Habitat III and The New Urban Agenda

Published on Eastonline

Between 17 and 20 October Quito, Ecuador, hosted Habitat III, the third international conference organized by UN-Habitat, the UN agency for human settlements. The event is important because after the first meeting of ’76 in Vancouver and the second of ’96 in Istanbul, the urban agenda defined in Quito will guide the action of a vast system of institutional actors and not (national and local administrations, international development funds and programs of the United Nations) for the next 20 years. Years that are particularly hot herald, with a growth of urbanization that will take 6 people every 10 to live in cities and over 90% of this growth that will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.


We talk about it with Costanza La Mantia, Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who has been living on the African continent for over 10 years, teaching and practicing in the field of sustainable urban development.

Costanza, what’s inside this “New Urban Agenda” (NUA) and why is it so important? What are the challenges at stake and how will this document help to address them?

Costanza: The New Urban Agenda is the outcome of a long process, culminating in the Habitat III conference in Quito, aiming at directing the main policy and actions towards sustainable development of human settlements, both in rural and urban settings. The Agenda, composed by pledges and obligations, wants to set a new global strategy around urbanization for the next two decades. Ideally the NUA can be seen as the evolution of the Millennium Development Goals and the Post-2015 Development Agenda, as the progressive recognition of the multiple impacts and potentials of urbanisation processes on our planet started to emerge around the critical assessment of MDGs. Following this acknowledgement the focus progressively moved on the attempt of defining a mutually reinforcing relationship between urbanization and development. Finally, the idea that urbanization and development need to be framed as parallel vehicles for sustainable urban (and rural) development takes full shape in the NUA.

In reference to this point, the most interesting elements of NUA to me are the continuous underlining of the need for an integrated approach to urban development and the numerous “calls” for operational approaches and implementation. This strong push towards real commitment in implementation is made evident by, for example, the Quito Implementation Plan, which tries to gather specific commitments around specific pledges.


This is an important factor that strongly distinguishes the NUA from previous similar documents, starting from its very structure, in which the transformative commitments for sustainable urban development are grounded in social, economic and environmental dimensions (which are seen as integrated and indivisible), and spelled out through the description of both Development and Operational enablers. Inasmuch as the former can be considered as a framework that seeks to harness the current and future urbanization processes in ways that can generate integrated development outcomes, the latter outlines practical implementation approaches inspired by the “three-legged” approach (local fiscal systems, urban planning, and basic services and infrastructure) as defined by Joan Clos, UN-Habitat Director. This is the same approach that is at the basis of the most recent creature of Clos at UN-Habitat, the Urban Design and Planning Labs, a specialists branch which focus is strongly on Urban Design and Planning, seen as the operational tools to transform policy frameworks as the NUA in real interventions. This new branch that was just presented to the public during Habitat III, started operating in late 2014 and it is already partnering about 40 cities, mostly in the developing world, with the purpose of elaborating strategic plans and projects and aiming at building capacity locally. This branch to me represents an interesting shift in the traditional way UH-habitat operates by reinforcing its operational arm and finally grounding policy and strategies in real spatial transformations, able to act as flagship by demonstrating how to enact the principles of the NUA. Or at least this is the goal.

MLP: One of the aspects which I thought was most interesting about this third conference was its transformation into a highly attended event, which is open not only to the traditional institutional actors, but also for example to the networks of cities (such as ICLEI – Local Government for Sustainability and UCLG United Cities and Local Governments), as well as NGOs and some (not many to be honest) universities …

Costanza: The opening to formal networks, especially institutional ones has always been a prerogative of UN-led events for a while now, as we saw in the last World Urban Forums, but what really characterised Habitat III was the participation of citizens. It was impressive. Registrations were more than 50000, and, apparently more than 35000 people physically participated (which is a gigantic number). Particularly, the participation of Quito residents, especially young citizens, was astounding, showing a positive trend and a growing interest and awareness from civil society. In addition, its worth mentioning the several other unofficial events running parallel to the official Habitat 3 conference, from the People’s Social Forum Resistance to Habitat III – a grassroots led critical counter-event contesting the neoliberal nature of NUA- to the events organised by local Universities as “PUCE HIII”, organised by the Pontificia Universita Catolica de Ecuador (PUCE), which run a series of parallel seminars and workshop around the NUA and its implication for Civil Society, Academia and professionals.


Although there are certainly reasons for criticisms, and even for some cynicism, around events like Habitat III, it can also be argued that all of this, including the oppsition events, is substantially positive as highly diverse actors have the chance to make their positions explicit and are possibly able to influence important decisions.

MLP: Another aspect that I find important is the preparatory process of the conference, which involved for several months players distributed in 5 continents …

Costanza: The preparatory process that led to Quito, the so called PrepCom ( or Preparation Committees) were run in three rounds: PrepCom 1 started on September 2014, followed by PrepCom2 and 3, respectively in April 2015 and July 2016. They were composed by several thematic working groups, numerous official and semi-official events and more, tentatively widening representation of academia, civil society, institutions and experts of all sorts from all over the world, for advocating and debating around regionally relevant and/or thematic issues. In addition to all of this, from August 2015 to February 2016, the so called “policy units”, made up of about,200 experts, laid down a series of recommendations for the drafting and implementing of the New Urban Agenda, that were also open to broad public comment.


The purpose of the long and articulated preparation process was to progressively define the content of the NUA in an inclusive manner, and it culminated with the “Zero Draft” presented in May 2016, around which a series of political negotiations produced a parallel series of subsequent drafts. The last was presented and adopted in Quito on the 21st of October 2016.

I believe that this very articulated process, leading to the definition of a shared international Agenda around urban development, was the most participated and inclusive process we ever had in an event of this sort. Of course there are critiques, and surely things could have been done better. Still, I personally think the process itself is an interesting experiment in the activation of possible global governance processes and networks, and this has an enormous value per se. Although of course the Agenda needs to be rooted in real commitments and related actions at the local and national levels.

MLP: Overall, what are your impressions?

Costanza: Overall it was certainly a historic event, and it was great to be one of the witnesses there. However a few things remain problematic to me. I often perceived a sort of superficial approach to certain issues A good example is the recurrent theme of urban resilience, mostly framed as disaster response and preparedness and risk mitigation and adaptation, which are very partial views of what the resilience concept really brings to the way we see and work with our cities. This process of trivialization of the concepts was particularly evident in the case of urban resilience, too often used generically referring to any risk that threatens cities, especially with regard to their potential social and environmental shocks and appearing to be nothing more than a new buzzword that is replacing sustainable development, but it happened also with several other issues.

For instance a new feature of Habitat III was the reference to the “right to the city” mentioned in the New Urban Agenda after long negotiations, and with acclamation of social movements, the Right to the City was present in numerous presentations and discussions in both the sessions of the official program, parallel and alternative events.

Originally proposed by the Marxist sociologist Henri Lefebvre, the idea was further developed by David Harvey, who defines it as “the right not only to have access to what already exists [in the city], but also to change [to] be able to live with our own creations”. The right to the city has always been a classic slogan, unifying movements of urban anti-capitalist resistance. But in Quito, after being adopted, not without opposition, as part of the NUA, it seems to have been emptied of content, up to a point to which the concept has been used by actors that have always been very distant from those organizations traditionally making use of this claim.


In these terms, I certainly agree with Harvey’s take on the Habitat conference and NUA, when he says that they are both dominated by a neoliberal agenda and that it appears we concentrate our efforts and resources towards the construction of cities to invest, rather than cities to live. This position refers particularly to the lack of debate around crucial, evolutionary issues for our global sustainable development, some of which are very radical by definition, as for instance the need for different ownership rights rather than private property (which would open the doors to a real redistribution process in cities) and the identification of alternative models for the development of our cities, our society and our economies.

In any case what remains to be seen is the impact that this document and its may-be-historic adoption will have in the implementation of policy and projects around the world: if commitments will become actions, and knowledge and collaboration will rule over interests and corruption. But this is a shared responsibility, which invests every citizen of the world as much as any institution and government, as the one of shaping a better urban world is a collective responsibility.

All images courtesy of Habitat III, United Nations


About paesaggisensibili

Architect and senior fellow of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology of Toronto University, I'm a member of the board of directors of the Italian National Institute of Architecture (IN/ARCH) in Rome, where since 2003 I am in charge of the Institute Master Programs. My studies are rooted in the fields of architecture and philosophy of science with a special interest in biology and anthropology. Key words for my research are: Man, Space, Nature, Technique, Webness, Ecology, Relations, Interactions, Resources, Energy, Landscape, Footprint, Past and Future. My goal is to build critical understanding of the present to suggest useful strategies to build the future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: