Safe Cities in the New Urban Agenda: IDS at Habitat III

Published on 31 October 2016

Image of Roger Williamson

Roger Williamson

Visiting Fellow

It is a ‘once every 20 years’ experience to attend the flagship UN conference on housing and sustainable urban development.  Urban issues, like cities themselves, may seem a crowded space, but there is plenty which is distinctive for IDS, a relative newcomer to the field, to do.

Acclamation of a New Urban Agenda asserting that we will ‘leave no one behind’ only partly fulfils the conference posters’ claim that: ‘In Habitat III, we decide the future of cities together’. It is either naïve or hubristic to conflate approving the New Urban Agenda with ‘deciding the future of the cities’, but let us suspend disbelief for now. Readers are referred to a kinder and more analytical assessment of the Agenda by IDS’s Gordon McGranahan.

Bringing together diverse perspectives on Safe Cities

On 19 October at Habitat III, IDS hosted an exciting event on safe and inclusive cities that brought together a diverse collection of experts to share knowledge on how well-managed urbanisation can revitalise urban spaces that had either been lost to violence or suffered from a lack of access to basic services and neglect. It was the main side event on the day of the ‘Safe Cities’ theme. Not least due to the efforts of IDS, #SafeCities was the top trending theme from the conference on social media at that time.

As preparation for the event, IDS researchers worked on a  position paper with seven key messages, a connecting narrative and ‘mini-case studies’ from around the world (read the summary PDF). Kicking off the event, IDS’s Jaideep Gupte set the scene, Ricardo Gutierrez (City Manager, Guadalajara, Mexico ) illustrated how some of these key messages applied to his city. And Juma Assiago reflected briefly on 20 years of the Safer Cities Programme and some outstanding challenges.

Will the slums be left behind?

The event was designed with the full involvement of Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI). SDI’s Sekai Chiremba (Community Leader, Harare) emphasized that slum and shack dwellers are ‘everywhere’ and that the challenges of informal settlements must be addressed throughout the global South. The new short film No One Left Behind commissioned for the occasion provided a glimpse directly into the lives of those affected. As Jaideep Gupte emphasized at the later press conference where the full ten-minute version of the film was shown, slum and shack dwellers are pragmatic and make realistic proposals for improving their situation. They are aware of trade-offs, and often choose to stay in their homes rather than moving to somewhere safer. The film also confirms, as Gupte stressed, that the poor are the experts on their own situation.

A New Urban Agenda for Humanitarianism

Here as elsewhere at Habitat III, the situation of cities under siege, and the plight of displaced persons and refugees was centre stage. Those who are displaced tend to make for cities as the best chance to get a foothold on a new life. Of 65 million refugees worldwide, two thirds are in urban areas. However, as Aleppo (only the most recent case) dramatically shows, cities themselves are sites of battle. Hugo Slim (International Committee of the Red Cross) made a plea that combatants should not use explosive armaments in residential areas, where avoiding what is euphemistically called ‘collateral damage’ is impossible. One bomb can take out essential supplies for months by damaging infrastructure such as water or electricity. Lucy Earle (Department for International Development) augmented the analysis by adding a plea for consideration of situations such as Haiti (even before the recent Hurricane Matthew), where violence can occur after natural disasters if planning and action are not well synchronized.  She said: ‘Humanitarianism needs to think urban’. The longer-term perspective did provide some encouraging examples of post-conflict, cross-community development from the conflicts in Northern Ireland and former Yugoslavia delivered by Phil Williams (Belfast City Council and President).

Participatory, community approaches

WIEGO’s Sally Roever and Carmen Vildoso provided examples of city authorities in Durban and Lima taking the situation of street traders seriously. Rather than ignoring or harassing them, city authorities worked out acceptable trading arrangements by negotiation.

Sophie Hadfield-Hill’s presentation explained how on the Map My Community App has enabled children in 25 communities in Delhi to highlight problems such as broken street lights and dysfunctional toilets and drains.

Space is never just that …

Concluding the event, Caroline Moser (University of Manchester) recounted her own experience of field work in Ecuador, noting how over 20 years ago violence was already becoming an urban development issue. At that point, and later in her work with the World Bank it was hard to get urban violence considered as a development issue. She stressed that place-making is not just about space. It is a political process involving social interactions. Many actors are involved in the process. A humanitarian model that assumes one powerful external actor can enact a plan is unlikely to be successful in urban areas where embedded partnerships and participatory processes are called for. This is the strength of networks such as SDI and WIEGO. It is also necessary to engage with violent actors, such as gangs – they are part of the urban reality in which there are no quick fixes.

What does it all add up to?

Given its patchy record on delivery and relative marginalization within the UN system, I am not optimistic that UN Habitat will implement much of the New Urban Agenda. However, it is the forum which can convene many key actors who can make a difference, and there will be impulses and initiative which generate success and attract international attention. I personally would look to city level for these new signs of hope – particularly from the Latin American cities.

So, what does wellbeing (bienestar or buen vivir) mean in a Latin American city? As the conference ended we headed into Quito and found that many of the main central streets were closed to traffic giving preference to cyclists and pedestrians. Families were cycling together. Kids were zooming about on all kinds of bikes. People were strolling in the parks. A big band was playing vibrant Latin American tunes interspersed with the drive of Glenn Miller classics.

A central message of Habitat III was just that – wellbeing in the city depends on ordinary people making their city liveable and that depends on city authorities putting the necessities in place to enable this to happen. No wonder #SafeCities are trending.


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