Toward a New Urban Agenda

Delegates entering a Habitat III conference venue in Quito, Ecuador.

“In general, the urban community has become lost in strategic planning, masterplanning, zoning and landscaping … All these have their own purposes, of course — but they don’t address the principal question, which is the relationship in a city between public space and buildable space. This is the art and science of building cities — and until we recover this basic knowledge, we will continue to make huge mistakes.”
Joan Clos, Secretary-General, Habitat III

As I described briefly in the introduction, in October 2016 the United Nations held its third Habitat conference, Habitat III (otherwise known as the “United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development”). Begun in 1976, and focusing initially on rural development issues, the conference ran again in 1996 (“Habitat II”) with a focus on sustainable development, and again in 2016 (“Habitat III”), with a focus on rapid urbanization, environmental deterioration, and the challenge of providing quality of life for urban residents.

In a sense, Habitat III asks challenging questions about the role of professionals (especially environmental designers) in meeting human challenges and promoting quality of life. How can they do so by using the evidence of what has succeeded and what has not? How can the work of the sciences inform this task, and provide a more effective response? How should governments support, empower and, if necessary, compel the work that is needed to ensure human well-being in the future?

This comes at a time when the world is urbanizing at a rate never before seen in history. Indeed, at current rates, the area of new urbanization created over the next five decades may exceed the area created through all of human history to the present.

This is a staggering fact, not least because of the disturbingly low quality of much of the present urbanization. This urbanization falls into two main categories. On the one hand, formerly rural immigrants are populating new “informal settlements” with poor sanitation, limited access to urban opportunity, criminal predation, and other serious environmental deficiencies. On the other hand, new “market-rate” development is often sprawling, fragmented, automobile-dependent, and extremely resource-inefficient. As my own research has shown, the implications for greenhouse gas emissions as well as other impacts on critical resources are nothing short of catastrophic, for the well-being of the species in future generations (if not sooner).

This urbanization is not only wasteful. The evidence suggests that it is deficient in the very qualities that urbanism offers to its residents, namely, opportunities for contact, creative exchange, and human development. These opportunities are particularly important for women and disadvantaged populations. Instead of promoting greater quality of life for larger numbers of people with lower impacts on resources, it seems that modern cities have somehow managed to give us the worst of both worlds: limited and inequitable human development, with a catastrophic cost for the environmental resources on which human well-being and even survival ultimately depend.

This is the urgent backdrop of the “New Urban Agenda.” It seems that something has gone terribly wrong with our “modern” structuring of cities and towns, down to its very conception of what a city is — and this has happened at just the historic moment when we need to engage cities and urbanization to achieve their very best.

It is here that the question of professional responsibility arises most clearly. Certainly there are questions for economic systems, for governance, and for technological efficiency. But at another level, there are disturbing questions for the role of architects and urban designers — or more accurately, the role they have willfully abdicated. They can respond, and thus they are responsible.

The New Urban Agenda calls on architects and urban designers (among others) to support the creation of “well-designed networks” of “safe, inclusive, accessible, green, quality” public space systems, including streets, thereby providing access to “sustainable cities and human settlements for all”. It calls for “appropriate compactness and density, polycentrism and mixed uses,” in order to “prevent urban sprawl, reduce mobility challenges and needs and service delivery costs per capita and harness density and economies of scale and agglomeration” for human development and well-being. It also calls for “measures that allow for the best possible commercial use of street-level floors, fostering both formal and informal local markets and commerce, as well as not-for-profit community initiatives, bringing people into public spaces and promoting walkability and cycling with the goal of improving health and well-being.”

This is, in other words, the same agenda outlined by Jacobs and Alexander — the model of cities as fully walkable, diverse, human-scale places, in which buildings line streets and other important public spaces, providing active edges and dynamic networks of interaction. Nowhere is to be seen the “loose sprawls” of functional segregation criticized by Jane Jacobs, or the “project land oozings” of Le Corbusier’s “Towers in the Park”. Nowhere are the privatized shopping malls of Victor Gruen. Nowhere are the supercampuses and superblocks, or the segregation of pedestrians from vehicles, or other hallmarks of CIAM modernist planning. Nowhere is the static conception of cities as modernist artistic creations, glorifying the industrialization of the human environment. Instead, the city is an evolutionary co-creation of myriad people, a dynamic network of human interaction and placemaking.

The New Urban Agenda also calls for the re-incorporation of “cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, in cities and human settlements” as well as “traditional knowledge and the arts.” It demands implementation “tapping into all available traditional and innovative sources at the global, regional, national, subnational and local levels.”

There are crucial economic dimensions as well. As Jane Jacobs long argued, and as I explored in the first section of this book, cities have the capacity to promote enormous human development and wealth in all its forms. But to do so, they must be properly structured to foster diverse interactions over a continuous urban network, in what Jacobs referred to as “thoroughgoing city mobility and fluidity of use.”

We saw in Section I how this city network must reside primarily in the structure of public spaces, including streets and other pathways. Of course many connections do occur in private and semi-public places, like office meeting rooms, conference venues, shop floors, restaurants and other gathering places. Many more occur over communications networks, including email and phone. But all of them have their “spine” as it were, in the public space system of the city, the ultimate connector between diverse people. As the sociologist Robert Putnam has pointed out, social networks can be “multi-stranded” with many layers of connection, but all of them have to have a physical and public component at their root.

Accordingly, the New Urban Agenda places notable emphasis on public space, recognizing the fundamental role of streets and other public spaces as “drivers of social and economic development,” “enhancing safety and security, favoring social and inter-generational interaction and the appreciation of diversity” as well as “promoting walkability and cycling towards improving health and well-being.” As Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos observed, a city without public spaces is not really a city at all.

And yet we continue to build just such non-cities, sprawling across the globe in chaotic bursts of fragmented development. Sometimes they are informal settlements for the poor, lacking in adequate, safe and inclusive public spaces. Sometimes they are more expensive developments for the middle and upper classes, featuring privatized shopping malls, gated neighborhoods, and vast stretches of automobile-dominated, resource-intensive sprawl. Although these new developments do carry some positive benefits, especially the alleviation of the problems of poverty, evidence demonstrates that their negative impacts on social, ecological and economic sustainability will be profound.

On this last point, recent history ought to be instructive. In the 2008 global financial crisis, it was little noted that the beginning of the crisis — its “Ground Zero” was in fact the sprawling, car-dependent suburbs of the United States. This was the first major “hangover” from the “crack cocaine” of economic development that is sprawl, as I have argued previously.

The pattern of foreclosure maps from US cities at the time is telling. In city after city, strong clusters can be seen along an outer ring of “drive ‘til you qualify” suburbs — cheaper far-out subdivisions with easy-terms mortgages, located far from most jobs and services. Inside these donut rings, higher-density urban areas had far fewer foreclosures. It was not a coincidence that these inner areas were more compact, walkable, transit served — that is, lower-carbon, and less sensitive to the rising energy costs that pushed many homeowners over the edge, triggering a wave of cascading mortgage defaults.

Figures IV.1.1 and IV.1.2: Foreclosure maps in the USA, precipitating the global financial crisis of 2008. The foreclosure rates were far higher in the exurban "drive 'til you qualify" suburbs. Left, Denver. Right, Houston. (Sources: Denver Post, Houston Chronicle.)

Indeed, this Ground Zero precipitated the worldwide financial crisis of 2008, and the “great recession” that ensued. The rise in energy prices, a cyclical recession, and the re-adjustment of artificially cheap mortgages, all converged into a “perfect storm” of economic distress. But this was no mere freak event. It was very likely a harbinger of more and worse to come, if we don’t get to the core problems that created it: interlocking failures of finance, regulation, energy use, planning and design.

We knew that these cookie-cutter suburbs were overly dependent on cheap fossil fuels, and profligate with other resources. Research shows that their carbon footprint alone, taken as a planetary model, would quickly swamp all other efforts to get a handle on greenhouse gas emissions. In fact this is uncomfortably close to the model still in too much of the US, and in too many other parts of the world.

But what was truly breathtaking was how soon the scheme collapsed financially, with such global economic devastation. We might have been forgiven for thinking we had a few more decades of this cheap ride on unsustainable resource use. On the contrary, we saw that what was ecological had already become economic — or more precisely, what was unecological had become uneconomic.

So for this and the other reasons already mentioned — public health, social interaction, ecological benefits — the New Urban Agenda ought to be welcome news indeed for those who are concerned about the proliferation of sprawl, and the need for a return to the principles advocated by Jacobs and Alexander. Indeed, the Agenda is a hard-won achievement for the many people who participated in its development.

But of course, there remains an enormous challenge of implementation. While it is gratifying to have a “new urbanism” (by any other name) on the agenda, this is only the start of the work ahead. Now the challenge is to find the levers of change, and to alter what we may think of as the “operating system of growth” to generate a more benign kind of urbanism and architecture. And in this work, it will be critical to employ an evidence-based approach, rooted in the rigorous methods of science, and the knowledge of what works and does not work.

Particularly important will be the role of planning and design professionals, as Jacobs and Alexander long argued. As I will discuss in the next chapter, that reform process is well under way — and its continuing controversies help us to see the nature of the work remaining.