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Old centre of Mumbai (2013). Photo by R. Rocco

We have a New Urban Agenda: What Now?

Originally published at Bnieuws 09 2016 – 2017 , Published on Jul 21, 2017

Text prepared by Roberto Rocco, senior assistant professor of Spatial Planning and Strategy, department of Urbanism, r.c.rocco@tudelft.nl

Between 7 and 9 June, the department of Urbanism organised an Urban Thinker Campus (UTC) to discuss how to integrate the New Urban Agenda into higher education.

But what is a UTC and what is the New Urban Agenda, and why should it be integrated into higher education? Why should we care about it at all?

Let’s start with Habitat III, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development that took place in the historic city of Quito, the capital of Ecuador, in October 2016.

Contrary to what you might think, this was not a boring gathering of arrogant technocrats discussing cities from their desks. It was a colourful, lively and oftentimes overwhelming festival of all kinds of people and institutions working to make cities liveable, fairer and sustainable all over the world.  Numbers vary, but as many as 45.000 people attended the conference based in a park in Quito, with universities and conference centres around the city overflowing with parallel and alternative events.

The two previous Habitat conferences had a great influence on the way we think about cities. It is important that we understand how, so we can foresee the influence of Habitat III.

Habitat I took place in Vancouver in 1976, four years after the momentous 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. During the 1960s and 1970s, the world had witnessed unprecedented urban growth and governments started to notice the negative effects of rapid and unplanned urbanization. In Vancouver, governments recognized the impact of rapid urbanisation on the well-being of people, but the emphasis was largely on the provision of housing and services, often based on very technical discourses which put national governments at centre stage, and left local authorities out of the equation.

This happened well before the report that has shaped our understanding of the relationship between human settlements and the environment was released: ‘Our Common Future’, also known as the Brundtland Report, was published in 1987, and launched the idea that we must seek “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

If you are young, it might be difficult to imagine that before that report, talking about sustainability was seen as something of an oddity. The emphasis was on growth, production and technological progress. This was the world before the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), a world locked in the Cold War stalemate, with two main competing and mutually exclusive narratives about the path to take and the danger of a nuclear holocaust looming in the horizon. Those who warned about the dangers of unsustainable urbanisation to the environment were not taken seriously enough.

This scenario had changed substantially when Habitat II took place in Istanbul in 1996, also four years after another crucial gathering concerned with the environment, the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit of 1992.  Habitat II was popularly known as the ‘City Summit’ and recognised that cities are engines of growth, but sustainable urbanisation should be a priority. It also called for a bigger role for local governments and citizen participation, giving rise to a wave of devolution and participatory policies. Cities (and citizens) finally started to take centre stage.

20 years down the road, and a lot has changed. The effects of climate change are now undeniable and the world is more interconnected than ever. Humanity has come to the realisation that the resources of our planet are indeed finite, and many governments have taken serious steps towards renewable energy sources, while humanity has become, for the first time in history, predominantly urban.  Habitat III in Quito and its outcome document, the New Urban Agenda, take all this in stock and reinforce the idea that sustainable urbanisation is an engine for development. But urban sustainability here is much more holistic, embracing its three essential elements: environmental, social and economic. The NUA seeks to create a mutually reinforcing relationship between sustainable urbanization and development, but it pays much more attention to the social and political aspects that underscore sustainability. The idea is that by addressing Sustainable Development Goal 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable), we can address most of the other SDGs agreed by the United Nations in 2015. If we wish to ensure “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, then we must find the political, economic and technological tools that will allow that to happen.

The NUA also introduces three ‘enablers’ for sustainable cities: local fiscal systems, urban planning, and basic services and infrastructure. In doing so, the NUA explicitly recognises the role of spatial planning and urban design as crucial tools that can steer and coordinate the efforts of a large number of stakeholders with conflicting interests towards agreed goals.

Because the NUA is a binding document agreed and signed by all UN member states, it does have the potential to influence policy-making. According to some, it offers the first comprehensive approach to sustainable urban development for many countries.

The NUA has important shortcomings. Among other issues, it fails to spell out the ‘right to the city’ in its text, although the concept is very much implicit in several passages. Its main deficiency, however, is a lack of provisions to tackle the causes of some urban issues: financialisation of housing provision, extreme income disparities, red tapping that hinders opportunities for deprived households, etc. Many would argue that these issues are beyond what the New Urban Agenda can do. Despite the many shortcomings, the NUA is a great step forward in the right direction. I don’t agree with critics who say the New Urban Agenda is too generic, however.  It needs to be generic, if it intends to speak to almost two hundred countries with very different urbanisation processes. I also don’t agree with the opinion that it is too top down, simply because this is not true. The NUA is the result of a long and arduous process of negotiation and input collection, from a myriad of stakeholders from all over the world. Obviously, some countries were more successful in incorporating citizens in the discussion than others, but independent NGOs were active everywhere, collecting input from citizens, and Urban Thinkers Campuses like the one we organised at TU Delft were one of their tools.

UTCs are UN-Habitat sponsored open platforms for critical exchange between urban researchers, professionals, and decision-makers who want to have a real influence on urban development. They are also a platform for consensus-making among partners engaged in specific actions to make cities more sustainable, inclusive and fair. In the run-up to the New Urban Agenda, Urban Thinkers Campuses were instrumental to collect input from grassroots. Now, Urban Thinkers Campuses are being organised again to discuss what became the main issue arising after the enactment of the NUA: IMPLEMENTATION.

In the current round, 77 UTCs are being organised around the world, but the one organised at TU Delft is the only one exclusively dedicated to a key element in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda: EDUCATION.

This is because the university is fully aware of its key role in preparing the young professionals and critical citizens who will implement the NUA in the next 20 years, and has fully embraced Sustainable Development Goals and specially SDG 11 in its own vision. One important step in this direction was the creation of Delft Global Initiative, the university’s “portal, platform and booster for Science and Technology for Global Development”.

Bouwkunde is not lagging behind, as demonstrated by the many studios and research groups dealing with issues of global urban development, and more recently, with the three As initiative promoted by our dean, Peter Russell. The ‘A is for Africa!’ initiative, for example, is seeking for active partnerships with African institutions to help train young African professionals and aims to bring BK closer to Africa. The is ‘A is for Agility’ initiative has also an important role to play in helping educate young generations of designers and planners from the Global South

BK’s UTC was titled “Education for the City We Need” and gathered almost 40 professionals, educators and policy-makers to discuss how to best integrate the NUA in higher education, during three days of intense debate and exchange. The outcome of the UTC will be made available in its website: https://utctudelft.org and in a publication to be launched in the second semester of 2017.

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Mumbai waterfront (2013). Photo by R. Rocco.

We have a New Urban Agenda, and here is what we can do

Text originally published at  Bnieuws 02 2017-2018 , Published on Oct 20, 2017 Beyond the Commonplace

Read the original publication HERE.

Text by Roberto Rocco, Assistant Professor of Spatial Planning and Strategy, Urbanism. r.c.rocco@tudelft.nl

This article is a follow up to the article published on B-Nieuws # 9, 2017, titled ‘We have a New Urban Agenda: What Now?’. In that first article, I explained what the New Urban Agenda is and why it is important to discuss it, as well as why we organised a UN-Habitat-sponsored Urban Thinkers Campus at TU Delft. In the present article, I move forward to the preliminary conclusions of the UTC. A modified version of the present text was published at the New Urban Campaign Newsletter ‘On the move’.

Maybe one of the main conclusions derived from the Urban Thinkers Campus organised at BK is that Spatial Planning and Design education around the world needs to undergo a revolution if we wish to prepare critical minds and skilled professionals who will be able to steer the implementation of the New Urban Agenda in the next 20 years.

The way in which planning and design are generally taught does not cater for the need to create sustainable, fair and inclusive cities. Many planning and design schools follow an old paradigm of architectural education that privileges individual genius and design creativity and do not prepare students to understand the implications of social, economic and environmental sustainability, spatial justice and the right to the city. Most importantly, the relationship between those concepts and the built environment is not well understood. This poses the question: what can spatial planning and design schools actually DO in order to help deliver the city we need?

One of the main challenges for planning and design schools is to offer education that is transdisciplinary. This is because cities are complex systems that must be understood from a multitude of complementary angles.

The lack of trans-disciplinarity in urban planning and design education is both a reflection of and results in sectoral urban challenges being fenced off in departments and administrations who barely communicate with each other. Isolated sectoral approaches fail to contemplate both the unintended consequences and the full strategic value of actions taken.

The reality of urban management in most places is fragmented, unimaginative and excessively technocratic, if not squarely inefficient and plagued by corruption. Well, we need to change that, and the best way to do it is through education and capacity building.

This is why we decided to organize an UTC focused on education for the New Urban Agenda at TU Delft. How do we teach the New Urban Agenda? And what do we need to teach/ learn in order to implement its core ideas?  During 3 days in June, academics, members of the public sector, private sector and civic society, as well as students and members of the public got together at TU Delft in The Netherlands to debate precisely those questions.

Many people at TU Delft are convinced that universities have a very important role to play in supporting sustainable urban development around the world, and we have been reforming our education in order to respond to the challenges of urbanization today.

Habitat III in Quito and its outcome document, the New Urban Agenda, reinforce the idea that sustainable urbanisation is an engine for development. But urban sustainability here is holistic, embracing its three constituent elements: the environment, economy and society. The NUA seeks to create a mutually reinforcing relationship between sustainable urbanization and development, but it pays much more attention to the social and political aspects that underscore sustainability.

The idea is that by addressing Sustainable Development Goal 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable), we can address most of the other SDGs agreed by the United Nations in 2015. If we wish to ensure “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, as the Brundtland Report of 1987 put it, then we must be able to build socially sustainable, healthy, fair and inclusive cities. And in order to do that, we must find the political, economic and technological tools that will support sustainable urban development.

The NUA introduces three ‘enablers’ for sustainable cities: local fiscal systems, urban planning, and basic services and infrastructure. In doing so, the NUA explicitly recognizes the role of spatial planning and urban design as crucial tools that can steer and coordinate the efforts of a large number of stakeholders with diverging interests towards agreed goals.

In this context, it is easy to see that most curriculums in universities around the world must adjust to the evolution seen in the New Urban Agenda, that is, that we must pay more attention to the social, economic and political aspects that underpin sustainability and resilience.

It is crucial that planning and design schools go beyond their typical excessive faith in technocratic solutions and grandiloquent design in order to understand social sustainability as a central issue in sustainable urban development. Understanding governance, urban management and stakeholder involvement are essential issues for any plan or project to succeed.

But what is social sustainability in urban development? It has several faces, but it concerns mainly the social and political aspects of urbanization processes. In this sense, social sustainability is a “reality check” for plans and projects.  Are these plans and projects supported by the right stakeholders? Do they take into account the real economic and technological capacity of implementation existing in a given society? Who wins and, most importantly, who loses? Do they promote spatial justice and the creation of public goods? Are the formal institutions of that particular society prepared to enforce the rule of law that will guarantee projects and strategies will be carried out effectively? What about informal institutions (to use a concept outlined by the ever so great Elinor Ostrom)? While things like corruption, nepotism and clientelism are unacceptable, we can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend they don’t exist. Instead, we must find ways to strategically deal with them in order to uproot them. Social sustainability is a matter of democracy-building, as much as economic progress.

How to prepare students to face not only the technical challenges of today’s cities, but to understand urban planning and design as vehicles for the articulation of different groups with conflicting interests? How to prepare urban planning and design students to be the articulators, synthesizers, and conjoiners of different kinds of knowledge necessary to steer sound urban development? How to explain to students their role in creating public goods for all?

At TU Delft, we apply the following model to Urbanism education.

In the Dutch tradition, Urbanism combines the physical sciences (notably engineering, environmental technology and information technology), the social sciences (notably sociology, political sciences, urban geography, management and aspects of psychology) and last but certainly not least, DESIGN. Design is the great tool that allows us (planners, designers, stakeholders, citizens) to visualize and project desirable futures. But we take a broad view on design: we design processes, where projects (buildings and infrastructures) play of course a central role.

Each of those disciplines has its own worldview and asks different questions. To answer those different questions, different methodologies are needed. So, in a transdisciplinary environment, we must find ways to articulate different kinds of knowledge that will allow us to tackle urban complexity effectively.

To those disciplines, we have added one crucial dimension that helps us decide on our way forward: ETHICS. Bouwkunde is entirely committed to including the ethical dimension in our education, with workshops and discussions with specialists and committed professionals.

The UTC we organized gave us the opportunity to expand the discussion and include a wide range of committed professionals and other stakeholders who can help us in the challenges ahead. Interdisciplinary studies and stakeholder involvement sound like great ideas, but they are difficult to achieve.

In light of the discussion with new and old partners, the results of this UTC are a set of recommendations about education for the city we need and concern higher education institutions, rather than governments:

  • Universities and other higher education institutions must actively seek to improve the relationship between local governments, research and education. Local governments know what are the pressing questions being asked. Universities are equipped to enlighten local governments towards new questions and new solutions.
  • The engagement of higher education institutions in real urban management challenges must be constant and embedded in local governance.
  • Universities and other higher education institutions must actively seek transdisciplinarity and ways to join up different actions, projects and stakeholders into coherent strategies for urban development, enabling students, teachers and decision-makers to deal with complex fields of knowledge.
  • Universities must work on trans-sectional education that contemplates urban development from alternative perspectives, such as gender equality, minority rights, participation and democracy building, citizenship formation and the right to the city (including the right to public goods and the rights to individual goods that allow for the creation of socially stable and sustainable cities, such as shelter, education and health).
  • Universities must work on and enable students to understand how urban systems are embedded in natural systems and how cities can incorporate, rather than fight those natural systems (e.g. actions that harmonize urban development, water management and energy efficiency)
  • Universities must actively seek to “de-colonize” urban studies and urban development, pursuing knowledge-building and methodologies that stem from or incorporate local knowledge vigorously. Universities must seek to create alternative forms of dialogue between North and South, as well invigorate South-South knowledge transfer. At the very least, universities must actively work to prepare students to work in unfamiliar contexts, where they need to converse with local knowledge and work towards in depth understanding of local contexts.
  • While local knowledge must be a priority, universities should not overlook the importance of knowledge transfer. Here, comparative studies are important to check fitness of transferability, reveal the differences in formal (governance) and informal institutions that might impact outcomes of projects and policies in different contexts.

While some of these items are difficult to implement, I must say many of these things are already taking place in our education, as witnessed by the 3 As initiative, which speak directly to some of those concerns. Platforms like the Delft Global Initiative and Veldacademie, studios like Global Housing (architecture) and Complex Cities and Delta Interventions (Urbanism), among many other initiatives, help us direct our efforts. But of course, much still needs to be done for us to be able to implement the new Urban Agenda and achieve the city we need.

 

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