Germany stepping up major engagement in Habitat III preparations

Series of high-level meetings comes as the European Union is formulating its common position for negotiations around the New Urban Agenda.

Berlin is hosting a series of meeting in the run-up to Habitat III. (Spreephoto/Shutterstock)

This report is part of an ongoing series looking at the issues and actions that characterize select countries’ engagement in the Habitat III process; read more in this series here.

BERLIN — Having bowed to Quito in the U. N. selection process of a site for this year’s Habitat III conference on urbanization, Germany’s capital city is nonetheless taking a European leadership role, hosting two significant meetings within weeks on issues to be tackled at the summit in October.

“Cities as Actors,” a workshop that took place 2-4 May, focused first on how cities can translate into practice the general aims of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III. But for Berlin, a city that has received tens of thousands of Middle Eastern immigrants in recent months, a major topic was also how cities can adjust and foster social cohesion in the face of mass movements of displaced peoples.

The Berlin event followed two other workshops that have taken place under the name PrepCity — one in Buenos Aires in May 2015 and the other in Mexico City in March of this year — as part of the major commitment to Habitat III preparation by Metropolis, the World Association of Major Metropolises.

[See: Cities must be part of defining the New Urban Agenda]

Metropolis’s official contribution to Habitat III culminates 1-2 June at another Berlin event. Held in conjunction with the German Habitat Forum, some 500 attendees are expected at that meeting, which will be coordinated by Berlin’s Senate Department for Urban Development with official sponsorship by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. The goal is to contribute the results as the “Berlin recommendations” to the preparatory process for Habitat III.

(The Berlin Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment serves as the Europe regional secretariat for Metropolis. It also created the Policy Transfer Platform to make it easier for urban practitioners and journalists to access information on award-winning programs across the world.)

Cities received a significant boost on 28 April, when the European Union approved an official statement on urban governance recognizing local authorities “as policy makers benefitting from a sufficient level of autonomy in decision-making”. The bloc’s national governments, the document notes, should develop “national urban policies” that include “tools and resources” at each level of governance.

But the E. U. also went further, prominently recognizing grass-roots governance. The official statement notes that local authorities are “catalysts of change in cooperation with civil society organizations” and urged that “better include the urban dimension” in E. U. policies.

[See: Debating Europe’s urban future at the continent’s crossroads]

Also, on 30 May, an “informal meeting” of E. U. ministers responsible for urban affairs will take place in the Netherlands to adopt what is known as the Pact of Amsterdam. This document specifically acknowledges that urban areas, including small and medium-sized ones, “are engines of the economy which boost growth, create jobs for their citizens and enhance the competitiveness of Europe.” While cities face such challenges as concentrations of “segregation, unemployment and poverty,” it notes, they are home base to 77 percent of all jobs in the E. U. nations.

“There has been a years-long struggle to raise urban awareness and focus among E. U. institutions, but E. U. officials are now showing more readiness to work with representatives of local governments.”

Related to all of this in a critical but unofficial way is the European Union’s position vis-à-vis cities. Appearing at the May workshop, Jan Olbrycht, president of the Urban Intergroup of the European Parliament, noted that there has been a years-long struggle to raise urban awareness and focus among E. U. institutions. But he indicated that E. U. officials are now showing more readiness to work with representatives of local governments, including the 30-year old, 130-member Eurocities organization

[See: What characterizes the urbanism of the Global North?]

In a follow-up interview with Citiscope, Olbrycht said that while cities “are not actors like prime ministers”, and thus are not legally entitled to “sit at the same table” with member states, they can still fight for real attention. Indeed, Olbrycht said, they have a chance to have their ideas significantly recognized with a touch of diplomacy — “if they just say national governments are more important than you.”

Symbol of Tempelhof

Inevitably, a major theme of the PrepCity conference was how the issues of developing world cities and regions are suddenly becoming concerns that the E. U. must deal with, both collectively and as individual members. Prime evidence cited: the massive, startling flow of Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian refugees into Europe. Berlin alone has received 88,000, flowing in from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

[See: Habitat III can help migration drive city development]

Conference attendees were taken for a briefing to the edge the decommissioned Tempelhof Airfield. There, up to 2,300 asylum seekers are being temporarily housed, sleeping 12 to a cubicle inside two of the vast airport hangars constructed during the Hitler era. From its start as one of the world’s earliest international air terminals — then an icon of Nazi pride and World War II combat — Tempelhof became a symbol of freedom as an armada of U. S. and British planes flew food and supplies to an imperilled West Berlin during the 1948-49 Russian blockade.

Today’s symbolism is dramatically different. On the one hand, refugees are snared in registration limbo as they wait for approval of permanent residency. Yet across Tempelhof’s vast acres of unused airport runways and the green fields between them, cyclists and runners exercise in safety. The city government proposes using the site for housing, but protesters have successfully campaigned to keep the site as public parkland.

The Habitat III conferees, meanwhile, heard from Cordelia Polinna of the Berlin Technical Institute that the city’s population is growing at double the pace that city planners had been anticipating. The next quarter-million people are now expected by 2019 rather than by 2030, she said.

[See: Redefining urban citizenship when migrants and refugees are the norm]

Global capital also is flowing into Berlin. Up to 4 million square feet of new office space are needed. Rents are rising; tenants of social housing are protesting. There’s social deprivation in some migrant communities, even at a time of growth in the car-oriented outer areas of the city. What kind of a New Urban Agenda does all that call for? “There’s no easy answer,” Polinna concluded.

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