It’s a dazzling bright afternoon as my plane flies over Quito, Ecuador. The pilot does a loop to come into land and we get a sweeping view of the Andes mountain range and the valley within which this city of 1.6 million dwellers rests, 9,350 feet above sea level.
On my taxi ride from the airport I ask the driver, in my terrible Spanish, if he knows what Habitat III is and whether it’s of any interest to him. ‘Si…’, he responds resoundingly. It’s been all over the TV apparently and—of course, it’s of interest, it means more business for him—he chuckles.
As we drive along the motorway, with every lamppost we pass bearing the Habitat III branding and slogans of welcome in every possible language, I begin to realize how silly a question that was. Quito as a city has a clear and tangible relationship with the UN, perhaps more than most. Its Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems, one of the UN-Habitat’s success stories, are everywhere and, crucially, Quito was also the first city to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site.
In the taxi, there’s a palpable sense of civic pride coming from the driver as we get closer to the city. Later in the week, I will get to see this pride played out on a grand scale. Simultaneous to the Habitat III conference, which is located around Casa de la Cultural at the center of the town, a Festival of Lights is running to the northeast in the historic town center, which has been organized with support from the city of Lyon. Quiteños have turned out in droves on the streets to promenade with their families. The festival lights look good highlighting the features of the historic buildings but what’s really great is the experience of being among the throng of people easing along the gradient of the street. Fathers lead the informal parade, often with their youngest child in arms sound asleep, (a stroller would be useless with Quito’s steep slopes), there are locals of the quarter out supplying the crowds with grilled corn and plantain, and at the rear teenagers are hanging back passing furtive glances as different families cross paths with each other. The whole scene recalls images I’m used to seeing in town centers in Southern European cultures during summer festivals: It’s a feeling of being connected at once to everyone in the bosom of the city.
The taxi driver wakes me from my daydream induced by the winding mountain road, ‘Alli es Quito…’ he’s pointing straight ahead. We’re near the valley floor when I peer upwards through the windscreen from the back seat of the car to see rising from the hill top, a series of terracotta apartment blocks, like sentinels guarding over the city, which our road will soon climb up towards.
When I arrive at the apartment, I realize that Quito is high up indeed. Higher than I’d accounted, I can feel it in my chest that the air is thinner. In fact, Quito is one of the highest cities in the world—it takes time to acclimatize. I wonder how the thousands of delegates from around the world are coping.
The Habitat III conference ran from the 17th to 20th October and explored and discussed the New Urban Agenda, a document composed of 175 paragraphs on 23 pages. It lays out a vision for using the potential of the city, in the context of accelerating urbanization, to improve the wellbeing of everyone on the planet. The program for Habitat III was huge and there are hundreds of open events split into the categories of High-Level Roundtables, Stakeholder Roundtables, Special Sessions, Dialogues, Side Events, and much more. Some of the highlights were the headlining evening Urban Talks in which the current curator of the Venice Architecture Biennale, Alejandro Aravena gave the opening keynote. In his speech, Aravena fleshed out his belief in the ideas of Dr. Joan Clos, executive director of the conference: we need to invert our notion that good cities only come about after the creation of wealth and prosperity to one where good cities lead by setting the context for economic development—this is a critical principle underpinning the New Urban Agenda.
Aravena compliments this concept with a detailed financial plan for building homes at scale through a relationship where the state and market are accompanied by a third element, the capacity of the people themselves—a dynamic which is exemplified in his half house model. Another of the Urban Talk treats was hearing Saskia Sassen, Richard Sennet, and Dr. Joan Clos in conversation, chaired by the Director of LSE Cities Richard Burdett. Sennet spoke on the importance of Open Cities, Sassen cautioned against the influence of private interests in the development of the city, and Clos stressed his point that the urban age must be planned and not left to instinctive development. A memorable moment came when, in a welcome aside to the gravity of their well-rehearsed speeches, we learn from Sennet that the late great Jane Jacobs was an accomplished Scotch drinker and could drink him under the table anytime.
Unexpectedly, more than the talk of the New Urban Agenda is the talk of the vast queues and long waiting times to get through the venue security. This has been the greatest-attended Habitat conference with over 45,000 participants and it seems that the organizers somewhat underestimated the level of public interest. Judging by my unscientific survey of the crowds it appeared that many of the participants are local Quiteños from the general public, easily outnumbering the delegates from abroad—their civic pride in evidence once more.
It’s difficult to tell how much those who attended the conference were able to understand the New Urban Agenda—or indeed how much of it will actually be achieved over the next 20 years. However, the conference has highlighted key global urban trends such as the facts that cities are expanding faster geographically than their populations, as highlighted by the Atlas of Urban Expansion, and investment into urban development is going to have to increase by a magnitude several times greater in order to meet the demand of growing populations.
Outside of Quito, this week at Habitat III might not have been the biggest news story, yet the emerging consensus around the global community’s response to the challenges highlighted above—and their prioritization of the city in tackling them—are going to have profound implications for architecture and urban development over the next generation.
A full review of Habitat III will appear in our December issue, then online as well.