Between 15 and 20 October, up in the Andes, Quito, the second highest capital city of the world, received an estimated 40,000 architects, urban planners, policy makers, activists, representatives of various levels of government, academia and research from all continents. They arrived in Ecuador to participate in what was the big granny of all conferences in the domain of urban planning—Habitat III of the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (UN Habitat). Following dozens of round table discussions and plenary sessions, the representatives of 193 member countries of the UN signed off on the New Urban Agenda, a set of 175 commitments that countries need to adhere to tackle the staggering challenges of urbanization.
India was also one of the signatories. For us, the New Urban Agenda is significant because of two reasons. Though our pace of urbanization was slow until now, with only 31.16% of Indians living in cities, it is expected to accelerate. It took 40 years for 230 million Indians to become urban citizens. For the next 250 million, it is expected to take only 20 years. Also, our cities are anything but liveable, crumbling under congestion, pollution and lack of basic facilities for a huge segment of the population—65 million people—who live in slums.
Although not legally binding on member countries, signing the New Urban Agenda implies that they have agreed to prioritize their commitments for the next 20 years, the time interval after which Habitat is held. The first Habitat held in 1976 in Vancouver was a wake-up call to the fact that the world is urbanizing rapidly but haphazardly. The next one was in 1996 in Istanbul where a global action plan to provide shelter for all was adopted as the Habitat Agenda. In Quito, some of the main themes were climate change, safe cities, renewable energy, sustainable housing, social inclusion policies, transport and mobility for all, women’s right to the city and ways of financing urban initiatives. They segue with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) such as “Zero Hunger”, “Gender Equality”, ““Climate Action” or “Affordable and clean energy” which are the pivots guiding the UN’s actions towards a better future for the world. Over the past year, regional meetings on these themes have been taking place in various cities of the world and the inputs fed into the drafting of the New Urban Agenda.
The choice of Quito as the venue was not incidental. Quito is located in a region of the world that has not only stunning bio diversity (the Amazon begins three hours away from the city), it was also the first city to be declared a Unesco World Heritage Cultural Site and its Old Town is packed with museums, courtyards and churches that are marvels of Spanish architecture. Further, Ecuadorian society is remarkably multi-racial. To showcase this pluralism, in the Habitat Village, the venue of the conference, there stood a giant cube with photos of Quito citizens of every colour and social status, shorn of adornments. A black woman’s face was adjacent to that of a white child which was juxtaposed with that of an old Mestizo man. Apart from the message of beauty in diversity, it implied that municipal planning policies must be inclusive and built on consensus.
The way the themes related to the conference were not just relegated to the Habitat Village, but blended into the entire city could be an example for cities which aim to host grand international events. For instance, unexpectedly in the middle of the Old Town, was a stunning photo exhibition of Latin American cities. In one photo showing a poor neighbourhood of Medellin, Columbia, destroyed by drugs and firearms, a group of youngsters, devote most of their youth to vigilance against rival gangs. In another, a middle aged man in Havana huddled on a stairway landing with his old mother, to wait out a storm warning and the inevitable flooding of their home. That’s safe cities, urban youth engagement and sustainable housing there in just two exhibits. In a cultural showcase, Quito had collaborated with the French city of Lyon, home to the fete de la lumiere, to illuminate heritage sites like the Church of Sano Domingo and the Church of La Campania. Hundreds of LED lamps and projections danced to music in a complex visual choreography creating images of creatures of the Amazon and Pre-Columbian art.
The New Urban Agenda is, of course, not without its critics. A member of the European Parliament seated next to me on the packed flight to Quito, stared at the underlined points in his printout and complained that it was all too utopian, with promises of equal rights for all in a sustainable environment. Hardened local municipal officials and planners know that quotidian issues back home are not going to get magically resolved through this agreement. But they also know that if there was no collective declaration of intent to do the best we can towards our cities, the bar will never rise.
Vandana Vasudevan is a researcher on urban issues.