To implement the New Urban Agenda, we will need to change the global “operating system for growth”

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The good news is that its elements were all consciously chosen and implemented – and by the same logic, they can now be consciously re-structured.

Recently the world passed the one-year anniversary of a major milestone: the final approval of the “New Urban Agenda,” a landmark document issued at the conclusion of the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, and later adopted by acclamation by all 193 countries of the United Nations.  This document represents a historic shift in international urban development policy at the highest levels.

No longer is urban development seen as a simple process of increasing wealth and industrial expansion, a kind of “rising tide to lift all boats.”  Now we understand that the quality of the growth is no less critical – where it occurs, and for whom.  We understand that cities offer us many other things too, including social contact, health benefits, environmental efficiencies, and quality of life.  All of these benefits occur especially within the critical (and too often critically threatened) public spaces of the city.

Now, too, the challenges of urban inequality, segregation and exclusion are high on the agenda – not only as questions of justice, but of how well a city economy actually performs.  As the urban economist Jane Jacobs pointed out, city economies need diversity and inclusiveness in order to function at their creative best. Exclusion, gentrification and displacement are toxic to healthy cities, and to healthy economies.  In that sense, the goal of “cities for all” is not only a matter of fairness and justice; it is ultimately good for everyone’s bottom line.

Not only is access to the public spaces of the city important, but also access to its varied economic opportunities — providing the capacity to people to  participate in the co-creation of the city, and the opportunities it offers for their own human development.  As Jacobs said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Cities are also increasingly recognized for their crucial role in humanity’s response to climate change, and the critical need for more sustainable forms of development. These goals are now linked directly to urban development through the COP21 Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, which were also adopted by the member states of the UN in the last two years.  Reciprocally, the New Urban Agenda also makes explicit connections to those goals through changes in urban development policy, including reducing sprawl, providing more low-impact transportation alternatives, improving infrastructure, reforming governance, and sharing technical and implementation knowledge.

But there is a long way between agreeing to the New Urban Agenda on the one hand, and actually implementing it on the other.  The fact is, global real estate development still occurs in accordance with a complex system of economic incentives, standards, laws, regulations, codes, and myriad other parameters.  These elements will all have to be systematically examined, and in many cases re-tooled, if we are to see real progress on more sustainable forms of settlement.

If you like, we can think of our global system of urban development a bit like a computer operating system: it provides the codes and rules on which particular applications can run.  Some applications can run successfully on some operating systems but not on others, and so it is necessary to either revise the software, or else revise the operating system.

So it will be with the “global operating system for growth” – the laws, rules, codes, standards, tax policies, and all the other incentives and disincentives that reward some kinds of projects and let them flourish, and that penalize other kinds of projects and make them all but impossible to build.  If these reforms are not made, all our efforts to achieve a more sustainable form of development are doomed to remain tokenistic.

Right now, one form of urban development runs very well on the current “global operating system for growth” – the kind of development that we recognize around the world as today’s urban “business as usual.”  Too often it includes fragmented, high-resource consumption urban patterns, auto-dependent neighborhoods, huge unwalkable “superblocks,” privatized malls and campuses, and other hallmarks of what we commonly call “urban sprawl.”

As my own and others’ research has shown, this form of development represents one of the largest barriers to achieving lower greenhouse gas emissions, and meeting all the other elements of the Sustainable Development Goals.  It is also, in myriad respects, antithetical to the aims of the New Urban Agenda.

The good news is that these elements were all consciously chosen and implemented – and by the same logic, they can now be consciously re-structured.  We are not powerless to change them; we have just been mostly unwilling up to now, because many people have been more focused on their own personal economic interests and incentives than on our larger shared challenges for the future.  But as new evidence arises regularly of the seriousness of these long-term challenges – new disruptions and threats to economic well-being – that is beginning to change, and more creative “win-win” solutions are being identified.

Of course some people will continue to fight reforms, and they will continue to masterfully sow confusion and dissension. This has always been the case with any great reform of human institutions.  But we need to look at longer-term strategic changes in the incentive system, rather than specific fights over specific current incentives.  If you like, we need to be playing chess, not checkers.

What kinds of reforms are needed?  For transportation engineers, new multi-modal design standards, better integrating mobility into urban fabric.  For municipalities, more diverse and more compact mixed-use zoning models, more focused on form than on type of use.  For national governments, new regional urban development strategies and tools, more focused on “polycentric regions” operated through “polycentric governance” (including civil society, the private sector and citizens), and providing a mix of more strategic tax policies, regulations and incentives.  (Jacobs too described some of the ideas within this approach.)

For planning and design professionals, we need to look hard in the mirror at our defective existing typologies of superblocks and supercampuses, loose sprawling patterns of development, object-buildings set far back from streets, and all the other hallmarks of the old “CIAM Athens Charter”.  As Joan Clos, Saskia Sassen, Richard Sennett and Ricky Burdett have written, that failing system must now be reformed. And yet, even in many elite universities, insular design schools continue to be intoxicated by the visual and theoretical seductiveness of the old discredited models.  Somehow, incredibly, they have not “gotten the memo” that a genuine kind of urbanism is now on the agenda. The New Urban Agenda gently guides us away from this “siloed” holdover past, a creation of artistic utopians, and into a more “joined-up” approach, aimed at creating a more complex, more human-centred, more truly urban future.

Perhaps most important, we need new kinds of economic incentives for good forms of development.  One of the most important things we must do is what’s sometimes called “monetizing externalities” – finding ways to value a lower-carbon future and a healthier kind of city, and making that value available as incentive feedback to business owners, developers, and city officials in the present.  Right now too many actors are extracting great wealth today at an unacceptable price to the future – the very definition of unsustainability.  It is not surprising that they do this — but what is surprising is that we do not ask the next question, namely, how do we ask them to pay the true price for the long-term costs they incur for humanity?

There are promising approaches available to achieve this goal, including land value tax, other so-called “Georgist” tax policies, and other ways of shifting incentives away from the unsustainable consumption and degradation of resources, and towards a more creative, less destructive kind of economy, from a human point of view.

For our own part, we at the KTH Centre for the Future of Places, and our research networks, are eager to explore these and related topics.  We are particularly interested in the requirements for good quality public space, how it is achieved and maintained, what are the scales at which it needs to be established, and other fascinating and important questions.   We are eager to work with others to develop and share useful findings within a larger implementation network. Surely that is the kind of “joined-up” approach that is going to be needed.

We will have to step out of our “silos,” and understand the broader goals of the New Urban Agenda, and how to achieve them.  Joan Clos, the Secretary-General of Habitat III, could have been speaking for our own centre when he described the challenge ahead:

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.

The hopeful message is that these goals can be achieved.  They are not mysterious, but they will require significant work to bring about, and significant changes in our old ways of thinking.  The main thing we can celebrate is that we do have a basis on which to work together on these issues, and make progress.  At last we do have a “new urban agenda” – and that is a huge step forward.

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