Can the New Urban Agenda spark the local action needed?

The high-level framework to be put forward at Habitat III is a key opportunity, but much of the needed activity will have to be undertaken by local authorities.

Citizens in Kent, in the United Kingdom, have been getting used to a local programme aimed at promoting all types of transit. While next year's Habitat III conference will offer new top-down strategies on urbanization, the role of local authorities in bettering the lives of their citizens will only grow. (Gareth Fuller/PA Photos/Landov)

We are currently in the midst of an unprecedented population increase in our cities. The urban population is likely to roughly double in the next 35 years from 3.5 billion to 7 billion people.

During that period, the vast majority of the population will be living in cities and towns. Indeed, the world is already more urban than rural, with 55 percent of the total population living in urban areas, and that pattern is likely only to strengthen.

Amidst the challenges of population growth and shifting demographics, cities around the world are also grappling with climate change, rising obesity, traffic congestion and sluggish economies.

We urgently need to set priorities for dealing with the large changes these pressures will place on cities and human settlements. Next year’s Habitat III conference on cities, the every-two-decades summit being held in Quito, is a clear opportunity to lay out an ambitious new framework on sustainable development. After all, the conference’s aim is to put in place a 20-year global agenda on urbanization.

But an “agenda” will do only so much.

Local governments also need to step up to the plate. They need to make firm commitments to direct action. While a supportive regional and national government is extremely important, even without support local governments can take important action. There is much that local authorities can do on their own, and more and more such examples regularly arise.

“While one of the goals of the New Urban Agenda may be to ‘re-invigorate a commitment to sustainable urbanization’, there is very little time to think: City leaders must act.”

The New Urban Agenda, the strategy that will come out of Habitat III, will be the result of a comprehensive process with input from some of the most respected experts on urban planning, poverty reduction, human rights and global health. The final document will likely be both aspirational and inspirational, and it will remind our national and regional governments of their responsibilities to foster liveable, inclusive and sustainable cities.

We are now 40 years on from the first Habitat conference, yet we continue to face many of the same problems and challenges. In fact, in many regions the situation for the poorest urban dwellers has become worse, as population pressures have begun to take their toll.

Too often we see governments at the national level espouse the benefits of sustainable development — but when it comes down to local-level decisions, the “free market” is the single most significant force driving development. The construction of sustainable transportation, parks, public spaces, and other essential infrastructure and services has simply not kept pace with burgeoning commercial and residential development.

This problem is beyond the scope of the New Urban Agenda. The Habitat III outcome will not be a legally binding agreement but rather a set of voluntary guidelines, goals and targets. At the end of the day, then, local governments and their leadership must take responsibility for decisions made on the ground.

For young and old

This doesn’t have to be difficult. It can start with a simple philosophy called the 8 80 City.

The 8 80 City is based on the premise that if you build a city that is great for both an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old, then you will build a successful city for everyone.

The 8-year-old and the 80-year-old are each good “indicator species” for how we build our cities. We must evaluate cities by how we treat their most vulnerable citizens: the children, the older adults, the poor and those with disabilities. We must stop building cities as if everyone was 30 years old and athletic.

While traditional planning tends to look first at systems — of transport, water, green space, public space and more — the 8 80 approach starts first with people. We utilize an approach that engages citizens, professionals and a diversity of groups in decision-making from the start.

There is still a need for integrated systems planning, but we believe that is not the most effective way to start tackling a particular issue. Yet doing so involves a significant change in mindset in how we approach the development of places for people. As the author Jane Jacobs said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Walking, cycling and public transit are the only means of mobility for children and youths, for instance, as well as for many older adults. Yet the opportunity for play and relaxation should be a right for all citizens, not only those fortunate enough to live close to a park.

Unfortunately, in the last 50 years, the developed world has been planning cities based much more on the mobility of cars than on the happiness of people. This trend is continuing today as many developing countries, in particular India and China, experience a rapidly growing middle class as well as increasing car ownership. Cities that once had rich pedestrian and bicycle cultures have invested heavily in roads and highways solely for car mobility.

But simply moving cars is not a very democratic use of valuable public space, which is owned by all citizens. There is not one large city in the world that has been able to solve the issue of mobility through the use of the private vehicle; rather, it has become clear that sustainable mobility is the only solution to moving people while maintaining quality of life for all.

Globally, 270,000 pedestrians are killed by motor vehicles each year. That’s the equivalent of 740 people per day. Among them, the most susceptible are children, older adults and poor people.

Further, walking, cycling, public transit, and great parks and public spaces are not only essential ingredients for creating a healthy, vibrant and sustainable city — they are also a symbol of respect for people. The ability to walk and bike around one’s community should be an inherent right for all. Certainly individual mobility cannot be reserved for those who are old enough, adept enough, or have the money and desire to drive a car.

Local transformation

City leaders have the ability to make changes to the built environment quickly and with high impact. The transformation of Bogotá during the 1990s is a wonderful case study that shows the power of focusing on people when it comes to streets and public spaces.

In three years, an ambitious administration built TransMilenio, a state-of-the-art bus rapid transit (BRT) system. Altogether, it’s made up of more than 300 km of separated bicycle paths, designed and built around two metropolitan parks, 15 zone parks and over 200 neighbourhood parks.

The Bogotá administration also built the Alameda El Porvenir, a 17 km-long pedestrian and bicycle path that links some of the poorest areas of the city with some of the richest. In coordination with this development, the city also installed electricity, sewage and running water in some of the poorest parts of Bogota.

There are other, more recent examples of these transformations, as well. For instance, Melbourne, New York, Copenhagen, Los Angeles, Medellín, Curitiba and Suwon have all made impressive strides in changing a culture that prioritized the movement of cars to one that focuses on creating a vibrant city for people.

New York brought pedestrian life into one of the busiest roadways in the world by creating a pedestrian plaza in Times Square. Melbourne went from being the “donut city” with almost no after-work city life to a bustling, vibrant artistic district with pedestrian-oriented laneways.

Copenhagen has become one of the most cycling-friendly cities in the world, a wholesale change that followed a car invasion during the 1950s. Los Angeles, the “car city”, has one of the most ambitious open-streets programmes in North America and has invested heavily in public transportation.

Medellín and Curitiba have been at the forefront of BRT investment. Further, that was effectively coupled with more human-scale planning of public spaces and pedestrian-oriented design. Suwon created an “EcoMobility” festival, where for a whole month the entire community does not use cars.

Looking to successful case studies around the globe shows us what we need to do — and that it can be done. The solutions are neither technical nor financial; they are political. And to make it happen, we need leadership from all levels — from mayors, elected officials, public servants, the private sector, NGOs and citizens.

While one of the goals of the New Urban Agenda may be to “re-invigorate a commitment to sustainable urbanization”, there is very little time to think: City leaders must act. There are many doable projects that local authorities can initiate quickly, with the combination of a simple philosophy and the guts to act.

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Gil Penalosa

Gil (Guillermo) Penalosa is founder and chair of the board of 8 80 Cities and runs Gil Penalosa & Associates, an international consulting firm. Over the past eight years, Gil has worked in over 180 cities across six continents, advising decision-makers and communities on how to create vibrant cities and healthy neighbourhoods for everyone. Previously, Gil was commissioner of parks, sport and recreation for the City of Bogotá.

Amanda O’Rourke

Amanda O’Rourke sits on the board of directors at 8 80 Cities and is a senior adviser at Gil Penalosa & Associates. Working with 8 80 Cities since 2008, Amanda has been instrumental in the organization’s development and has worked on numerous local and international projects. She holds degrees in planning from the University of Toronto and environmental biology from Queen’s University.