2015 was a crucial year for the UN, as it resulted in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. 2016 brought intense preparations for the Habitat III Conference (H III) that recently took place in Quito, 20 years after the Habitat II in Istanbul.
The New Urban Agenda (NUA) is the outcome of H III, meant to build upon the SDGs, particularly SDG #11 and on the 2030 Agenda. It brings current urban challenges, such as informal settlements, gender inequality and climate change, to the world’s attention. Last but not least, it acknowledges the driving force of cities, from an economic and social standpoint.
Insights from research and academia
The Research and Academic Partner Constituent Group (RAPCG) was a part of the General Assembly of Partners and therefore a formal stakeholder on the road to Habitat III. RAPCG brought together members from networks, academic associations, research institutions and universities from over 70 countries.
In a closing statement during the last day of the conference in Quito, RAPCG referenced a number of points from the NUA, relevant to the role of research and academia in achieving sustainable urban development. They also expressed their commitment to support the NUA’s implementation.
What do academics and researchers bring to the table, to better assist the implementation of the NUA? Definitely, shared knowledge, research methods and the possibility of co-production of knowledge, in order to accurately inform policy makers in their decision process. Another fundamental support academia and research can offer is evidence-based, practical solutions to a wide array of urban problems, as a base for the implementation of the NUA.
The RAPCG also commented on the need for capacity development initiatives, calling for the creation of mechanisms for multi-stakeholder exchange of knowledge.
Pointing out the lack of required information on how capacity development can be scaled up in a way that it meets the needs of local governments, the RAPCG highlighted the general lack of consensus on how a multi-stakeholder exchange should function.
Academics and researchers obliged themselves to continue building capacity by leveraging knowledge and resources, using innovative approaches in teaching and tapping into their extensive networks.
Overall, there is a lot in store for academia and research, should they become a more closely involved stakeholder in the implementation of the NUA. Nevertheless, in order to capitalize on all this potential, member states ought to reassess their engagement and investment into their national, i.e. local research and academic sectors and strengthen their collaboration with international networks.
While valid, these points of view remain slightly vague, as the NUA itself leaves room for further discussions about the potential courses of action. There are multiple possibilities concerning the implementation and many mechanisms to set into place, in order to ensure optimum involvement of stakeholders and use of the resources they bring along.
The RAPCG was not the only expression of academia and researchers that were involved in Habitat III.
The Quito Papers
Another initiative came from some of the celebrity figures of urbanism: Saskia Sassen, Richard Sennett and Ricky Burdett, who supported UN-Habitat Director Joan Clos by presenting their idea of what they named the Quito Papers. This new anti-doctrine doctrine is supposed to be an echo to the Charter of Athens, a document that the then-famous Le Corbusier and a team of architects wrote in the 1930s.
The Quito Papers are announced to address now the shortcomings of this Charter of Athens, shaped to be a visionary piece, inspiring the next urban utopia, but – as for the time being – not available, as they should be officially released only in December. Critical observers of the five’s presentation that happened outside the convention centre, however assumed that very little new is left to be said and hence the Quito Papers will not reveal academic surprises.
A hands-on approach from the alternative urban networks
A much more hands-on approach developed in Quito by alternative academic networking activities: An outstanding side-event brought urban research networkers from three continents together, providing a unique opportunity to build linkages for South-South and North-South cooperation.
Members of the Latin-American REDEUS, the African AURI and the European NAERUS met to reflect critically on their involvement in policy formulation and development across different disciplines.
Sharing regional experiences on knowledge co-production was enlightening and indicated new ways of engaging in academic advocacy. The dialogue focused on the approaches in which spatial, social and economic inequality are supposed to be overcome within the framework of the new urban agenda and how these would translate in meaningful policy spaces across geographies.
The academics concluded that there is still a need for interactive spaces that enable debate and knowledge transfer for reaching policy makers, planners and practitioners with past and ongoing outcomes and insights of research experiences.
All in all, the most important take-away is to keep organized, co-create and use the synergies to find and establish mechanisms for collaboration and implementation, but more than anything, to make urban spaces liveable and social.