Habitat III: A Once-In-A-Generation Civic Experience

Nov 11, 2016   |   MSNY Staff

Photo: John Paul Farmer

It’s hard to catch your breath in Quito, Ecuador. Whether it’s the thin air of its 10,000 foot elevation, the natural beauty of its volcanic mountains, or the built beauty of its colonial-era architecture, Quito is a city that leaves you breathless.

Last month, 30,000 people came together in the scenic Ecuadorian capital to discuss the future of cities at Habitat III. Hosted by the United Nations, this once-every-20-years convening marked just the third of its kind, following in the footsteps of Habitat I in Vancouver in 1976 and Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996. UN-hosted World Urban Forums have been held every couple of years in recent decades, although none has reached the scale of Habitat.

At Habitat III, a wide range of individuals and organizations – including governments, companies, non-profits, and academic institutions – gathered to share best practices, to celebrate successes, and to approve a New Urban Agenda that marks the culmination of years of negotiations among United Nations member states.

Gatherings ranged from formal (including official delegate discussions in the National Theater), to participatory (such as the youth assemblies) to informal (like the lightning talks that electrified the expo hall). Some of the most interesting highlights were the following:

The Global Municipal Database – Lourdes German, Director of International and Institute-wide Initiatives at the Lincoln Institute, showcased a dashboard for cities that is built upon Microsoft technologies such as Azure, Power Map and Power BI. Working with cities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the Global Municipal Database tracks key fiscal indicators including expenditures, revenue, and borrowing and gives communities the tools to visualize the data and create actionable insights. What’s so powerful about these technologies is that many of their functionalities are Excel-based, meaning millions of people could use them tomorrow to make their cities more transparent and accountable, with no further training necessary.

Water and Resilience – It has been said that everyone has a water problem: either too polluted, too much, or not enough. For example, fully one-third of the Netherlands – a country built on its shipping and ports – lies below sea level. The country’s strength – water – is also its greatest vulnerability. With years of such experience living with water, the Netherlands was especially well qualified to host a conversation on the subject, which included viewpoints from Rotterdam and The Hague as well as a framework shared by 100 Resilient Cities’ Andy Salkin. One insight from The Hague was that resilience is not only physical, but must also be social and digital. Every aspect of a city must be able to bounce back. And while the cities of the Netherlands are especially advanced in learning how to live with water, most cities around the world are just getting started.

Public Spaces – Public spaces also played a key role, with planners asking whether placemaking will be at the heart of cities in the future. With a discussion of Eastern and Western traditions in terms of public spaces, the room erupted into a lively debate, during which an audience member noted that urban planners are increasingly using Microsoft’s Minecraft to engage people – particularly the young – in co-designing their own public spaces.

Housing – Housing was a major focus at Habitat III, for developed cities such as New York and for developing cities such as Lagos alike. With the majority of humanity living in cities for the first time in history, the influx of newcomers creates new stresses. Safe, accessible, and affordable housing is a priority.

Accessibility – A theme that was more woven into the conference experience than something explicitly called out was the need for more accessible communities. Microsoft is increasingly collaborating with cities to use technology to improve accessibility to services, information, and opportunity. “Eliminate the unnecessary barriers that limit our potential,” implored Dr. Victor Santiago Pineda of the University of California at Berkeley, who also served as co-chair for accessibility at Habitat III.

Youth – A particularly interesting aspect of Habitat III was the prevalence of young people everywhere you went. While most delegates were more senior, accomplished professionals, the conference grounds also teamed with young people of high school and college age. Many of those youth were local Ecuadorians engaging with this once-in-a-lifetime event that was on their home soil. Others were young people from around the world who journeyed to Quito to serve as agents of change. A middle-aged delegate at one youth-run session exclaimed “I’ve been going to sessions back-to-back for two days and this is the first one that is participatory. I think we need more of this.”

After several incredible days in Quito, the big question on everyone’s lips was, “What happens next?” How does the New Urban Agenda get implemented? To what extent will cities be prioritized by the UN? What role will technology play in forging solutions to our hardest problems? Will upcoming World Urban Forums be effectively leveraged to ensure steady progress on such audacious goals? Will the assumptions and priorities of Habitat III stand the test of time? Only time will tell.

Habitat III brought together planners, policymakers, technologists, and young people who care about the future of cities. Technology was there and will be an increasingly ubiquitous part of our lives. These new cross-sector connections have the potential to pay dividends between now and Habitat IV in 2036 – but that potential requires action by us to be fulfilled.

Source: Habitat III

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MSNY Staff