Habitat III is all about cities. The UN should give them a seat at the table

Habitat III will be the UN’s first urbanization conference in 20 years – and some countries are trying to prevent cities from participating. Yet from the global economy to climate change, cities offer our best hope for solutions.

Favela Morumbi, one of Sao Paulo’s biggest slums. With a population of 20 million, the city is the largest in South America. Photograph: Alexandre Meneghini/AP
Favela Morumbi, one of Sao Paulo’s biggest slums. With a population of 20 million, the city is the largest in South America. Photograph: Alexandre Meneghini/AP

UN conferences on urbanization occur just once every 20 years. The third, Habitat III, will convene in Quito, Ecuador late next year. It is a unique opportunity for the world’s nations to debate the future of their cities, as urbanization becomes the defining social phenomenon of our time.

There’s just one problem. It remains possible that the cities of the world – from small metropolises to New York and London and Tokyo – may not get a seat at the table. Even in a world that is now majority urban for the first time in history, the issues of city economies, slums and climate crises may well be discussed without a single mayor or city councilperson able to speak.

It’s up to the nation states to decide whether to allow in cities and spokespeople for civil society. A clear precedent to welcome them was set at the last Habitat conference, in Istanbul in 1996; the General Assembly’s resolution authorizing Habitat III added that the Quito conference should exceed that level of public participation. But negotiating the details is complicated, and at a recent UN session in Nairobi, some nation-state delegations blocked agreement on a similar open-door policy for Quito. Now the issue will have to be shoehorned into an already crowded agenda of the General Assembly meeting in New York this fall.

It’s not just Habitat III where this is happening. Roughly three-quarters of all carbon emissions are generated in cities, or for the benefit of urban dwellers – but cities were effectively excluded from the global climate negotiations in Lima last year. They fear the same may happen at the next, potentially decisive round of negotiations in Paris this December. In preparatory documents for the conference, cities weren’t even mentioned.

Yet while they’re the prime polluters, cities are also on the forefront of climate solutions – and not just by setting goals. Some are cutting their carbon emissions already. A recent UN-Habitat study shows that at least 19 cities – among them Berlin, Cape Town, Copenhagen, Mexico City, New York and Toronto – can prove they’ve reduced their annual CO2 emissions.

Some nation-state leaders do recognize the importance of cities in the battle for a safer environment. US Secretary of State John Kerry, expressing concern that the Paris negotiations would set unambitious goals, recently told the Washington Post that it’s time to bring the weight of global civil society to bear, starting with cities and mayors. And in a dramatic broadside issued 30 June, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced they would co-host the Climate Summit for Local Leaders in Paris on 4 December, timed to coincide with the climate negotiations there.

Tiny rural nations such as Burundi have an equal vote in the UN General Assembly. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
Tiny rural nations such as Burundi have an equal vote in the UN General Assembly. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

Bloomberg, who is the UN special envoy for cities and climate change, was also a key actor in last year’s announcement of a Compact of Mayors representing key global associations of cities. Among them are the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, representing metropolises such as Tokyo, New York, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires and Jakarta, and ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, which has roughly 1,000 city members worldwide. The effort is supported by United Cities and Local Governments, the major worldwide network of cities.

With all this organized experience, it’s not always clear why nation-states are so reluctant to welcome cities into their official sessions. Some national delegations may simply consider local and regional governments inferior. Politics can play a role as well: national leaders may be reluctant to give a stage to big-city mayors, who are sometimes their political rivals. Or it could just be indifference. In the recent debate over the UN’s sustainable development goals, it took a concerted campaign by urban strategists to get a specific goal related to urbanization.

“The more the world is urbanized, the more difficult it becomes for nations to accept this,” said Yunus Arikan, head of global advocacy for ICLEI. “If nations don’t get the point that they have to work with local and subnational governments, they’ll not just miss a huge opportunity. They’ll be on track for failure.”

The quandary is that opening the UN’s door to cities as real players depends not just on heavily urbanised states such as the US, Brazil, India and China. Tiny, rural nations such as Burundi and Tonga have equal votes in the General Assembly. That may have made sense back in 1945, when a much more rural world founded the UN. But does it make sense now that we’re close to 55% urban, and headed for 70% or higher by mid-century? From climate talks to Habitat III and a host of other pressing issues, that’s the question.

The original article has been posted on the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/aug/05/habitat-iii-is-all-about-cities-the-un-should-give-them-a-seat-at-the-table#img-3

Neal Peirce is editor-in-chief of Citiscope.org, a news service covering innovation in cities as well as the lead up to Habitat III.




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