Penn researchers participate in Habitat III, bringing attention to urbanization

A delegation of 24 students, faculty, and staff from Penn recently attended the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, better known as Habitat III.

Taking place every 20 years, the four-day event in Quito, Ecuador, culminated with the adoption of a New Urban Agenda, setting global standards for sustainable development in cities within the U.N.’s member states. Some commitments include eradicating poverty, ensuring full respect for human rights, and promoting the creation of more quality public spaces.

Eugenie Birch, the Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research in the School of Design, and co-founder and co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research, led the Penn team, and also served as president of an innovative engagement platform designed for Habitat III, the General Assembly of Partners, which played a key role in the preparation process for the conference and its New Urban Agenda.

“Habitat III brings attention to urbanization, which is a major 21st century trend worldwide,” Birch says. “We now have national governments recognizing that their cities are assets, as opposed to former thinking that considered cities liabilities. That’s exciting because now we’re able to think about the kinds of policies needed to make those assets even stronger.”

About 36,000 people from 167 different countries attended the conference, which included formal plenary meetings for the member states, stakeholder roundtables, networking and training events, and showcased more than 100 exhibitors.

Penn had its own display focusing on the University’s urban research, and presented speakers such as Penn Law’s Wendell Pritchett, who talked about creating inclusive communities; Perry World House’s William Burke-White, who examined governances in an era of urbanization; and the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy’s Mark Alan Hughes, who discussed the role of cities and states in meeting national pledges on emissions reductions to alleviate climate change.

“I tried to emphasize that subnational governments are necessary actors, but that they will necessarily be more motivated by the benefits of adapting to emerging local impacts from climate change than by the benefits of mitigating the future global impacts of climate change,” Hughes says. “The more national governments rely on cities and states, the more we should expect that mitigation pledges fail as local governments focus on adaptation.”

Some other research topics presented by Penn doctoral and post-doctoral students included the role of philanthropy as a means for urban revitalization, contemporary heritage in historic centers, and post-disaster urban expansion.

Leading up to the conference, which took place Oct. 17-20, were several events to prepare attendees, which Penn participated in globally, nationally, and regionally. One meeting co-hosted by Penn, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, and the Mid-Atlantic office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, called “The City We Want & Need: A Mid-Atlantic Regional Convening on Habitat III,” took place in Philadelphia in May. Speakers, who included the chief U.S. negotiator, Ambassador Nancy Stetson, U.S. Department of State, stressed the importance of the New Urban Agenda, but suggested that localities adjust the way they respond based on their unique conditions. In Philadelphia, for example, decision makers should focus more on pursuing issues of economic development, housing affordability, education, and resilience.

The next step for the New Urban Agenda will entail its implementation, which Birch observed in her address at the Habitat III closing plenary:

“We will begin our journey within hours as we return to our homes, armed with Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s message that the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities,” Birch said. “We are prepared to engage immediately and thoughtfully. We will, however, temper our expectations. While ultimately extraordinarily rewarding, achieving our goals will take time and be fraught with challenges. Nonetheless, we will aim to build a world where our cities are inclusive, safe, productive, resilient, and sustainable, where urban-rural synergies are maximized and nations have mastered balanced territorial development.”

Urban Development