Commentary

Let’s not forget the legacy of inclusiveness from Habitat II

U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali addresses the Habitat II conference on 3 June 1996. "The range of participation here today," he said, "provides ample evidence that this is truly a conference of partners." (Amrik Kalsi/UNHCS/Habitat)

Recent U. N. preparatory sessions in Nairobi, looking forward to next year’s Habitat III conference on cities, ended less than ideally, with lack of agreement on the rules of procedure that will underpin the process going forward. Unresolved is the question of how local governments and other stakeholders from civil society worldwide may be able to engage with member States in the substantive outcome of the conference and its follow-up.

This raises some critical questions related to the future of urban governance. Does anyone today believe that a city can implement an urban-regeneration or slum-upgrading project without engaging the people and communities concerned? Can anyone imagine reviving or stimulating economic development without full dialogue with the business and industry sector? Does anyone think that we can implement climate change mitigation and adaptation without the full collaboration of cities and local authorities?

Some people apparently do.

My purpose is not to point fingers, as it serves no purpose and is impolite. It is rather to share a bit of history that might help shed some light on the advantages of having a truly inclusive Habitat III preparatory process and conference.

When I was asked to help with the preparations for the Habitat II conference, held in 1996 in Istanbul, the secretariat overseeing the process was fighting a steep uphill battle on several fronts. Coming on the tail of no less than four major international conferences — on the environment (1992), women (1994), social development (1995) and food security (1996) — there was considerable conference fatigue, and resources were hard to mobilize.

The Habitat II conference had to be different, original and above all inclusive in order for it to have a meaningful outcome. We were able to achieve this through several approaches that enabled stakeholders to be progressively integrated into both the preparatory process and the conference itself.

The first approach was to encourage countries to prepare national reports on the states of their respective human settlements using, among other tools, urban indicators and best practices. The latter was also the subject of a global competition, with agreed criteria and an independent jury that was to culminate with an award ceremony in plenary at the Habitat II conference. The areas of focus, criteria and methodology for selecting these best practices were adopted by member States at the second preparatory committee for Habitat II.

This approach had two consequences. The first was that the preparatory process did not focus solely on problems but also on solutions. And solutions, by default, involve non-state partners and actors.

“Does anyone today believe that a city can implement an urban-regeneration or slum-upgrading project without engaging the people and communities concerned? Some people apparently do.”

The second consequence was that most member States organized broad-based and inclusive national committees. Different agencies, sub-national governments and ministries needed to be involved in the collection and compilation of the data required for the urban indicators, and researchers and academia needed to be called upon for their validation and interpretation. Similarly broad-based participation was required to help identify and select best practices.

Thus, an inclusive process was being forged at the national level through well-focused discussion and debate. Having personally assisted several national committees for Habitat II, I can attest to the fact that very lively and stimulating discussions took place around the interpretation of urban indicators, the relative merits of various practices and their chances of being internationally recognized at the Habitat II conference.

At the same time, regional meetings took place in all major regions. These meetings were organized to include representatives of local authorities and stakeholders, and some of the regional sessions were hosted by cities.

A second approach was the adoption of rules enabling local authorities to participate in all meetings of the preparatory committee for Habitat II, albeit without the right to vote. Those rules of procedure were adopted at the first preparatory committee meeting for Habitat II, held in Geneva in April 1994.

Of that guidance, Rule 61 stated: “Representatives of local authorities, designated by accredited international associations of local authorities in consultation with national associations, invited to the Conference may participate, without the right to vote, in the deliberations of the Conference, its Main Committees and, as appropriate, any other committee or working group, on questions within the scope of their work.”

The same meeting also encouraged all member States to include representatives of local authorities and other stakeholders as members of their respective delegations. Not all countries did so. Nonetheless, the fact that some delegations did include such broadened representation in their official delegations meant that these local authorities, civil society stakeholders and others could participate in all meetings of both the preparatory process and the conference.

A third approach took place at the conference itself. While special modalities were provided in the rules of procedure allowing local authorities to participate in the deliberations with member States, this was still not the case for non-governmental organizations. One reason for this differentiated treatment was that local authorities were organized to speak with one voice, which was not the case with the diversity of interests of the non-governmental community at the time.

Nonetheless, the conference’s chair temporarily suspended the rules of procedure to create a third committee where non-governmental organizations could engage with member States and present their views and inputs to the Habitat Agenda. This was a real innovation for a major U. N. conference, which to my knowledge has not happened since.

Moving forward

Today, two decades after Habitat II, the challenges of urbanization are being compounded by globalization and climate change. The situation is more complex than we could possibly have foreseen in 1996, and it requires urgent and coordinated responses by all tiers of government and all stakeholders.

But what has also changed since Habitat II is the commitment of local authorities and stakeholders to go even further than what was done for and at Istanbul. I founded the World Urban Campaign in 2009 precisely to rally and leverage the knowledge, energies and competencies of all stakeholders to engage in dialogue and action to help make our cities and communities socially inclusive, economically vibrant and sustainable.

Today, the World Urban Campaign and its special platform created for Habitat III — the General Assembly of Partners — represent more than 100 different institutions, associations and organizations ranging from grass-roots women’s groups to local authorities, from professionals and researchers to business and industry.

Collectively, we are primed to participate effectively and responsibly in the preparatory process and to contribute meaningfully to the New Urban Agenda, the intended political outcome of the Habitat III conference. But in order to do so effectively, we should not forget the unique legacy of inclusiveness and participation created at Habitat II.

Join us!

Correction: This story has been updated to correct a mistake in a previous version regarding when the Habitat II rules of procedure were adopted.

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Nicholas You

Editor’s note: Nicholas You is arguably the world’s best-qualified individual to state the precedent and case for a role for a local government and stakeholder group in the Habitat III process. A senior policy adviser at UN-Habitat from 1994 to 2010, he was the manager of operations for the Habitat II Secretariat from 1994 through the completion of the Istanbul sessions in 1996. Before retiring from UN-Habitat, he rallied stakeholders to create the World Urban Campaign and served as its inaugural chair (2010-14). He is currently chair of the Media and Communications Constituency Group of the newly formed General Assembly of Partners, formed to promote worldwide readiness for Habitat III. He also is the director of Global Partners and Programs of the Guangzhou Institute for Urban Innovation, now the world’s leading competition for city innovations. You was also a key adviser in the creation of Citiscope, and is currently a member of its board of directors. Please see below for additional details.


Nicholas You is a veteran urban specialist and thought leader on sustainable development. He was appointed in 1994 to be the manager of operations for the second United Nations Conference for Human Settlements (Habitat II) and is acknowledged as the leading authority on the reporting of best practices for cities and public authorities. He is the founder and immediate former chairman of the UN-Habitat World Urban Campaign Steering Committee, the Assurance Group for Urban Infrastructure of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and is currently the chair of the Urban Strategy and Innovation Council for GDF-Suez. He also serves as member of the board of Citiscope, the Huairou Commission and the Joslyn Institute for Sustainable Communities, and is a fellow of the Guangzhou Institute for Urban Innovation in China and of the Centre for Liveable Cities in Singapore. He regularly advises governments, cities, technology companies and civil society organizations on urban sustainability and urban innovation. He works as a strategic planning and governance adviser to many governments and metropolitan authorities worldwide.

E-mail: nicholas.you@citistates.com