Surprising optimism

Michael Cohen, Professor of International Affairs, The New School, New York

2030 Policy Endorsement of a Sustainable Future: Implications for Urban Research

I believe that the article “2030 Policy Endorsement of a Sustainable Future: Implications for Urban Research” by Sue Parnell, Owen Crankshaw, and Michele Acuto raises many important issues and explains the linkages among them. Nonetheless, I am surprised by the optimism of the authors regarding the importance of global discussions.

I would agree with the authors that there is growing attention, if not necessarily recognition, that cities appear to be more central in discussion of global issues, as evidenced by innumerable documents and sessions of international and largely United Nations’ processes. But our New School assessments of whether UN declarations in the past have generated changed national or local behavior suggests that there are very few cases where countries and cities actually “walk the talk”.[1] This is also reflected in the relatively low number of local governments actually participating in these processes.

And the countries and the cities are right. Even if there is an alleged policy “consensus” among UN agencies, that is a far cry from demonstrating that what the UN recommends is either “coherent”, as the authors argue, or very much related to what is happening on the ground. Much of these statements, whether the Sustainable Development Goals themselves or the various drafts of the New Urban Agenda, are absolutely ahistorical and out of context, with no reference to how current crises affecting the global economy, migration from war-torn areas to Europe, or natural disasters actually affect nations and cities.[2]

The statements also do not recognize that there are significant trade-offs between economic growth, ecological sustainability, and reduction of urban poverty and intra-urban inequality. The naivete of these statements is reflected in the fact that the New Urban Agenda document does not even mention the word “market’ while it uses the word “commit” more than 50 times. This is over the top wishful thinking.

I agree with the authors that there is a danger that the concept of “urban” can “degenerate into a chaotic concept with no conceptual or practical traction”. Indeed, listening to very respected Latin American scholars and practitioners planning for “Habitat III Alternativa” in Quito in October 2016, this is very much their sentiment. The zero drafts have so much general content that they have close to zero value.

I also believe that the authors are not looking realistically at the constellation of forces with regard to international aid for urban development. As of mid-2016, neither the US, the UK, nor Canada provide much aid related to cities. The Addis Ababa conference did not provide any support for cities. The multi-lateral banks have urban lending programs and are collecting lots of data, but this is a far cry from actually providing large-scale effective urban assistance on the ground.

If Africa and some parts of Asia receive urban aid, it remains a small part of total aid. Latin America receives financial support from Germany, the World Bank, the IADB, and the Corporacion Andino de Fomento, but this aid is hardly determinant of urban trends. The OECD has produced high quality studies of urban phenomena in Chile, Colombia, and Mexico, but it does not provide the capital required to finance needed investments in infrastructure, energy, or housing.

Nor do cities appear yet on the agendas of the G20. Urban ministries remain largely powerless in most governments and have yet to make the effort or have been recognized as integral to national economic policy and planning.

What is actually happening on the ground is the growing power and activism of private developers in countries like Mexico where there are 5 million empty housing units around Mexico City, or 6 million in Brazil, or an estimated 62 million in China. These outrageous numbers suggest that governments are unable to properly regulate private investment and the result is housing, but not urban places. The case of Chile, with its widely heralded housing subsidy program for the poor, has created low quality, badly located housing units far from employment and services.[3] The only groups to benefits are the developers who are subsidized by the national government. Yet “casas sin gente” and “gente sin casas” has not made it into the New Urban Agenda.

My sense is that the rhetoric about the New Urban Agenda is in the multi-lateral stratosphere with fragile legs on the ground. The authors’ statements that Habitat III is likely to make a central place for housing and services demonstrate the “timeless” character of these efforts. If Habitat III does not focus on the central role of urban economies in national economic performance and urban environments in climate change, it is simply irrelevant. End of story.

I would go further. I believe that these documents are ethically challenged as well. By forgetting the past, they suggest that history begins now, implicitly on a level-playing field. But that is not the case at all. All countries have deep, persistent, and worsening inequalities. The notion that “rights to housing’ or even “rights to the city” will somehow help achieve social justice is wishful thinking. Indeed, social justice as a collective notion is not even mentioned in the New Urban Agenda documents. Rhetorical flourishes such as “leave no city behind” or “leave no person behind” may sound positive, yet they do not recognize structural patterns of spatial injustice or social exclusion.

The authors go to great lengths to suggest that this is a moment to fashion a new research agenda on cities. I agree, but I believe that this research must focus on how cities actually work and on what is it about urban practice that consistently generates urban exclusion? I do not want to read sentences in the New Urban Agenda that assert that sustainable development will strengthen efforts to achieve sustainable development. No, that is not a typo, but it is a message repeated over and over in the revised zero draft.

There is certainly a great need to expand urban knowledge and understanding, but this can no longer be business as usual. The multiple recommendations for a “post-Quito urban architecture” are somewhat hopeful in suggesting that there finally is some dissatisfaction with the 40-year performance of UN Habitat and that it is time to look for alternative institutional structures to monitor city performance.

But I am skeptical of new institutional forms that are easily captured by UN institutions and which, at the same time, are so-called “representative” or “participatory’ as the General Assembly of Partners has described itself. The balance between so-called representative institutional forms and those protecting technical rigor is problematic, but given the poor results thus far of the preparatory process for Habitat III, I would tend to favor technical rigor over representativeness. As the Ecuadorean architect-planner, Fernando Carrion, one of the proponents of Habitat III Alternativa has suggested, the next global urban conference should be of cities and not national governments.[4] Similarly, one wonders if a new global organization can be formed with an appropriate commitment to independence and technical rigor to allow it to do its important job.

Finally, the article contains repeated references to urban planning as a central instrument for urban improvement. I have no doubt that urban planning is very important. But urban planning has been a central instrument in generating social exclusion, so we need to redefine and redesign urban planning to be more sensitive to attacking intra-urban inequalities and social exclusion.


[1]  Global Urban Futures Project, The Habitat Commitment Project: Assessing the Past for a Better Urban Future, (New York: The New School, 2016)

[2] Michael Cohen, “BREXIT: A Wakeup Call for the New Urban Agenda”, Citiscope, online newsletter, June 1, 2016

[3]  Alfredo Rodriguez and Paula Rodriguez, Chile Entre Habitat II y Habitat III, June 2016

[4]  Fernando Carrion, “La ventriloquía de HABITAT III”, in El Pais, Blog Planeta Futuro, June 25, 2016