban Agenda. Some actions that we could consider, for instance, include:

  • advocacy, focusing on national and local governments to influence long-term change in planning approaches and statutory planning systems
  • consolidating and synthesising experience and knowledge in order to make good practices/ successful projects replicable and scale them up
  • capacity-building of planners, along with support to expansion and reform of planning education
  • and building partnerships with not only other professionals but also other stakeholders, in order to make planning more responsive and effective.

The New Urban Agenda can be a catalyst for change, but the other ingredients – commitment, creativity and collaboration – must emerge from within the planning community in order to transform our cities and human settlements, through a revived, re-energised planning. There is a lot in it for us, and we must now rise to the challenge and make something of it.

Dr. Shipra Narang Suri is vice-president of the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP) and of the General Assembly of Partners towards Habitat III. ISOCARP is a member of the Global Planners Network, along with the RTPI.


Read more about Habitat III

A history of Habitat

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

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

Can Habitat III effect real change in our cities?

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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