In June 2016, the United Nations will convene the Habitat III conference, which will set the agenda for international cooperation on urban issues for the next 20 years.
And last week, a record 22,000 people descended upon Medellín to attend UN-Habitat's seventh World Urban Forum, one of the rare few occasions on which the general public has access to the thoughts and discussions of those setting the Habitat III agenda.
As our correspondent Laura Cesafsky reports, the various presentations made in Medellín suggest that there is a surprisingly strong consensus as to what that agenda should be, even if the purported social benefits of that agenda are sometimes more wishful thinking than scientifically proven. With Joan Clos, former mayor of Barcelona, at the helm of UN-Habitat, it is not surprising that the consensus has settled around what we might call the Barcelona model of the compact city: "dense, mixed-use development oriented around transit, public space, and other public goods". All things proudly on display in Medellín.
But as Cesafsky shows, this convergence of opinions may be misplaced, overlooking the real lessons the city has to offer for social development. "Medellín’s innovations include a focus on pedagogy, on public participation in the planning process, and on civic culture, but the spotlight has shone overwhelmingly on its iconic and photo-friendly built-environment transformations: the high-design libraries and schools … and the sleek metro system, cable cars and escalators … " Are we who contribute to this agenda only seeing the aspects we are primed to see?
An agenda written half-asleep
This highlights a larger problem with the Habitat III agenda-setting process, namely that it is already taking place behind closed doors, in the offices of UN-Habitat and national ministries of urban development around the world, without any wider public scrutiny to wake these bureaucracies from their complacency. This is ironic given the emphasis UN-Habitat usually places on community participation in urban policymaking.
There is also little scrutiny coming from the mainstream media. Certainly the cities sections they have launched in recent years (and the deep-pocketed philanthropists that fund them) have proven more content to publish clickbait, listicles and hagiographies than treat urban policymaking processes such as the Habitat III Agenda as a potent subject for serious critical journalism alongside the Millennium Development Goals or the climate change agenda.
We are in danger of sleepwalking into a Habitat III Agenda that has learnt nothing from the shortcomings of the past 20 years of urban development efforts, such as the failures to stem widening inequalities, to roll out infrastructure and basic services at the same pace as urbanisation, or to harness market forces for the benefit of the poor. An agenda that simply proposes more of the same technocratic solutions and does nothing to address the conflicting interests that tear these solutions apart. An agenda that treats urban development as a tick-a-box procedure, and yet which turns a blind eye to the trampling of basic human rights. For this is the agenda currently being produced under our watch.
A diversity of visions is required
We would like to offer our readers (and our writers) some alternatives to this outcome. We believe the consensus that emerges in conferences such as the World Urban Forum may in fact be illusory, an artefact of the optimism and goodwill that naturally surround such events. In reality, we do not necessarily all want the same things for all our cities. In two further articles published today, we argue for a Habitat III Agenda which recognises this reality. We argue for an agenda that understands that conflicts routinely arise in urban development processes, and that leaving these conflicts unresolved leaves them free to frustrate our progress on these matters. We argue for an agenda that promotes reliable mechanisms to resolve these conflicts equitably and in equally routine fashion, for the betterment of development outcomes for all urban constituencies.
But perhaps most importantly, we invite national ministries and their staff to rise above the tick-a-box agenda they are being encouraged to endorse in 2016, and to develop their own visions of their cities appropriate to their own local challenges. Because only by allowing a great diversity of visions to flourish can a truly new urban agenda emerge.
Accordingly, we hereby also invite all our readers and existing writers to issue forth their own visions of the new urban agenda we require, and the chance to scrutinise the agenda that is currently being drafted, in submissions that we will publish on these pages. We look forward to you joining us on the road to Habitat III.