Humans of Habitat III

by Rebekah Revello

Two Thursdays ago, Habitat III came to an end after four days of riveting discussions and presentations on the new frontiers for urban sustainability. Throughout the week, while the United Nations deliberated the New Urban Agenda on the conference grounds, the Habitat III Exhibition was taking place up the street, resting on the slope of the mountains like a city upon a hill. While the conference was meant for heavy discussions and evaluation of policies, the exhibition offered a lighter approach, as a platform for countries, organizations and companies to share their innovations in urbanization.

The atmosphere in the giant, tented space was thrumming with excitement and opportunity. Every other booth boasted a game-changing urban strategy; every conversation held the possibility of a new partnership. And among the exchange of business cards, the interactive exhibits, spectacular performances and complementary food and drink (a fan favorite), people from around the world were kind enough to share with me their experience at Habitat III and their views on the New Urban Agenda. Their occupations, nationalities and interests vary, and some spoke mere sentences while others spoke volumes, but their contributions are important to understanding how the New Urban Agenda will be perceived and understood worldwide.

Key: R is me, and the other initials will correspond to the interviewees.

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Team members from PUSH, an Italian design lab that is partnered with Global Communities, and aims to help communities, public bodies and private organizations to innovate and have impact in a sustainable way.

R: “What did you want to come out of Habitat III?”

P: “We are here to expand our network and to try to implement our solutions in other contexts.”

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Belen Vallejo and Stefan

R: “What made you come to Habitat III?”

S:We started a company. She’s an environmental engineer focusing on water sanitation. So we have one main project, which is turning chicken manure into organic fertilizer. We wanted to share it.”

R: “What do you think of the New Urban Agenda?”

S: It’s interesting, it’s focusing on cities? It’s good, but we’re trying to link the urban to the rural.

R: “So you think it should be more global?

B:It is difficult. In these stands you don’t see a lot of information on natural resources. We use so many natural resources and sometimes we don’t do enough to get back what we take.”

S:There are three or four events on natural resources, but in our opinions, there’s a bit of a lack, because the cities absorb a lot of what is produced in rural areas. Especially in Ecuador, where the cities are very close to rural areas. So that’s what we’re trying to do- connect those two worlds.”

R: “Are you satisfied with Habitat III?”

S:It’s an opportunity. You have to see that we are living in Ecuador, and there are not a lot of big events like Habitat III, so it’s a great opportunity to meet others and look into other environmental projects.”

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Johannes Mengel, International Council for Science and Habitat III X-Change

R: “How do you feel about the New Urban Agenda? I know it’s a broad question, but what are your basic feelings?”

J: “My basic feeling about the New Urban Agenda is that it matters less than the fact that all the people have come together in Quito have met and have talked about what the future of cities should look like.”

R: “And why did you come here?”

J:I came here with a coalition of three organizations, to create this Habitat X-Change space as a place where people can meet and exchange ideas about the future of cities and also hopefully discover that science and data visualization can play an important part in thinking about the cities of the future and planning that future.”

R: “Are you satisfied with the conference?”

J (laughing): “Well, I’m certainly satisfied about what happened at our space, but I can’t comment on all of what happened at Habitat III. I’m satisfied with what the conference did for Habitat X-Change.”

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Margarita, and Ecuadoran teacher

R: “Why did you come to Habitat III?”

M:I came to Habitat III because it is interesting. It is important for everyone to learn. We are all involved because we want to live well in our cities.”

R: Do you know much about the New Urban Agenda?

M: “I don’t know a lot about it, but I want to know more. I’m very happy to be here.” 

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Anne, far right, from the Huairou Commission

R: “What do you think of the New Urban Agenda?

A:I think that there were a lot of expectations for this document to transform global policy framework but in the end it became more complementary than transformative.”

R: “Why did you come to Habitat III?”

A:It started as my Master’s thesis actually, and then I got really engaged in process and we brought many grassroots women that the organization needed support.”

R: “Are you satisfied with Habitat III?”

A: “It’s a great networking opportunity and platform…but I must say that the conference layout and design was frustrating. And it was very intense in terms of the events. Very rich, but very intense.”

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Brenda and Allen, Habitat for Humanity UK and Asia Pacific

R: “What were you expecting out of Habitat III?”

Al:Honest answer? I manage the urban crisis learning partnership, and a lot of work that we’re doing is focusing on accountability to affected populations, and so… we only started really doing the research in Haiti and Bangladesh in the last three months, and we’re finding that there’s a lot of resistance to this concept, a lot of sensitivity around it. And so here, I just had this session where I was asking people their views on accountability in the humanitarian sector as part of the research to find out what kind of attitudes other people have about this. So really, it was to generate more knowledge for our own project.”

Br:I think Quito is just the end of a very long process that started two years ago, which Habitat for Humanity International has been involved with for a long while. Personally, the reason why I’m here is because as an urban specialist and practitioner, this is an opportunity to expose yourself to everything that is happening, in terms of subjects, in terms of approaches, ideologies behind everything that is being proposed… So the opportunity for networking, for learning about other countries and ways of doing things and visions of the city is great. But it’s also the closing of a long advocacy effort in which we were trying to influence the way that cities must be seen globally, what they should look like. And that was the discussion for the past few years, so this is just the formal sessions in which the states are saying “this is what we’ve agreed on” but there were so many discussions beforehand that were very very rich. I think there is an agreement on how cities should look globally, which is very difficult. We are at very different stages of development but we still have a common vision on how cities should work.”

R: “What are your takes on the New Urban Agenda?”

(Long pause)

Br:As an urbanist…all the keywords are there. Inclusiveness, resilience, etc… But they seem hollow sometimes, they seem like they lack content. And then all of these discussions and critiques don’t say how we are going to do this, how are we going to be implementing this, what does it mean to create a compact city. There are no specific tools, the New Urban Agenda is just an ideal, which is good, because I believe we have to have an image of what we’re trying to achieve. But now the task is how you implement that. And what it means to be in a resilient city in Bangladesh is different than what it means to be resilient in the Netherlands. Interpretation is a big issue after this.”

Al:Somebody said yesterday that it’s interesting that the word mayor doesn’t appear in the New Urban Agenda at all, and then we kind of went through again and looked for a whole lot of other words that don’t appear. I think it’s kind of amusing and it doesn’t really tell us anything because there are so many references to municipalities and local authorities, but to be honest, I’m normally very cynical, but this is the way the world works on these kind of complex subjects. Because it’s not legally binding, it can be very ambitious, so you find that it’s not a process of international law where countries are agreeing to be bound, because when that happens, what they agree to be bound by becomes smaller and smaller and smaller. So you’ve got to start with these massive ambitious, aspirational and maybe a bit wooly ideas. But the purpose is not to bind, and as Brenda said, different parts of the world are so completely different, you couldn’t really have an adequate tool kit or implementation plan for the whole world, it doesn’t really work like that. But what you do have is priorities, you have a consensus on what’s important, and that’s no small achievement. When you compare it to 20 years ago, the Habitat agenda then was quite thin, a bit wooly, with very little follow up. And walking around here and seeing how the content of the New Urban Agenda is already being implemented by the various things many people are already doing is great. And it gives us- particularly in civil society- a great opportunity for advocacy at local level.”

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Andrew Earle, student, University of Cape Town

R: “Why did you come to Habitat III?”

An:I was traveling to Ecuador already and my supervisor recommended Habitat III, but I would’ve gone anyway. I would now consider myself an infrastructurist/urbanist.”

R: “Do you know about the New Urban Agenda?”

An:I don’t know much actually. I’ve learned more here but I haven’t really looked at it. From what I can glean, it’s a way more intersectional approach to the next urban frontier, and they’ve tried very hard to cover all the bases, which makes it extremely hard to do. So they’ve set the bar pretty high. Do I have faith? I don’t know.”

R: “So then, are you satisfied with your experience here?”

An:Yes. Well, no, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s anything lacking- there’s been more than enough of everything, but some frustrations have been in that, it’s more about cities and municipalities presenting a CV rather than engaging and ideating. Instead of talking about what needs to be done, they say “here’s what has been done,” and the conversation ends there. There isn’t really a space for voicing criticism, because for whatever reason the conversation is quite disjointed, and the dialogue I’m looking for isn’t there.”

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Alessandra Sgobbi, European Commission, DG Climate Action

R: “Why did you and the European Commission come to Habitat III?”

Ale:There are several linkages between climate change and urban development, and urban areas and cities are most vulnerable to climate change because of the concentration of people and assets, but they are also a major source of emissions of greenhouse gases, so they have to be a part of the solution. For me, the linkages between tackling climate change challenges and ensuring sustainable urban development are numerous.”

R: “What is your opinion on the New Urban Agenda?”

(Long pause)

Ale: “Ah. Well, it’s a good opportunity to bring together at a local level the international frameworks that we agreed upon over the course of the past years. We’re talking about the SDGs, the Paris Agreement, Sendai framework for action- all of these need to be implemented in a coherent manner at a local level as well as a national level, and I’m hoping that the New Urban Agenda will provide such an opportunity at the local level.”

R: “Are you satisfied with the outcome of the conference?”

Ale:Yes. The first day was tricky because of the logistics, but it was all part of the challenge. I was very happy with the events that I followed, and we had several successful events. This year will be the implementation challenge and we have a whole lot of frameworks, so we have to see how we’re going to turn them into reality. The hard work is still to come.”

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Marielena and Pamela, student architects

R: “How do you feel about Habitat III?”

Ma: “It seems to me the conferences were not great. They didn’t have much content or proposals. They seemed poorly organized with a lot of people. I didn’t find a comparison or a sense of how we have advanced in the last 20 years. We don’t have a diagnosis of if we have advanced or not advanced for the creation of the New Urban Agenda. There have been objectives and we don’t know if they have been achieved.”

R: “Okay, and what do you think of the exhibition?”

Ma: “Of the space…it’s cool that it seems kind of empty. I don’t know the logic of the country presentations, if it was for tourism? I don’t understand…if it was for people to just come and see? I don’t understand the logic.”

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These girls were students from the University of Ecuador. They didn’t have much to say about the conference, as they were just passing by and decided to explore the exhibition. But they were glad that Habitat III was in Ecuador, and were fascinated by all of the exhibits.

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Sylvanus Kofi Adzornu, Urban Planner from Ghana

R: “Why did you come to Habitat III?”

Sy: “We’ve come to learn, and also to witness the ratification of the NUA, which we’ve been part of preparing from PrepCom1 in NY to PrepCom2 in Kenya, and we were also in Surabaya for the negotiations. It’s important for use to come witness this final step, and learn from other stakeholders. It’s important to see the outcome, ultimately. We want to share Ghana’s experiences with the world, as an area of decentralization and an area of constitutional development. The progress that we have made over the past 20 years needs to be showcased in terms of urban development and the policies we have formulated. The world can also see how we can partner with other nations- especially in the sub-saharan region in helping them with new urban policies and decentralization. Our experience in the democratic process can also help in all of Africa, with elections, and how to process them successfully. This was a very good and worthy trip to Quito. It takes a very successful organization to manage 40,000 participants, and I think they did well. And this city is captivating.”

R: “What do you think of the New Urban Agenda?”

Sy: “I think that it’s going to help nations to ensure that their cities become more inclusive, resilient, sustainable and safe, and to help guide nation states. It is not a legal document, it’s not binding, but essentially it will help nation states to begin to use urbanization as a strategy for development, because it’s inevitable. It leads to innovation, it leads to civilization, to people who are more civilized and informed and it leads to improvement in quality of life. It’s a way forward for each nation, especially for those of us who are developing countries and have adopted the strategies who want to use and harness them properly. And I think the NUA is set to do that, and the international agreement, the SDG 2020, all of this will guide us as a country to begin to formulate our own internal urban policies at a long-term perspective, to change the standard of living for our people.”