Report from the Road: Habitat III

By Katelyn Leader, Perry World House Program Associate

Blog Post 1: 10/17/2016

The UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development that takes place every 20 years, known as Habitat III, is under way this week (Oct. 17-20) in Quito, Ecuador. Habitat III is expected to draw approximately 40,000 people to its events, and the city is abuzz. Perry World House is excited to be a part of the Penn delegation participating in the conference, led by the Penn Institute for Urban Research (PennIUR). In the PennIUR exhibition booth, situated in a hall with over a 100 other exhibitors that include city governments, nongovernmental organizations, university programs and more, Perry World House is featuring a new publication that highlights the scholarship of 45 Penn faculty members whose work aligns with our research theme, “Global Shifts: Urbanization, Migration, and Demography.” Please take a moment to explore our research digest, which includes links to all of cited research. While the official segment of the conference began on Monday, events have been  in full swing since Friday.

Many of the conversations taking place this week will focus on questions surrounding the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, an action-oriented document that will be formally adopted this week and set “global standards of achievement in sustainable urban development.” The New Urban Agenda is closely tied to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030, adopted in 2015. Specifically, SDG 11 focuses on cities, with the goal being to “Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.” This document is packed with laudable goals and can be commended for the new and robust participatory mechanisms in its creation.  However, many questions remain about the resources and political will needed to implement its vision.

As discussed in one of Habitat III’s panels on Sunday, “Accountability & Localisation of the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda in Cities: What Matters in the Monitoring of the New Urban Agenda,” an important part of Habitat III will be identifying the appropriate indicators for implementing SDG 11, and in particular, determining what the mechanisms for accountability should be. Over 65% of the Sustainable Development Goals will fall under the responsibility of local governments, making it critical to inform and empower all stakeholders that will help realize the New Urban Agenda, especially citizens. In addition to creating new programs, how do we connect and coordinate existing efforts with the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda? Resources and conversations on this topic will be taking place at:

As we enter this week, conference participants have many overarching questions about the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda. One such question, highlighted in “Global Prosperity and the Sustainable Development Goals” by participant Henrietta Moore, is whether the new frameworks of the SDGs can effectively promote sustainable practices. While the SDGs represent a “potentially radical break” from the previous Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), especially in terms of localizing the agenda, embedding citizen participation, recognizing the importance of culture, and reorienting the role of government and business toward a more socially conscious framework, the question of whether these aspects will spur enough innovation to disrupt the systems that perpetuate unsustainable practices remains. A paradigm shift from one of development to one of prosperity, encouraging less linear thinking about human and societal “progress,” may help. Moore recommends:

“While the SDGs are of immense importance ... the framework behind them still gives insufficient impetus to the need to find new ways of conceptualising what development should deliver, and consequently insufficient recognition to the realisation that we need new theories of society and of social change.”

These insights will continue to frame my reflections on Habitat III. In implementing new visions for the coming decades, to what extent do we need to disrupt existing practices, norms, and values? To what extent do we need to spur even more radical innovation in order to meet the demands of radical global shifts? And is it possible to shift from thinking of “development” as a goal to “prosperity” as our future, recognizing the diverse interpretations of what prosperity might look like for different societies. 

As Moore commented, “the SDGs offer a unique possibility for societies and governments around the globe not just to hit targets and bring human activity back into “safe operating spaces” but also to institute social innovation to shape what the new human condition of the future might be.”