Posts tagged with "UN-Habitat":

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Shigeru Ban will design 20,000 shelters for a Kenyan refugee settlement

After visiting the Kalobeyei Refugee Settlement in Kenya, Pritzker Prize–winning architect Shigeru Ban has signed an agreement with UN-HABITAT to design up to 20,000 new shelters for the site’s incoming refugees. Ban has previously completed similar projects in Nepal, Turkey, Rwanda, and Italy to house displaced populations, demonstrating a skill for creating high-durability, low-cost shelters using eco-friendly building materials such as cardboard, wood, and recycled containers. The shelters need to be a replicable model that can be adapted to Kalobeyei's influx of people. The new housing has been commissioned in response to the settlement’s rapid growth in the past months—it currently houses 37,000 refugees fleeing violence and climate change in South Sudan and Somalia, and is expected to outnumber its original capacity of 45,000 within a year. This project in particular poses challenges: Kenya’s arid, hot climate gives way to powerful floods in the rainy season, existing shelters are rapidly deteriorating, building materials are scarce, and Nairobi is a three-day drive away. Yuka Terada, the Project Coordinator for UN-HABITAT, stated in a press release that the project’s approaches will be “strongly participatory and the relevant county officers, as well as the representatives from refugee and host community, will have an input in the design process.” During his visit to the settlement, Ban also emphasized his commitment to incorporating local architectural traditions into the final product. “The key thing will be to design and construct shelter where no or little technical supervision is required, and use materials that are locally available and eco-friendly. It’s important that the houses can be easily maintained by inhabitants,” he stated. The resulting design will be prototyped on 20 shelters before expansion throughout the settlement.
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Habitat III conference charts a difficult path for successful global urbanization

We are living in an urban age. According to the United Nations, the balance of people living in cities crossed the threshold of 50 percent in 2008 for the first time in the history of the planet. By 2050, it is estimated that more than three-quarters of the world’s population could reside in cities.

With such global demographic shifts taking place within cities, combined with the accelerating challenges of climate change, it would be easy to be pessimistic about the future.

The UN conference Habitat III, which took place in Quito, Ecuador, from October 17–20, was a key moment in which the global community embraced the idea of urbanization as a positive agent of change in human development. Occurring only once every 20 years, the conference collects some of the world’s most influential policy makers, politicians, press, designers, researchers, experts in sustainability, and interested onlookers on issues surrounding housing and sustainable urban development.

This year there were 45,000 participants, the greatest number ever to attend. Many of the thousands of participants appeared to be local Quiteños who had managed to register in time and had braved the long lines. The week was hectic, busy with visitors clamoring to attend panel discussions, visit exhibitions, and listen to lively discussions. The audience was filled with intrigue and anticipation, teetering on frenzy—there was so much to do and so many important conversations to absorb and participate in.

We felt that this was a landmark week—because we were in the place where the New Urban Agenda, the ambitious document that underpins the conference, was officially adopted. Paragraph five out of its twenty-three pages perhaps communicates best its bold potential: “By readdressing the way cities and human settlements are planned, designed, financed, developed, governed, and managed, the New Urban Agenda will help to end poverty and hunger in all its forms and dimensions, reduce inequalities, promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, in order to fully harness their vital contribution to sustainable development, improve human health and well-being, as well as foster resilience and protect the environment.”

The positive outlook continued into the conference and throughout there was a series of exciting conceptual revelations that shifted the discourse on the evolution of cities. It started with recent Pritzker Laureate  Alejandro Aravena’s keynote speech at the end of the first day, where he extolled his belief that the moment had come 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—an idea he borrowed directly from Dr. Joan Clos, executive director of the conference. Then there was the hugely anticipated release of the Atlas of Urban Expansion, a collaboration among New York University, UN-Habitat, and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. After years of analyzing satellite data, Professor Shlomo Angel and his team revealed conclusive proof that the footprints of cities are expanding faster than their populations.

LSE Cities and Deutsche Bank’s decade-old Urban Age program explores how the physical and social are interconnected and enter the collective conscience. The New Urban Agenda’s mantra of “urbanization as an engine of sustained and inclusive economic growth, social and cultural development, and environmental protection” with its “potential contributions to the achievement of transformative and sustainable development” seems irrefutable and was adopted by all member states.

However, just because it is written does not necessarily mean it shall be. Reality is unpredictable. Ominously, on the final day of the conference, after days of a smoothly run operation, there was a sudden power outage. The whole complex of the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, where the majority of the conference was located, was temporarily thrown into darkness. As people exited the dark lecture theaters, eyes squinted against the bright sunlight, rumors circulated that there were power surges causing explosions on the grid and that the city was without electricity, perhaps even the whole country. An hour or so of presentations, though written weeks before, were wiped from existence.

Leaders often turn to architecture to make concrete ideas that are, in reality, abstract constructions and Dr. Clos was no different in this regard when he asserted that the New Urban Agenda is contingent on “three pillars” of development: the rule of law, good design, and a sound financial plan. By the end of the conference they were being expounded almost as if they were fundamental laws of nature: “Without these three pillars in a good manner, well balanced, we don’t have good urbanization. You can have excellent project design of two pillars but if … any one of them fails, all the systems fail.” Unsurprisingly, architects across history have been among the biggest exponents of using architectural rhetoric to imbue an underlying natural order to their ideas. Though Dr. Clos is an epidemiologist by training, his image of three pillars conjures the spirit of the likes of Vitruvius, Vignola, and Le Corbusier. Though subsequent societies came to recognize these men’s “laws,” as polemical constructs, now that the New Urban Agenda has been adopted it would seem that Dr. Clos’s words have become a fixed reality for many.

Aravena has an enthusiastic belief in these laws. In fact, his practice, Elemental, provides the perfect example of the three pillars at work. In his evening Urban Talk, Aravena explained the financially sustainable building models his practice develops that allow the construction of homes at scale. He informed us that crucial to his projects, in addition to the relationship between the state and the market, a third element is utilized: the capacity of the people themselves. This dynamic, exemplified in his Incremental Housing concept, is where people expand on their homes within a preset framework when they have the means. Aravena’s model exemplifies how good design enables people who start with nothing to become property owners and even sell and reinvest.

This goes to the heart of a key idea pervading the New Urban Agenda. Bundled up in the preeminence of the city is an ideology that increasing land values will unlock wealth and prosperityfor all, in what the president of the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, George McCarthy, said is a virtuous cycle: “… when new investments made in infrastructure and services increase the size of the tax base, and increase the value of the land, it becomes the source of new own source revenues and those revenues become available to make new investments…” Essential to delivering on the New Urban Agenda is a strategy based on market economics. In this context, fears over the right to the city are understandable. With growing inequalities in urbanized and urbanizing regions, how can the prosperity of the many be guaranteed?

It is possible to have come away from the conference believing that the world’s leading thinkers on urbanization were broadly in agreement about their faith in the strategies underlying the New Urban Agenda. Except, beyond the high fences and security barriers protecting the Habitat III venues, other events were taking place that ran counter to this, such as “The Alternative Habitat,” organized by activists, community organizers, and researchers who felt left out of the official process. Invisible from any official program, the geographer David Harvey gave an energizing talk at the university on the Right to the City.

Professor Edgar Pieterse of the African Centre for Cities was one of the few speakers to plainly spell out the political economic challenge when speaking on a panel in the conference discussing the UN Green Cities partnership: “… it does require that we also talk about the political economy of vested interests… There are a set of infrastructure economies, financial actors, and financial markets that have a vested interest in the unsustainable form of the city.” Pieterse went further, explaining that “60 percent of the labor force is employed in precarious situations. So they don’t have the revenue or the income to live in these beautifully, carefully planned cities. They don’t.”

However, delve further into the implications of Clos’s pillars, and the whole conception of democratic place making could be brought into question. “First and foremost,” he argued, “urbanization should be based on the rule of law. Good urbanization is based in good urban legislation and its implementation. Good urban legislation generates urban value.”

But how might the rule of law be enforced? The foregrounding of these ideas will have fundamental impacts on the development of cities and their architectures with potentially dangerous unintended consequences. When Clos dictated that “… the natural form of spontaneous urbanization is the slum,” it seemed clear that his insistence on the rules of law is most acutely directed at developing nations and their regions of rapidly expanding informal settlements. What troubles him is that in the coming years, developing countries will provide the greatest growth. Current UN estimates show that Africa alone will account for 54 percent of global population growth by 2050, the majority of which will bein cities. These are precisely the places where the social contract is weakest, making the rule of law, regulation, and planning the most difficult and antagonistic to implement. So, if the price of establishing the New Urban Agenda is expropriating land and increasing municipal revenues by imposing new, ever-inventive forms of taxation that also target the poor, without addressing Pieterse’s pertinent point about securing jobs, then UN-Habitat might inadvertently be framing the city as the territory of a battle between elite policy makers, planners and politicians, and the urban poor.

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AN reports on UN-Habitat’s new agenda to change global urban development

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.