A place for the UK in supporting UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda – the role of the ESRC’s Urban Transformations network

Nicholas Simcik-Arese

On May 6th 2016 UN-Habitat, the United Nations agency for human settlements and sustainable urban development, released the Zero Draft of its “New Urban Agenda”. This cornerstone policy document, to be finalized at Habitat III, a bi-decennial summit occurring this October in Quito, Ecuador, will detail guidelines for global urban development and corresponding international aid until 2030 and beyond. The Zero Draft, to be formally updated on 27 July at the third Habitat III Preparatory Committee meeting in Surabaya, Indonesia, is the product of over two years of official regional and thematic high level meetings involving participants from across international, national, and local policy and activist groups jointly debating priorities for the city yet to come.

By 2050 nearly 70% of the world will be urbanized. And yet, in March 2011 the Department for International Development’s (DFID), the UK government’s principal international aid institution, ceased all funding for UN-Habitat. If, as the Zero Draft begins, “urbanization is not only an outcome of development, but a formidable engine to achieve development,” then what has been the UK government’s role in formulating the New Urban Agenda towards empowering a more equitable, increasingly urban world? Looking beyond 2016, how can the UK propel the implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of these benchmarks?

Long before even UN-Habitat’s founding in 1977, scholarship produced in the UK has been instrumental, indeed formative, in highlighting the importance of urban challenges and possibilities. Since the postcolonial era, this body of work has named and framed the many complex and commonplace conundrums which cities continue to confront: issues such as the city’s impact on climate change, the problems of top-down planning, ways to ameliorate self-built urbanism and slums, public housing challenges, equitable access to transport and infrastructure. It is very likely that since 1977, the global faculty at the over one hundred UK planning, geography, and development studies departments have had a greater impact on UN-Habitat’s protocols and goals than any other country, especially in proportion to national contributions to UN-Habitat’s budget.


Let’s just take one of many examples: University College London’s (UCL) Development Planning Unit (DPU) alone has repeatedly set the terms of debate and provoked confrontation with a range of challenges exacerbated by urbanity, always present at Habitat I (Vancouver, 1976), Habitat II (Istanbul, 1996), and into Quito 2016. DPUs formative role in advancing a global approach to city growth begins with its predecessor, the Architectural Association’s Department of Tropical Architecture, with director Otto Koenigsberger acting as a founder of UN-Habitat’s own predecessor, the United Nations Centre for Housing, Building, and Planning (UN CHBP, established in 1956). By 1963 Professor Koenigsberger had begun promoting “Action Planning,” one of the first detailed counter-arguments to the top-down master planning which pervaded modernist approaches to urbanism, encouraging “self help” approaches to housing that remain at the heart of UN-Habitat’s emphasis on social justice via participatory neighbourhood upgrading.

In 1973, Keith Hart, who lectured at the DPU after it found its home at UCL in 1971, introduced the term “informal sector,” a paradigm actively discussed now as much as ever in global urban policy discourse. Concurrently in 1972, DPU lecturer John F.C. Turner and Robert Fichter published Freedom to Build and in 1976 Housing by People, laying out the importance of dweller control in the production and maintenance of housing – a fundamental principle towards subsidiarity and devolution of urban governance. Together the works helped reframe “slums” as not only symbols of inequality but as sites of possibility and potential, a nuanced dialectic which planning must navigate. It is in this fertile intellectual milieu, not only scrutinising the early 20th century modernist planning of cities such as Brasília and rampant evictions of the urban poor, but also placing the seed of critique into viable alternatives, that Ducio Tunn, Professor of Building Economics at UCL, was appointed UN Deputy Secretary General in 1975 to direct preparations for the Vancouver conference on Human Settlements. This is the meeting that created UN-Habitat, with Tunn recruiting a team of DPU colleagues and ex-students to lay the institution’s groundwork. Not by chance, it occurred two years after the DPU received a major four-year grant from the British Overseas Development Administration (ODA), DFID’s progenitor.

A year after UN-Habitat’s founding, in 1978 Nigel Harris (DPU Director from 1982–89) published Economic Development, Cities, and Planning: the Case of Bombay, showing for the first time that big cities are “engines” of national development – defining the opening principle, verbatim, in the aforementioned New Urban Agenda “Zero Draft.” And in 1984–86 Caroline Moser established the Gender Policy and Planning Programme (GPPP), which led to the “Moser Framework,” currently one of the main internationally recognised approaches to mainstreaming gender equality in development practice. Her work remains a topic of lively debate in ongoing New Urban Agenda negotiations, currently playing a key role in the New Urban Agenda’s “Issue Area 1” on “Social Cohesion and Equity – Liveable Cities.”

And yet, five years since direct UK multilateral funding for UN-Habitat was terminated, national delegates from the UK have lost influence in defining the New Urban Agenda. Throughout Habitat I and II cycles, joining the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Netherlands Ministry of Development Cooperation, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), DFID provided a contribution that peaked at around £1 million per year. But at this first major UN-Habitat summit without formal UK government support, UK-based scholarship remains at the very cusp of urban thought in international development circles, building on its rich critical, and practical tradition in a myriad of uncharted ways.

It is in this context that Urban Transformations (UT), the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) network for highest-level urban research, is working to give UK universities and their global community a seat at the table. At this very moment much ESRC-funded research is working to refine the New Urban Agenda in accordance with the latest understanding of how cities can become more than just places and catalysts for a sustainable planet. With significant portions of this work supported through bilateral partnerships between the UK and the Brazilian, South African, and Chinese governments, UT can provide a space of partnership to consolidate efforts into a common, concerted, and mutually informed platform, at Quito and beyond.

Examples of UT network members influencing a better and more implementable New Urban Agenda abound. To list a few: Michele Acuto, Principal Investigator for the ESRC project “Urban Gateways: Can Global Cities Provide Leadership for Global Governance?,” is directly involved in Habitat III negotiations on standards for Safer Cities and Smart Cities, as well supporting the Habitat General Assembly of Partners and the Capacity Building Unit with work on the role of universities in urban diplomacy. Ramin Keivani, partner in the project “Brazil-UK Health Urban Mobility,” is on the steering committees of the World Urban Campaign (WUC) and the Global Network For Sustainable Housing (GNSH) and is planning is planning demonstrations, side events, and training workshops throughout Habitat III. Vanesa Castán Broto, Principal Investigator of the “Mapping Urban Energy Landscapes (MUEL) in the Global South” project, was one of the lead contributing authors to the landmark State of the World Cities Report that UN-Habitat will publish on the occasion of Habitat III. And Mark Pelling’s Urban Africa: Risk Knowledge (Urban ARK) project, working with David Satterthwaite from the International Institute for Environment and Development and editor of Environment and Urbanization’s latest issue, titled “From the MDGs to the SDGs and Habitat III”, counts UN-Habitat, DFID, and USAID as key partners towards tackling the New Urban Agenda’s Issue Area 5 “Urban Ecology and Environment.”

The UT network is supporting such projects’ efforts to get to Quito, organizing events for knowledge-exchange between researchers, mayors and community groups at Quito, and arranging avenues for disseminating research breakthroughs after Quito. All serve to build an actionable base for bringing a New Urban Agenda to life over the coming years. By uniting all of this deep but dispersed involvement under a single banner, held-up by public funding, socially committed research may find strength in numbers and in a shared intellectual genealogy.

Dr Nicholas Simcik Arese is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate, coordinating comparative aspects across Urban Transformations’ international portfolio, and a Research Associate at the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities. This blog is part of a series of articles and blogs themed around the New Urban Agenda, including 2030 Policy Endorsement of a Sustainable Future: Implications for Urban Research by Sue Parnell and Just Sustainabilities and the New Urban Agenda by Vanesa Castan Broto.