Ahead of Habitat III, mayors must ‘bundle interests’ and speak as one

Claudio Orrego, the mayor of the Santiago metropolitan region, addresses participants at the annual Metropolis meeting, in Buenos Aires. “We have to politicize the climate change debate, make it part of people’s lives,” Orrego said. (Marc Rogers)

BUENOS AIRES — City governments must unite their efforts and demand a greater role in the preparation of a New Urban Agenda ahead of next year’s Habitat III conference on urbanization. That was the one of the central messages of the annual Metropolis meeting, which this week gathered more than 470 delegates from cities across the world in Buenos Aires to share experiences and debate ideas for sustainable urban development.

“Let us not wait until the national and international institutions have decided where they stand,” urged Berlin Mayor Michael Müller. “Let us get involved in this process ourselves. Moreover, let us do this as quickly as possible so we don’t leave it to others to decide on the future of our cities.”

Müller was one of 14 representatives of municipal governments from four continents to speak at the “Voice of the Mayors” plenary session, toward the end of the four-day conference. Panellists shared the strategic objectives of their cities, providing examples of achievements and challenges in three areas of urban development: inclusion, innovation and sustainability.

Perhaps the biggest round of applause of the day was for the acting mayor of Caracas, Helen Fernández. She spoke about a deepening “political crisis” in Venezuela’s capital due to what she claimed was a campaign by the national government to undermine local authorities.

“We urge cities of the world not to ignore this reality,” said Fernández. “We cannot have sustainability if we don’t have governance.”

Much of the discussions looked at this exact relationship, parsing through concerns around environmental sustainability and the ways in which local leaders can respond — or already are responding. For instance, the president of the regional council in Ile-de-France, in the north of France, Jean-Paul Huchon, put forward a bold objective to reduce greenhouse gases in Paris by 20 percent by 2020, mainly through reducing the flow of vehicles in the city.

Highlighting the significance of cities in the fight against climate change, Huchon — who is also president of Metropolis, an association of major world cities — noted that more people travel on just one of Paris’s 100 km express train lines than on France’s entire network of high-speed trains. But in order for initiatives aiming to increase the use of public transport to be successful, he warned, cities “have to be capable of absorbing an important increase in passengers.”

The mayor of the Santiago metropolitan region, Claudio Orrego, likewise urged delegates to think about the challenge of climate change as inherently political rather than simply a technical or management concern.

“We have to politicize the climate change debate, make it part of people’s lives,” Orrego said. “People here think climate change is a problem in Europe, not Latin America; [but] in Santiago we now have drought, and we have many episodes of critical pollution that causes deaths.”

Orrego also highlighted a key dilemma facing cities in developing countries: How to push for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining growth. This was the only real hint at the complex, and divisive, debate that is currently taking place over the different goals and responsibilities of developed versus developing countries in the fight against climate change.

Finally, the Santiago mayor called for a re-establishment of a culture of civic duty in cities, as without this, “no public policy will be sufficient,” he said. In one of the few explicit examples of active policy transferral, Orrego said his government was planning to replicate the use of a mobile app available in Buenos Aires that allows citizens to report parking violations directly and instantly by uploading a photo.

Indeed, for all of the talk about the role of local authorities, several participants reminded the panel of the importance of robust citizen participation in processes — including at the international level — that will have significant impact on city lives.

The executive mayor of Johannesburg, Mpho Parks Tau, highlighted the importance of an “active and engaged citizenry, so that citizens do not become passive participants in their destiny, but form an integral part of the direction the city is taking.”

An ‘unmistakable voice’

The concluding part of the mayoral session looked ahead to the Habitat III cities conference, where the target is a New Urban Agenda that will establish a fresh, concerted global approach to sustainable urbanization.

Daniela Chacón, the deputy mayor of Quito, which will host next year’s conference, said the Ecuadorean government is working hard to ensure the active participation of local governments in the formulation of the agenda.

“We, the local governments, are the ones who must implement the policies discussed at a national level,” he said. “If we don’t have a voice to determine how they are implemented, what the priorities are or what instruments and mechanisms can be used … we will have little to show the world in 20 years’ time in terms of the objectives we are laying out.”

However, Berlin Mayor Müller was frank about the minimal progress made so far in developing the New Urban Agenda, stating that “work on this hasn’t even started yet.” He also lamented that the United Nations has yet to define the process by which cities will have a formal role in Habitat III.

Yet in spite of what he called a “sobering situation”, Müller ended on a note of optimism.

“We should have the self-confidence to make use of the wealth of experience we acquire through our day-to-day work, and as major cities we should be ready to raise our voice,” he said. “If we all do this and manage to bundle our interests, then I’m sure that in the end there will emerge from the many voices of mayors an unmistakable voice of mayors.”

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