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Wrap-Up Report from Habitat III from Michael Mehaffy

Thursday, October 27, 2016  
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The New Urban Agenda is official – adopted by 167 countries, great stuff about walkable mixed use, public space networks and multi-modal transportation. It is also long on aspiration but short on implementation. That’s where we need to come in.

Joan Clos, the Secretary-General of Habitat III, noted in a letter to speakers that

“...the New Urban Agenda was adopted without any reservations, which shows a unique consensus for a United Nations document in the past years. The New Urban Agenda is an inclusive, action-oriented, and concise document intended to guide the next twenty years of sustainable urban development and transformative urban development worldwide. In that urbanization cuts across a myriad of other issues, the adoption of the New Urban Agenda is a resonating commitment of governments, United Nations, urban actors, and all Habitat III Citizens to act on shaping cities that serve the well-being of everyone.”

The CNU was not a very visible presence here, but our work over the years (within CNU and the larger network of allies) has certainly affected the “new urban” agenda by any other name. Maybe, in fact, it’s better tactics at this stage to let some others think it was their idea. “Big tent” and all that. But our voices are still needed, in one form or another, to push things farther.

More broadly, I think we’re moving importantly into an open-source age (an “Age of Agile” as I have also called it) and it would be good for New Urbanists (within the larger network) to embrace this mode of collaboration more visibly, even as they keep their individual and proprietary (“small-tent”) efforts. There is a place for both, surely...

I do think however that one of the detrimental perceptions that we carry into other “tents” – justified or not – is the sense that we are too insulated, too focused on our own brand or brands... even though, as we all know, we are far more open and collaborative than any other group of architects, certainly, that I know. But perceptions matter, and regardless of the degree of truth (and we can acknowledge a LITTLE, surely) I think we can be more effective with a bigger tent now.

In that spirit, we did have a very small delegation representing the CNU, including Doug Kelbaugh, Chris Elisara, Joanna Alimanestianu, and myself, at the pretty big tent of the Future of Places partnership (representing UN-Habitat, Project for Public Spaces, KTH University, and Ax:on Johnson Foundation, the NGO host).

We held several events at the Future of Places booth, one of which was strictly about NU and the “New Athens Charter” (hint: look at the CNU Charter, much of what is needed is already there – as we discussed at CNU Detroit). Another event was in collaboration with Project for Public Spaces, moderated by Joanna, with a number of other interesting folks. We also networked with many different groups including the Santa Fe Institute, Columbia University, Rockefeller Foundation (our neighbor booth), Lincoln Institute (also our neighbor) and quite a few others. And of course Ax:son Johnson’s close partner UN-Habitat, and the emerging partnership on a new research center based at KTH and focused on implementation and public space within the New Urban Agenda. Next steps...

So it was a very busy and I think productive week – I for one spoke at four major sessions, co-organized two of them and moderated one, in addition to making a plenary address. There’s still a lot to digest, and I’ll try to share conclusions and implications in the next few weeks. This is just meant as a final report from the event itself, for now.

One of the outcomes decided by the four of us (Joanna, Chris, Doug and myself) was to launch an “international caucus” and invite our international allied groups to join. Joanna already represents the Council for European Urbanism as co-founder (Ax:son Johnson Foundation is its NGO host) and I can represent INTBAU as Chair of the College of Chapters. We can also hope to involve our friends at the Council for Canadian New Urbanism (CANU), Nuevo Urbanism Latinoamericano (NULA), Movement for Israeli Urbanism (MIU) and others. Perhaps it can be called “New Urban Caucus” for short. We welcome comments on this concept!

Finally, below FYI is the text of the plenary address that I gave on behalf of Ax:son Johnson Foundation and the Future of Places partnership. Note the discussion of additional issues that I think we need to take on, including economics and “monetizing the externalities” as well as “changing the “operating system for growth” (e.g. codes, laws, rules, standards, incentives, disincentives, etc.)


Thank you, honorable Chair and distinguished delegates. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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. Thank you.


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