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.

How to achieve the vision of the New Urban Agenda: A new role for UN-Habitat

A member of the UN’s independent review panel calls for a new “normative” role for UN-Habitat, including “research, developing standards, identifying best practices, demonstration projects,” and other high-profile actions.


Peter Calthorpe, one of the 8-member independent panel appointed by the UN Secretary General to study the role of UN-Habitat as it seeks to implement the New Urban Agenda, recently described three major proposed changes to the role of UN-Habitat:

One,  Elevate UN-Habitat.  The agency “needs interaction with and support from a much larger group; hence the recommendation to shift from a governing council of 58 to universal membership and governance by the UN General Assembly,” Calthorpe said. “And just like cities need support from many stakeholders, the panel saw the need for expanded participation from local governments, a broader range of stakeholder groups, and a growing array of institutions.”

Two, help UN-Habitat work with other agencies.  The panel felt this could best happen “through a new ‘UN Urban’ arm proposed last month. Much like UN Energy, UN Urban would operate as a small, efficient platform in New York to facilitate inter-agency initiatives,” said Calthorpe. This entity is not meant to replace or duplicate the work of UN-Habitat, but to integrate and streamline its efforts.”

Three, focus UN-Habitat efforts on systemic work. There is a need “to shift UN-Habitat’s work focus to ‘normative’ activities that support and guide sustainable urbanism across the globe,” Calthorpe said. “This can take many forms: research, developing standards, identifying best practices, demonstration projects, data collection and more. UN-Habitat’s current localized “operational” projects need to clearly reinforce the systemic, normative work,” he said.

The panel concluded, according to Calthorpe, that the governance structure of UN-Habitat can be structured to better serve these ends:

To seamlessly weave all three strategies together, UN-Habitat needs a new, energized governance structure starting with direct interaction with an urban assembly comprised of all member states. Urbanism is a global challenge, and therefore universal membership is central to its implementation and commitment. UN Habitat should also be directed by a new Policy Board of 20 member states, which would act as an executive board engaged in strategic planning, budget review and interaction with the urban assembly. This small, committed and focused policy board would coordinate the secretariat UN Urban and the existing Committee of Permanent Representatives made up of 94 members located in Nairobi. Finally this policy board would incorporate input of key non-UN stakeholder groups from representatives from metropolitan regions and cities to a range of related NGOs.

“The coalition created at Habitat III was a formative moment for the UN,” Calthorpe said. “It recognized, codified and elevated urban form to a profound, crosscutting role in the future of our global community.” He concluded:

While cities are the nexus of many of our most dramatic challenges, they also represent the opportunity to resolve them with cross cutting policies, programs and urban design. In cities, individual actions can have multiple positive outcomes. The UN is the natural institution to lead the effort to create urban environments that are economically robust, environmentally sustainable, and socially just. A reinvigorated UN-Habitat is the means.

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Why public space research has come of age

An update from the Future of Places Research Network

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A popular and successful public space not far from the offices of the Center for the Future of Places in Stockholm, Sweden. 

It has been almost forty years since William H. Whyte published his groundbreaking The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, based on field research that he and his colleagues did in the previous decade. Since then, many more researchers have investigated public space as a topic. (On Google Scholar, a search on the term “public space” produces 617,000 hits; by contrast the term “urbanism” produces 360,000 hits.)

Yet it has been only recently that public space has come into its own as a proper subject of research. That’s because public space is a broad inter-disciplinary topic, and most investigations have focused on some narrower aspect of public space – for example, the economic exchanges that happen there, or the different ethnic groups that are present, or other topics from economics, anthropology, public health, or other fields.

But precisely because public space is a cross-cutting disciplinary subject, it has the capacity to provide a lens on how many of these other issues are connected. For example, how do different ethnic groups benefit economically from access to public space? How does public space offer health benefits to different ethnic communities – and how does that in turn provide economic benefits to the wider community? How is public space connected to other urban issues like social interaction, walkability, ecological benefits, and so on?

The connected web of issues surrounding public space is now more prominent than ever, thanks to the United Nations’ “New Urban Agenda” – a policy framework that has been adopted by consensus by all 193 member states of the UN. The document, an outcome of the Habitat III conference in October 2016, contains no less than eight separate paragraphs that emphasize the central importance of public space. Among them are paragraphs dealing with socio-economic development and inclusion, reduction of sprawl, access to affordable housing, promotion of walking and cycling, urban resilience and climate change, and safety and crime reduction.

Growing out of their collaboration in the Habitat III conference, the Ax:son Johnson Foundation and KTH Royal Institute of Technology launched the Center for the Future of Places in January 2017, and its adjunct Future of Places Research Network (sponsors of this blog). Our purpose is to identify, compile and make available research on public space, particularly as it relates to the New Urban Agenda, but also addressing other aspects of current urban challenges.

As part of that effort, we are also developing a database of public space research, working with our colleagues. Currently we have approximately four hundred papers in the database, mostly focused on key findings of field research in public space. Our colleagues in the effort are already accomplished researchers in the field, including Setha Low (Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Psychology at City University of New York, and Director of the Public Space Research Group there), Vikas Mehta (an accomplished author and researcher on public space, and a professor at the University of Cincinnati), and David Brain (Professor of Sociology at New College Florida, and a practitioner and activist). Other researchers in the network are reviewing papers, suggesting additions, and helping to identify gaps in the research.

It is this ability to identify gaps in the research that might be the most useful outcome of the project. As we work to apply the findings to specific implementation projects, these “research lacunae” will be easier to spot, and can then become the subject of new commissioned research. The ultimate goal is a robust and useful resource for the development, management and improvement of public spaces around the world.

Peter Calthorpe on China’s “new urban agenda”

Auto-based sprawl development, following Le Corbusier’s model of the “Towers in the Park.” Photo by John Patrick Robichaud, Wikimedia Commons

Cities have evolved for thousands of years, and they have a historic wisdom that we are collectively relearning. It’s a big change for China, though, because it’s been using an outmoded planning paradigm developed in the ’30s by the modernists—“Towers in the Park.” That paradigm failed us in many Western cities, and it is failing them now. – Peter Calthorpe

The architect, urbanist, and member of the UN panel selected to review the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, describes the dramatic changes in China’s urban development policies, foreshadowing some of the policies outlined in the UN’s New Urban Agenda  document. He is speaking to Dina ElBoghdady, a former reporter for the Washington Post, writing in Urban Land magazine.  An excerpt:

Q: What does the typical Chinese city look like today, and how did it evolve?

Before the 20th century, the traditional Chinese city was a fine-grained fabric of courtyard housing and small streets. But through the 1950s and 1960s, just after the Revolution, the Le Corbusier modernist tradition took hold and gave rise to the “superblock.” Initially, the superblock was a mixed-use community, about a quarter mile [0.4 km] on each side, with factories, housing, shops, and schools. As the factories grew larger, they became segregated from their communities, and housing became segregated from employment areas. Superblocks soon had isolated uses.

Q: How did these isolated uses affect the quality of city life?

As this new pattern of development accelerated and wealth accelerated, cars came to dominate the ever-larger streets, making them less pedestrian-friendly. People would have to walk a quarter mile to get to intersections, and once they got there, they’d have to cross eight or ten lanes of traffic. Mortality rates for pedestrians and bikers shot up. The less hospitable the streets became, the more people wanted to retreat from the street and live in gated communities, which brings us to where they are today…

Q: How have you helped shape the discussion on sustainable urban growth in China?

About six years ago, the Energy Foundation [a grant-making organization with a big presence in Beijing that focuses on climate change issues] asked us and other designers such as Jan Gehl to do pilot projects to demonstrate that there’s a better way than superblocks and highways for China’s cities. We’ve now worked in seven cities on plans for a population of 4 million, and we’ve done two large-scale regional plans that frame development for another 13 million people. Most of the work was for areas that were designated for growth. We laid out the blocks and streets, detailed the street sections, and zoned all the land for mixed use and TOD. And in each case it worked.

Q: Are these plans a reality yet?

They’re in the midst of being built. These were untested ideas for China. A lot of people six years ago said, “You’ll never undo the superblock. It’s an important part of the culture of modern China.” But being able to work with cities and developers, we found there are ways to create a transition, and the government saw that it was feasible and desirable. In addition to deadly air pollution and congestion, there’s the climate change factor. They are scientific realists over there, and they understand that livable cities will reduce carbon emissions and that renewable energy will be a big business that provides lots of jobs.

Q: Were you expecting the government to release new standards, let alone ones that are so in sync with your thinking?

I didn’t expect it, to tell you the truth. This is really a sweeping vision for how to change the direction of urban development in China. I thought they’d move along with piecemeal standards, some for roads, [some] for regulatory plans, and so on. I did not expect this grand, almost philosophical statement. I’ve been surprised at how quickly the government moved, and I’d like to believe that our work helped influence their thinking. Many of their standards correspond to the ones we’ve been advocating and testing. But most of the influence is from within—there have been many hands on this.

Q: Was there a tipping point for the Chinese government?

I think they realize that the cities have reached a crisis point. First, there’s the air quality. The cities are dangerously smoggy. Second, the traffic congestion threatens to compromise the economy as it becomes more difficult to move people and goods and services around. Third, China is committed to reducing carbon emissions. When you solve for livability—moving away from cars and toward transit and biking, integrating jobs and housing closer to one another, having mixed-use communities where a person’s trips and services are nearby—you reduce carbon emissions. Significantly, China imports most of its oil. The more auto-dependent they are, the more they are dependent on foreign oil, so that’s another motivator.

Q: Are these standards mandatory, and how long will it be until the effects are seen?

There are measurable elements that will become mandatory. For example, it quantifies the street density [and] the distance to transit, and requires that 40 percent of all trips in a city are made by transit. This really controls how investments are made in major infrastructure—roads versus transit. The effects are already being seen in the sense that planning departments and designers are adopting these ideas.

Q: Will the standards be applied to all Chinese cities?

They will. In China, they often write different standards for different-scale cities, and they scale the cities to three sizes. It’s a good way to do it because Beijing, for instance, is very different than a small third-tier emerging city. The high-level government group that released these standards is saying, “Here are the principles and direction we want to set.” Their departments of transportation and housing and urban development and other regulators are all going to have to do updates to their standards as a result of this.

Q: Many of these standards are in place in other countries. Why do you view them as a dramatic change in China?

The new standards do read like a list of ecological best practices that have developed around the globe. Cities have evolved for thousands of years, and they have a historic wisdom that we are collectively relearning. It’s a big change for China, though, because it’s been using an outmoded planning paradigm developed in the ’30s by the modernists—“Towers in the Park.” That paradigm failed us in many Western cities and it is failing them now. The problem is the scale of city building in China is so large that a failure will impact not only the viability of their cities, it could decimate the global economy and ecology.

Q: The government is calling for architecture that preserves Chinese culture—an apparent about-face from the radical designs seen in cities like Beijing. What brought about this change in mentality?

They’ve come to realize that they’ve been destroying their identity and cultural continuity as well as the environment. In a way, we did the same thing in the U.S. when urban renewal gutted our cities in the ’50s and ’60s. We didn’t have historic preservation laws. Piece by piece, great historic buildings came down. In China, the superstar architecture world was wreaking havoc with buildings that looked like they were flown in from outer space. Now, the government is saying [to] focus more on durability, function, and energy efficiency. To modern architects it is controversial, ambiguous, and challenging—to find an architecture that relates to place and climate rather than image.

Q: Do you consider yourself an antimodernist?

I am for modern architecture, but I want it to be historically, culturally, and environmentally connected to its place. The construction quality and materials in China are such that buildings barely last 30 years. The government is now basically saying, “Let’s make buildings that stand the test of time.”

Full interview:


Co-founder of “New Urbanism” appointed to key panel for implementation of the UN’s “New Urban Agenda”

Peter_CalthorpeArchitect Peter Calthorpe, a co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), has been appointed to an 8-member panel to review the direction of UN-Habitat following completion of Habitat III in October 2016 and its outcome document, the “New Urban Agenda.” This document was adopted by consensus in December 2016 by all governments of the United Nations General Assembly. Some critics of New Urbanism are likely to be displeased by this news, since it seems to formalize the “New Urbanist” aspects of the “New Urban Agenda.”

Indeed, the New Urban Agenda does feature many references to characteristics that are well known within New Urbanism, and incorporated into its foundational document, its “Charter of the New Urbanism.” Like the Charter, the New Urban Agenda calls for “appropriate compactness and density, polycentrism and mixed uses,” “connectivity,” “considering the human scale, and measures that allow for the best possible commercial use of street-level floors,” “bringing people into public spaces and promoting walkability and cycling,” and “equitable ‘transit-oriented development’ that minimizes the displacement, in particular, of the poor, and featur[ing] affordable, mixed-income housing and a mix of jobs and services.”

Perhaps the most notable feature of the New Urban Agenda is its frequent reference to public spaces and their character, including a call for “well-designed networks of safe, accessible, green and quality streets and other public spaces.” This has been a key point of focus for the Future of Places, a partnership that has included UN-Habitat as well as Project for Public Spaces and Ax:son Johnson Foundation, its NGO host (and the sponsor of this blog).

Why do some people criticize New Urbanism, sometimes vociferously? I suggest that some of the criticism is justified, some not. The justified criticism is aimed at aspirations unmet, promises unfilled, theory and practice that are incomplete at best, and rationalizations for bad development at worst. Some of this criticism is internal among members of the movement, and as I myself have witnessed, it can be passionate. That’s a healthy sign, surely.

The unjustified criticism comes chiefly in three varieties. One is from a “market fundamentalist” perspective, imagining that whatever a market decides is automatically the best for society, and for the planet. For this group, New Urbanism is hopelessly aligned with government planning efforts. These folks fail to recognize that “government planning efforts” created the conditions under which the market makes its decisions in the first place, and the “totally free market” is a myth of the most delusional sort. Ergo we must make reforms to this same government system, coupled with non-governmental activism (in professional, NGO, and private spheres) to achieve a more effective “polycentric governance” that combines the best of top-down planning frameworks and resources with the best of bottom-up organic growth. History shows us that this is precisely how the most successful and well-loved cities have also grown.

The second variety of criticism comes from the leadership of the profession of architecture, for whom the ultimate mandate is artistic creativity. For them, New Urbanism commits the unpardonable sin of daring to learn from history, and to recapitulate its lessons in both process and (egad) form. They may find revivalist forms distasteful, but it is the New Urbanists who are on the more solid theoretical ground, scientifically speaking. (And perhaps too speaking of professional responsibility to client well-being.) Evolution — including human evolution, and technological evolution — is not a constant reinvention from scratch, but a kind of fugue of recapitulations combined with novelty, and built up over time. At this critical point in our history, we must do a better job of looking for successes wherever we can find them – including in our own evolutionary past.

The third variety of criticism comes from the social sciences, where it is common to see attacks on the alleged “neoliberal politics” of New Urbanism. With this alleged sin comes gentrification, exclusion, homogenization, income inequality, and worse. But this image is largely a fantasy. While a few New Urbanists do in fact endorse neoliberal economic policies, the core of New Urbanist theory is based on Jane Jacobs’ very different work on diversity, openness, and a well-connected, fluid city. It argues that playing “whack-a-mole” with equity issues (or playing “PC solidarity” from our quixotic ivory towers) is less effective than actually changing the underlying structural conditions for self-organization, civic stewardship and urban justice – including the physical structure of the city. New Urbanists, for all their faults, have actually marched into battle on that score – and that may be a key part of the reason their ideas are now seen as a way forward for the New Urban Agenda.

Perhaps what both critics and supporters of New Urbanism should do at this point is to look beyond the branding, the schools and the identities, and toward larger shareable ideas and their implementation. The New Urban Agenda comes at a time when rapid urbanization presents enormous dangers to humanity – but at the same time, enormous promise, if we can learn from evidence and history.