What urban planners want from the international community

"I noted throughout my career that if you give people alternatives and then you measure the outcomes, you make better decisions," says urbanist Peter Calthorpe. (Nano-stocker/Shutterstock)

UNITED NATIONS — While the United Nations debates how it can restructure around future urbanization, planners and urbanists continue to go to work on the front lines of that process today. They are developing building codes, coming up with land-use plans and debating zoning changes — the bureaucratic but essential tasks that shape how cities develop and grow.

Their needs are at the forefront of Peter Calthorpe’s mind. The San Francisco-based urbanist is principal of Calthorpe Associates, an urban planning and design firm, and a founding member of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Calthorpe served on the eight-member panel appointed by U. N. Secretary-General António Guterres tasked with proposing reforms to UN-Habitat, the U. N.’s main agency for urbanization. The panel’s members published their report in August and discussed it this week in a special session of the U. N. General Assembly. The assembly also looked at how best to implement the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year strategy on sustainable cities adopted last year.

[See: So, what came out of this week’s high-level U. N. meeting on urbanization?]

Citiscope’s Gregory Scruggs sat down with Calthorpe at U. N. Headquarters this week. This interview has been edited.


Gregory Scruggs: How do you think the work of the United Nations, or UN-Habitat in particular, is viewed by the urbanist community?

Peter Calthorpe: Since the New Urban Agenda [was adopted], it has really taken a leadership role. That was a powerful statement — including the fact that it could get consensus. Any entity that’s capable of bringing about that kind of consensus for what is a truly radical paradigm shift — which the New Urban Agenda is — it gets a lot of attention.

Q: What is the potential impact of UN-Habitat reform for urbanists around the world?

A: If UN-Habitat gets the kind of support it needs to do normative work — developing standards, doing research, supporting best practices, enabling data collection and coordination — those will be incredible tools for cities and practitioners.

Calthorpe is based in San Francisco.

There are piecemeal efforts going on today, largely in the philanthropic world. But for there to be an entity as powerful or as recognizable as the U. N. endorsing it all — that paradigm enables communication to a much broader group.

[See: The U. N.’s urban agency is seeing record demand — even as its funding plummets]

For example, the state of California passed legislation that said in order to achieve our carbon goals, we need to think about our urban form. It’s not just a matter of solar collectors and electric vehicles. That elevated urbanism and made Californians stop and think about what could be achieved by putting in place better urban form.

The same will be true if the U. N. really stands behind the vision that’s been very well articulated by the New Urban Agenda. It’s really important that the U. N. see this as a huge opportunity to make its operations more effective and to even take a leadership role.

Q: What kind of tools do urbanists need that the U. N. can help provide?

A: There needs to be analytical tools that, number one, allow consensus-building through scenarios. I noted throughout my career that if you give people alternatives and then you measure the outcomes, you make better decisions. The need is for consensus-building tools and also analytical tools that really make clear what I call the co-benefits — meaning clusters of positive outcomes that demonstrate a strategy can have multiple benefits and therefore create coalitions among differing interest groups.

Then behind all that has to sit best practice and proof of concept. Until people actually see a good demonstration project, the analytics don’t have as much power.

Let me give you an example. Seven years ago, we were invited into China with the Energy Foundation, and the first thing we did was lay out a set of urban design principles. The first response was, “These sound good — go and test them.” We worked with seven cities to test the design principles. Through the design process and through the adoption, there were a lot of preconceived ways of doing things, workloads that are just embedded in people’s minds. For example, the superblock just somehow become sacrosanct as an urban form [in China].

Changing all that — and demonstrating that it was possible to change it — and demonstrating the outcomes were positive — took some time. But, of course, in China everything’s faster. Then adoption just happened a year ago, based on the pilots and the analysis.

[See: Urban planning — linchpin for sustainable urban development?]

We also need better data globally and data coordination. On the one hand, we’re overwhelmed with data, so much so that people can’t make sense of it — they can’t extract any real insight. On the other hand, there are many places on the planet with very little data. But we have the tools and the technologies to get pretty sophisticated data anywhere on the planet. Once that comes into being, then cities can really understand themselves more clearly, and that’s a big step.

The other key is to develop protocols so that localities can do a lot of data collection. The

problem is that every batch is in a different format, and there’s no way of putting it all together.

Q: Does the ISO standard for city data help solve that?

A: That’s going to be important. I think it’s symptomatic of the globe now. There are so few things that you can get everybody to agree on, and yet sustainable urbanism is one of the few things you can. On some level, it’s a shining light in that regard. There are design principles for good, urban environments that are universal, that are global, and it’s not hard to get everybody to see it once you get them to stop and consider.

Q: Unlike climate change, President Trump is not standing up and saying sustainable urbanism is a Chinese hoax and we need to keep sprawling.

A: What happens with urbanism is much more interesting. Because it has the capacity to solve multiple problems simultaneously, it has a unique coalition-building capacity. Because if you address social equity at the same time you’re addressing carbon emissions, at the same time you’re addressing health and at the same time that you’re addressing infrastructure costs, those mutual benefits are the foundation of pretty astounding coalitions.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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