Habitat III calls for sustainability for all

+ How should the private sector realise the UN’s New Urban Agenda?

Since its original Habitat I declaration, signed in 1976, the United Nations has recognised the effects of an urbanising world and the urgent need for sustainable urban development. October 2016 marks its third incarnation, Habitat III. For 40 years, these landmark documents have defined the challenges urban populations face from uncontrolled urbanisation, climate change and unequally shared economic prosperity. Since 1996’s Habitat II, the aim has been to stop the deterioration of urban settlements and enable the most vulnerable to thrive. 

In recent decades urbanisation has increased rapidly, making the problems cities face more urgent and harder to solve. Habitat III’s task-based focus is therefore timely.

Habitat III’s New Urban Agenda (NUA) is an action-orientated urban sustainability approach, and suggests a way to achieve previously unmet goals and overcome new and future challenges. The document as it stands is wordy and perhaps unwieldy, and organisations will have to respond critically where they perceive gaps in its analysis. But what is clear, is that this new declaration will require nations, international development organisations and their private sector partners to readdress the way that cities plan, finance, develop, govern and manage their operations. 

Multi-national organisations, governments, donor agencies and businesses will use this agenda to shape their programmes and policies, which will translate into private sector commissions, including planning, engineering and construction. It’s vital that private sector organisations now bring the experience and knowledge gained on large masterplanning and infrastructure projects to help cities make better long-term development decisions. 

The private sector’s strength as a neutral player lies in bringing together traditionally disparate stakeholders. They can form new partnerships between civil society groups, local and national governments, and international organisations as they identify, finance and monitor sustainable development. But private sector organisations will also need to expand their own sustainability capabilities, for example gaining experience in developing country contexts and working with decentralised finance instruments.

The NUA also seeks to revive spatial planning, an idea that has lost support in recent decades, placing a renewed emphasis on environmental management and responses to population growth and demographic change. The private sector will also have to evolve a response to the NUA’s demand that future development actions meet the needs of equality. From now on, ‘sustainable’ must mean sustainable for all.

Making urban development sustainable also means equipping cities to deal with numerous systemic and local risks, from infrastructure deficits to unforeseen crises, from climate change to pandemics. Arup has developed the City Resilience Index (CRI), with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, to make establishing resilience more tangible and practical for cities and organisations across the world. It is based on three years of rigorous research, drawn from 30 diverse cities, and has widely created a common language and platform for the discourse around resilience.

The time for action has arrived. For private sector organisations Habitat III’s New Urban Agenda marks the moment to evolve, enhance and deepen their engagement with the sustainable urban development of cities.