The UN’s New Urban Agenda Is Official…Now What?

By Michael Mehaffy

Michael Mehaffy is Chair of the Future of Places Research Network, a new research coordination network based in Stockholm, Sweden, aimed at identifying and developing topics toward implementation of the New Urban Agenda, and with a particular focus on public space networks.

Dec 7, 2016 | Governance, Society | 0 comments

The statistics are impressive. 30,000 people participated in Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador this year, the bi-decennial conference otherwise known as the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development. Over 500 networking events, panels and other sessions took place, culminating in the plenary session in which delegates of UN member states adopted “without reservation” the outcome document, the “New Urban Agenda.”

For proponents of a more networked, more human-centered urbanism, there is much to applaud in the New Urban Agenda. There are frequent references to diversity, compactness, walkable mixed use, and access to networked resources by all. There are many aspirational references to inclusion of disadvantaged populations, with a clear implication that this networked inclusiveness is good for everyone’s bottom line.

Most notably, there is a heavy emphasis on access to safe, inclusive, accessible public space systems. It is public space that is emerging as a critical socio-economic contact system, essential to what the urban economist Jane Jacobs described as “knowledge spillovers.” It is public space that serves as a kind of central spine to connect diverse economic activities and resources (including other kinds of data networks) to allow creativity and human development to thrive.

In an age of rapid and too often chaotic urbanization, the proper provision and structuring of public space is looming as a critical issue needing prompt reform. Too much of the current urbanization is sprawling, privatized, fragmented, or otherwise dysfunctional. This deficiency places a drag on human development, and it accelerates looming catastrophes from resource depletion, ecological destruction and climate change. The stakes, research suggests, could not be higher.

My own role in these issues has been to assist in developing partnerships with UN-Habitat, Project for Public Spaces, a number of universities, and Ax:son Johnson Foundation, the NGO host of The Future of Places partnership. The work of this partnership has been to seek to clarify and strengthen the language in the New Urban Agenda on public space, and going forward, to identify pathways and actions to implementation. I described our thinking and the upcoming efforts in a plenary address at Habitat III, as follows:

The Ax:son Johnson Foundation and the Future of Places partnership congratulate the delegates on the pending adoption of the New Urban Agenda – in particular its recognition of the central role of public space, as the essential connective matrix on which sustainable cities must grow. In support of its implementation, following are the Key Messages that emerged from our four-year forum series, bringing together over 1,500 researchers, practitioners, officials and activists, coming from over 700 organizations, 275 cities and 100 countries.

  1. Open public space systems are the essential frameworks for sustainable economic, social, and ecological development and regeneration. They are the critical urban commons where diverse people from across the city may interact and create robust, equitable, resource-efficient economic and cultural growth.
  1. To function optimally, public spaces must be created, and partially co-created by the people themselves, as continuous network systems. These systems require particular geometries and scales to function well, beginning with the adaptive human scale of experience and movement, and continuing through a range of supportive scales of building, plot, block, street, neighborhood, and polycentric region.
  1. In particular, streets are, in their own right, public spaces and drivers of prosperity. This means that they must be designed not only to accommodate vehicles, but as well-functioning networks of places, with supportive private and semi-public edges.
  1. New research is demonstrating a very important connection between well-structured urban form – with safe, adequate and inclusive public space networks at its core – and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. This finding offers an important strategic link between the New Urban Agenda and the COP21 framework on climate change.
  1. Unfortunately, sprawl — which is to say, fragmented and privatized urban forms, lacking in adequate, safe, open, capacity-building public space networks — is a rampant global phenomenon today, posing an enormous barrier to implementation of the New Urban Agenda.
  1. Therefore we must recognize the urgent need to change what we might think of as the “operating systems for growth” — the economic incentives and disincentives, the laws, rules, standards, and other factors that reward and even mandate sprawl. We must be prepared to implement alternative governance and capacity-building tools and strategies, and the means to distribute and share them.
  1. Related to this, there is a critical need to “monetize externalities” to reduce rapid resource depletion and reform short-term approaches, and to shift away from a “supply-side” urban economics favoring unsustainable concentrations of wealth and displacement. Instead we must transition to a more diverse, more regenerative, more sustainable kind of urban economy, and economics.
  2. We must recognize the vital resources and treasures that are embodied in historic structures and their living evolutionary patterns, offering us a rich evidence-based resource for the challenges of an urbanizing future.

In conclusion, the Future of Places partnership now commits to establishing a new research center in collaborative support of the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, and to that end, the identification and dissemination of accessible, practical, evidence-based, shareable tools and strategies.

 

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