IHS at HIII: urban insights from Els Keunen, planning expert

Els Keunen has been working at IHS since the beginning of 2015, as a member of the Urban Strategies and Planning specialisationteam. Before joining IHS, in Rotterdam, she worked in Mozambique and Uganda for six years, in urban upgrading projects. Safe to say she is fully connected to the global urban context and being involved in Habitat III on behalf of IHS was high on her priority list. After four days among 30.000 other urban professionals all the way in Quito, Ecuador, she came back with a lot of observations, lessons and conclusions. Such large-scale events, especially if held only once every 20 years, always promise a lot, but the question always remains whether they actually serve as a departure point for further action or they fall behind, like a distant vision of what could have been.

What are the biggest problems regarding urban development at the moment?

The rapid urbanization in a large part of the world still is a major concern, as many city governments struggle with providing services, thereby compromising the quality of life of its citizens. While approaches for improving this situation have to be context-specific, cities are interconnected globally in so many ways that actions in one city are likely to affect another; therefore stand-alone solutions are no longer viable.

What is your opinion on the NUA?

The New Urban Agenda provides a comprehensive framework for urban development in the coming twenty years. Its development has been a lengthy process, involving the consultation and participation of a broad group of experts and practitioners. It is a very ambitious document, for which a lot of resources are needed. However, as a document to be adopted by all member states of the United Nations, the final content reflected certain compromises, making it less persuasive. So even if if it has been adopted, there are no clear commitments by governments or other partners yet. 

What were your highlights at HIII?

With over 30.000 participants from all over the world, Habitat 3 provided a great opportunity to meet with urban professionals from all walks of life. As IHS, we reached out extensively to create awareness about who we are and what we do. It was also a nice moment to catch up with colleagues from previous jobs and to get to know other professionals with similar interests. Furthermore, I attended a number of interesting events, both within and outside the official Habitat 3 agenda, including the IHS organized network event on decentralized capacity development. 

What were your favourite events at Habitat III?

At the lunch event organized by Cities Alliance in their pavilion in the exhibition hall on the 18th of October, I represented IHS. The aim of the event was to disseminate the outcomes of the Cities Alliance Future Cities Africa Programme, for which IHS carried out research on urban expansion in Mozambique and developed a City Development Strategies 2.0 Toolkit that is available online. Unfortunately, the surrounding pavilions also had a lot of events - “competing” for people by turning up the volume a lot.

Also, during the year leading to Habitat 3, there was a cooperation between N-AERUS – a multidisciplinary network of researchers and experts working on urban issues in the Global South – and Cities Alliance. The cooperation resulted in a policy paper with recommendations on facilitating the link between knowledge generation and global policy making towards Habitat III, that was prepared by a group of N-AERUS members, among which myself and another IHS colleague. Insights from these policy paper were presented at the Cities Alliance booth but also during the Network Event “The New Urban Agenda in the Global South: Engaging research in policy making”, organized by the African Centre for Cities. This network event brought together researchers from the Africa Urban Research Initiative (AURI), N-AERUS and the Latin-American based REDEUS-LAC research network. Both these events were well-attended – the network event even had to close the doors for interested participants since the room had reached its maximum capacity.

How do you see the role of knowledge institutes, such as IHS?

I guess that depends on what your stake in urban development is. I think that for research and academic institutes like IHS, an obvious and expected role is of monitoring and evaluating the New Urban Agenda’s implementation. However, universities could also be partners in its implementation, collaborating with governments, the private sector and civil society in seeking innovative approaches to tackle urban problems and take advantage of its opportunities. An important role is also to continuously reflect critically on the direction that we are going and whether that makes sense.

Where do you see yourself professionally in 20 years, while preparing for Habitat IV?

I hope to still be an urban professional, with more experience worldwide. I would like to think that by that time, I will have been able to undertake a lot more research and advisory projects and have been getting more experience teaching at the Master Programme at IHS. At the same time, I hope I will have gained more long-term experience working on the ground in a developing country. The hands-on experience I gained while working in Uganda and Mozambique has been very useful for me in understanding what goes on elsewhere.

Where do you see the world in regard to urban development in 20 years, while preparing for Habitat IV?

I can only hope that in 20 years, we do not have to discuss so much about poverty, exclusion or access to basic services any more. However, the latest developments globally do not make me very optimistic with regard to the direction in which we are heading.

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