And the cities rise up? – Reflections from Habitat III

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By Luc Hoffmann Fellow, Fouad Khan

Is this a line of participants trying to get in or a traffic jam?

Is that a group of people holding an unofficial event on a flight of stairs, or a slum?

Is that a kiosk to charge your cellphones or a grid station?

The UN pavilion, is that the posh neighborhood?

The cubical exhibit with passport pics of Quito residents in different hues on the walls like a human Rubik’s cube, isn’t that the gentrifying street where bohemian kids hang out?

And the food court, well that’s just the food court.

From 17-22 October 2016 Quito’s Casa de la Cultura exhibition venue and the adjacent park hosting Habitat III were a synecdoche of the city. Nearly fifty thousand people descended on the event space, the various exhibits, pavilions and sessions to catch a drift of policy history being made. Among them leading urban and climate scientists from around the world, mayors and representatives of regional and national governments, operatives of any international agency or NGO you can name, as well as plenty of regional or local ones you can’t. The Habitat III village, as the conference organizers dubbed the event space, played host to the throngs of dignitaries, delegates and participants. The city opened its arms to the nearly twenty five thousand that came from out of town. All the hotels were overbooked, the traffic jams got worse and the night life thrived. The New Urban Agenda, a sweeping policy document intentioned to restore the rightful role of cities in the governance of human affairs was adopted with much fanfare. New scientific networks were forged and old ones revived, visiting cards exchanged probably in their millions, reports, pamphlets, products, CDs and all manner of informational miscellanea distributed in their tons. It was a right feast.

We utilized the opportunity to further our engagement with practitioners and stakeholders in order to strengthen knowledge co-production efforts – in essence, designing, managing and implementing projects together with multiple stakeholders. This included a joint session held with the city of Umeå, Sweden where we presented the data analysis and findings of our work and highlighted opportunities for further collaboration. At another joint session with Mistra Urban Futures, WWF Earth Hour City Challenge, the City of Tshwane and Global Utmaning we presented in greater detail about the extent of our partnerships with various institutions. At Habitat III, the Luc Hoffmann Institute was represented by myself, Carla Marino, a project intern based with our partner ICLEI in Bonn, Germany, and Carina Borgstrom-Hansen from WWF’s Earth Hour City Challenge. In bilateral meetings with the cities of Umeå, Monteria – Colombia, Tshwane – South Africa and Boulder – USA, we started formalizing and strengthening the process of co-production to optimize transition pathways to sustainability for different types of cities. The first phase of co-production had seen the use of city submitted data to analyze comparable footprint reduction trends across cities and to develop city action profiles based on the most recurring actions a city took. Now, we were starting to deepen this co-production process through more extensive engagement with cities.

Our proposed transition pathways are basically a prioritization of action types for different types of cities. Should a city like Mexico, say, focus on waste management or renewable energy? Does Rajkot need to redirect resources towards housing? Should Malmö continue to emphasize citizen awareness? We have answers for these questions based on our data analysis, now we want to know how the cities feel about it. At Habitat III, through our interaction with the cities a few key themes emerged, perhaps none more pertinent than the tension between the different governing levels of the nation state and the city or regional entity.

An impromptu networking session on stairs or a slum?
An impromptu networking session on stairs or a slum?

When I was standing in the hours long queue to enter the exhibition venue on day two, I was approached by a local news team for a soundbite. I psychologically prepped myself to talk about the urban agenda while slyly slipping in a reference to my own project. “How have you found the arrangements in Quito?” she asked. I answered expecting now to talk about the theme of the conference. “Have the queues been an inconvenience? Have the traffic jams been an inconvenience? What do you think of the efforts of the city team and the management?” It’s fine, fine, fine, I said. “Could’ve been better but such conferences are always hard to tackle”, or some such platitude. Looking slightly disappointed she then moved on to talk to some locals, trying to extract appropriate levels of disgust at the mismanagement. She was not interested in the conference or its themes at all, all she cared about was the impact on her city and its citizens’ lives.

The attention to local always comes at the expense of attention to global and vice versa. At the conference it was hard to find sessions that weren’t labouring under the burden of this unarticulated dilemma. In one session on urban data the conversation kept reverting back to discussions of global climate models. Models based on data neither collected at, nor really ever downscaled to, the city level. In another session the discussion around financing urban transition revolved around structuring projects so they could be appetizing to national governments and bilateral funding agencies; perhaps simply because that’s just where the money’s at. A lot of the panels were populated by people who’d earned their miles working at the national or global level; again, understandable as the category ‘city’ is only just in the process of being defined as a discipline in science, policy or practice. But even the eagerness to embrace this new devolution of data collection, policy and politics to the scale of the city didn’t always seem to be there.

Faces of Quito exhibit at Habitat III
Faces of Quito exhibit at Habitat III

Unless we can find this will to truly empower cities to take charge of their own governance soon, the New Urban Agenda will start to sound hollow. In science this will require, for instance, as a start, listening to cities and the co-production of knowledge as well data collection at the city level instead of a downscaling of national metrics. One suggestion could be, for instance, to ensure that data reported to the Sustainable Development Goal 11 on safe, inclusive and resilient urbanization comes from the cities themselves

In our work at the Luc Hoffmann Institute we are trying to do this by further nurturing the capacity for urban data collection developed through WWF’s Earth Hour City Challenge over the last few years, and by listening to cities. The representation of cities at Habitat III was strong and the New Urban Agenda reflects ambitious promises, but for all of us engaged in urban policy processes and science, it may still be good to remember that not every time the mic is put in front of us is an opportunity to pitch. Sometimes it’s best just to ask questions.


From right, Fouad Khan (Luc Hoffmann Institute), Carina Hansen (WWF EHCC), David Simon and Jan Rise (Mistra Urban Futures), Sello (City of Tshwane) and Caroline (Global Utmaning)
From right, Fouad Khan (Luc Hoffmann Institute), Carina Hansen (WWF EHCC), David Simon and Jan Rise (Mistra Urban Futures), Sello (City of Tshwane) and Caroline (Global Utmaning)

Main image: © Edward Parker / WWF

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