50K delegates gather in Quito to talk poverty, climate change and cities at UN Habitat III

Delegates adopted The New Urban Agenda with goals for how cities can evolve over the next 20 years .

Evan Siddall, President & CEO of Canada Mortgage & Housing Corporation (CMHC) making a presentation at the UN Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador in October, 2016. Photo courtesy CMHC.

Evan Siddall, President & CEO of Canada Mortgage & Housing Corporation (CMHC) making a presentation at the UN Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador in October, 2016. Photo courtesy CMHC.

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, they live on two per cent of the globe’s land area, generate 70 per cent of the world’s GDP and consume over 60 per cent of the world’s energy. By 2050, the UN expects that over 70 per cent of the world’s population will be living in cities. 

This was the backdrop October 16th to 21st when about 50,000 delegates from around the world gathered in Quito, Ecuador for the UN Habitat III conference. 

The delegates came from governments, indigenous organizations, the private and not-for-profit sectors and civil society from all over the world and addressed issues such as poverty, climate change, public safety, infrastructure and housing, health and quality of life, and the economic, social and creative advantages provided by cities.

The aim of the conference, which is held every 20 years, was to chart a sustainable development vision for the world’s cities; the end result being adoption of a document called the New Urban Agenda.  

 The New Urban Agenda

The New Urban Agenda, which was adopted on October 20th by delegates from 167 nations, lays out goals for how the world’s cities can evolve and take shape over the next 20 years.

It contains a long list of commitments for a sustainable, fair and safe world for everyone. It is also attempt to reverse the 20th century planning legacy of uncontrolled urbanisation and urban poverty. 

The New Urban Agenda calls for national strategies to combat urban inequality by enhancing livability, education, food security, health and well-being and ensuring that cities are well planned, financed, developed, built andgoverned with a view to their impact on sustainability and resilience beyond the urban boundaries.

A central theme is the idea of a “right to the city”, which prioritizes the needs of residents over profit.

Canada was well represented at Habitat III.

The delegation, headed by Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, included two members of parliament and was supported by staff from Employment and Social Development Canada, Global Affairs Canada, Public Safety and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, including its President and CEO, Evan Siddall.   

In addition to federal participation, Canada’s delegation included provincial political representation from Ontario and Québec, a number of municipal Mayors and Councillors, and numerous civil society representatives includingwomen groups, Indigenous groups, academics, public safety, housing, culture, climate change and youth.

Not including the federal government presence, there were over 100 Canadian delegates.

The first UN Habitat conference was held in Vancouver in 1976 and, as might be expected given the immediacy of urban issues and affordable housing in the province, British Columbia had a particularly strong contingent.

The BC delegation included Greg Moore, the Mayor of Coquitlam and Chair of the Metro Vancouver Board of Directors, Raymond Louie, City of Vancouver Councillor, the CEO and senior staff from BC Housing, representatives from the non-profit housing sector, 15 students from the University of British Columbia and numerous other advocates. 

Canada’s National Report to UN Habitat III contains chapters with the aspirational language that the country’s urbanists have long awaited: Leaving No One Behind, Sustainable Growth, Leadership in Climate Policy, Building a Safe City for All, Job Creation for Future Prosperity, Housing and Basic Services, etc

The report has a strong emphasis on the use and access of land, protection against flooding in coastal areas, compact cities to improving health by promoting walking and cycling.

What is the federal government commitment to this issue? Perhaps some clues can be found in two workshop sessions. 

One workshop, sponsored by the federal government, was titled Beyond Bricks and Mortar: Leveraging Partnerships for a New Approach to Housing.

The workshop referenced the benefits of adequate housing including improved quality of life and broader social and economic success and recognized that the creation of suitable, affordable, and sustainable homes is an opportunity to enhance equality for citizens today and tomorrow. 

Another, sponsored by CMHC, was called Bridging the Affordability Gap: Inclusive Housing Finance. It provided a presentation on options to increase access to housing finance as a means to address the housing affordability needs of low and moderate income households and vulnerable populations. 

It included panel discussions with housing finance experts from a range of countries on the development curve. The discussion centred on existing financing mechanisms as well as alternative and innovative ways to expand the reach of housing finance to lower income households. 

The New Urban Agenda is not a binding agreement. But while its implementation may not be a legal obligation of the participating states, it forms a moral compact among governments and stakeholders to realize a new urban future.

Will the lessons from Quito and the nostrums of the New Urban Agenda be reflected in Canada’s pending national social infrastructure program, new housing strategy and other federal policy directions? 

It remains to be seen but the signs are encouraging. CMHC recently released its Affordable Rental Innovation Fund and before the end of the November, the federal government is expected to release its findings from CMHC-led consultations held in support of a national housing strategy. 

So let’s hope the federal government is serious about connecting the dots between policy and practice.  But it’s not just a federal responsibility. The role of municipal governments, urban designers, planners and civil society is crucial to moving forward with implementation of the New Urban Agenda and while it calls for national strategies to combat urban inequality,

in Canada municipalities fall under provincial jurisdiction and overall, the provinces were not well represented at Habitat III.  

Perhaps a key opportunity of the Habitat III process could be a strengthening of the role of local governments possibly, dare we hope, facilitated by a new federal Ministry of Urban Affairs. 

In October, Dennis Carr attended the UN Habitat III conference in Quito. He has 26 years’ experience creating affordable housing and social facilities in Ottawa and Vancouver.