Five key takeaways from the World Urban Forum

Now comes the hard part of implementing the “New Urban Agenda.”

MOU Signing
The author meeting at the World Urban Forum with representatives of UN-Habitat to finalise a partnership for pilot projects, helping to implement the New Urban Agenda. L-R, the author, Shipra Narang Suri, Coordinator of the Urban Design Branch of UN-Habitat, and Saidou N’Dow, Head of Legal Office, UN-Habitat.

Here is our report from the international gathering of over 25,000 government officials, NGOs, professionals and activists in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in February 2018, running in the web journal Planetizen:

From the report:

It’s been over a year now since all 193 countries of the United Nations adopted by acclamation the “New Urban Agenda,” the outcome document of the Habitat III conference held in October 2016. The historic nature of that achievement is hard to over-state: for the first time, we have a world-wide agreement embracing walkable mixed use, mixed transportation modes, polycentric regions, diversity and affordability, and other elements of a “new urbanism” (by any other name).

But now comes the hard part of implementation. That challenge was the focus of the Ninth World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur in early February of 2018—the first since the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, and the first to take up the specifics of implementation.

The obstacles are daunting. “Business as usual”—especially sprawl—still dominates in too many places. Yet there is considerable good news about the human benefits of urbanization: improvements in health and well-being, more opportunities for women, moderated population growth, better access to services, better resources for human development and cultural growth, and much more.

Those benefits don’t come equally to all, of course, and that is one of the biggest challenges: creating a form of urbanization that is more equitable, and more effective in delivering on the great promises of cities for all. Of course that is the core reason that so many of us are drawn to cities and towns in the first place. That was, in fact, the theme of the conference: “Cities for All: Implementing the New Urban Agenda.”

So for one week in early February, 25,000 participants from all 193 countries gathered in Kuala Lumpur and took up those challenges, forging partnerships and developing pilot projects. I noted five key takeaways from the conference:

1. The world is urbanizing at a blistering pace. At present rates—and there’s currently no sign this will change—the world’s urban population will more than double in the next 40 years. That’s a staggering rate and quantity of urbanization. Essentially we will create more urban fabric than has ever been created in all of human history up to now.

2. Much of this urbanization is sprawling and resource-inefficient. While the number of people is set to double, the amount of land that will be consumed at present rates is significantly more than double. In other words, urban density is going down—and the cause of that trend is easy to spot. In a word, it’s sprawl: fragmented, unwalkable, resource-intensive, car-dependent (which places an unconscionable burden on the poor, the aged, children, the infirm etc)—and simply unsustainable. At a time of accelerating resource depletion, climate change and other natural and human challenges, the implications are increasingly undeniable, and “business as usual” is increasingly unacceptable.

3. Growing numbers of people recognize that we must change business as usual. This is a hopeful trend, evidenced by the New Urban Agenda itself. It’s not just that we need to avoid disaster, but we need to seize the positive human opportunities too. In fact, the common understanding of cities is changing—from a simple-minded notion that “that’s where the jobs are” to a deeper understanding of cities as creative engines of human development, with a remarkable inherent capacity for resource efficiency. But in turn, that new understanding implies a new appreciation of what cities must do to achieve their potential—especially, how cities need public spaces, and public space systems, including walkable streets and paths. (More on that point below.)

4. But there are many who haven’t “gotten the memo.” Many people are still addicted to the short-term profits from sprawling, resource-intensive urbanization, and too many places look like they could have been designed for 1940 (with updated avant-garde art packaging) instead of 2020. GM’s “Tomorrowland,” with its vast superblocks, segregated freeways, gigantic art-buildings, and degraded public spaces, might have been a profitable model for the last century, but we need a new model today: one that is more attuned to human needs and natural complexities, and the urgent need for a more sustainable form of urbanization. That is what the New Urban Agenda provides.

5. The New Urban Agenda represents a hopeful way forward for all. We now have a landmark agreement by 193 countries to move in a new direction—a “new paradigm” in the words of Dr. Joan Clos, who just retired as head of UN-Habitat. Behind this agreement lies a new understanding of cities and their inherent capacities as engines of human development, and powerful tools in meeting our larger challenges of resource depletion, climate change, inequality, geopolitical instability, and other ills. But along with that comes a sober recognition of the great dangers ahead, if we fail to make the needed changes.

Conclusion: there is much work ahead to change the “operating system for growth.” The current system of “business as usual” is the interactive result of all the laws, codes, rules, standards, conventions, models, incentives, and disincentives, that collectively shape what can be built and where—and whether it will be profitable (which almost always means whether it can be built at all). There is a lot more to it than whether someone thinks a particular project is a good idea—or a bad one.

We can liken this vast set of rules and standards to a kind of “operating system for growth”—its structure governs what can “run” on it (or what can be built and operated). It includes the rules of local and national governments, but also the international rules of global finance and real estate capital, among others. It is a kind of “massive multi-player game” in which we are all players, but some of us get to shape the rules of the game itself. Increasingly that is what we must all work to do—changing zoning to allow better projects, reducing regulatory burdens for desirable projects, and assessing and re-aligning many of the obsolete and conflicting codes from older ways of doing things. It is tedious work, but it could not be more important.

Government policy is one important dimension of the problem—especially in democratic countries. One of the issues we will surely have to confront is the question of how resources are taxed relative to the products of human creativity. By shifting the burden away from creative outputs and toward the consumption of resources (including land) we can reward efficiency, compactness, and the improvement of long-term “externalities” (like greenhouse gas emissions). This “Georgist” approach to economics is one of the kinds of issues we will have to confront globally in changing the “rules of the game” for better-quality urban development in the future.

One of the other issues taken up by our research center in Stockholm—the Centre for the Future of Places—is the fundamental role of public space in sustainable urbanization. We’ve come to recognize it as a kind of essential “connective matrix” of healthy cities. It’s public spaces—including streets—that give us the access to all the benefits of cities, and that connect private spaces to each other. It’s public spaces that ultimately connect us to each other, as the research shows, and underlie efficient creativity and exchange within cities and towns.

Yet ironically, public space is most under threat in the current wave of urbanization. For “informal settlements”—slums—public spaces are shrinking, mostly because the illegal “developers” who lay them out have little incentive to create public spaces. For “market-rate development”—essentially everything else—there is also an economic pressure to get rid of public space, replacing it with more profitable private domains—shopping malls, gated communities, high rises, and the like. But that degrades the very connective tissue that makes cities such powerful engines of creativity, and efficiency too. It also has important impacts on equitability and “cities for all.”

In all these challenges, we will have to learn how to value public space and other “positive externalities”—how to assure that the very real human value they generate gets translated back as economic value in the development process, to reward those who make more public spaces, and reflect the true cost to all of us on those who diminish them. Similarly, those who create other “externality costs” borne by us all—like greenhouse gas emissions—ought to pay a fair amount to offset that cost—with a basic exemption for those with lower incomes. Such pricing mechanisms are a fair way of paying true costs—instead of pushing those costs onto our grandchildren’s bill.

For related reasons, these kinds of economic tools may also be necessary for building “cities for all.” Research is showing that the more we exclude parts of a city from equitable development, the more those parts of the city place a drag on the economic performance of the city as a whole. We can readily understand this in the loss of productivity, the costs of policing and incarceration, and the other costs borne by all. But the new insights show how much it’s true that “cities for all” are not just a matter of justice, but are also good for everyone’s bottom line. That economic incentive is a very helpful resource when it comes to making the needed changes.

So how do we implement such an ambitious agenda? One model discussed at the World Urban Forum is what we might call “snowball projects”—initially small, implementable pilot projects that are structured to scale up as they become more successful, and gather up momentum—like a growing snowball rolling downhill. (In our case they may be public space development projects, but they could be other kinds of urban projects as well.) As the pilot projects are developed, the knowledge gained from them is combined with other knowledge, and exchanged through international wiki-like platforms for peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and development. These “toolkits” of open-source implementation tools can then be tailored to different local conditions, using local universities, NGOs, businesses, governments, and other existing local resources, and then the lessons an be distilled and exported out again for use by others.

I came away from the World Urban Forum well aware of the daunting challenges, but also hopeful and energized. In a sense, we might well conclude that cities (and towns) pose the biggest problems for the future—simply because that’s where most of us increasingly live, and consume. But in a deeper sense, cities and towns are the solution—because, when they function well, they have an inherent capacity to produce beneficial human development with increasing efficiency and diminishing resource consumption In fact, their performance rivals the “organized complexity” and the resulting stellar performance of many natural systems.

It is exactly that “stellar performance” that we must now put to work in our cities, more reliably and more equitably, and on a much larger scale.

Brief Report from the World Urban Forum

The seminal conference in Kuala Lumpur brought together 25,000 people from around the world to focus on achieving “cities for all”

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Several members of the Future of Places team gathered at the World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur to discuss implementation of the New Urban Agenda. That document, focusing on how to create better quality cities, was developed at the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016 ,and later adopted by consensus by all 193 member states of the United Nations.

Here is an introductory video from Kyle Farrell and Michael Mehaffy of the Centre:

The Future of Places played a key role in developing aspects of the New Urban Agenda, particularly its focus on “well- connected and well-distributed networks” of public space, as a key framework for sustainable urbanization. Over four years, the forum gathered some 1,500 researchers, practitioners, government officials, NGOs and citizens from 700 organizations in over 200 cities and over 100 countries.

Now the attention is on implementation, and the Centre for the Future of Places, a new research hub, will link with other hubs internationally to develop platforms of knowledge-sharing,

We asked Genie Birch, former chair of the World Urban Campaign and a key partner in the General Assembly of Partners, how she saw the role of the Centre for the Future of Places in the work ahead. Here is what she said:

We will have additional videos on line as well as other reports form the World Urban Forum. Please stay tuned!

What Joel Kotkin (and others) got wrong about Jane Jacobs

Google’s icon of Jane Jacobs from her recent 100th birthday.

Writing in The Daily Beast, the champion of American suburbs attacked the champion of city life – and missed the mark

Not long ago, the urbanist Joel Kotkin wrote an attention-getting article titled “What Jane Jacobs got wrong about cities.” Mr. Kotkin is a noted urban contrarian, often challenging the “irrational exuberance” for ever-higher urban densities and over-heated cores – and in that respect I have considerable sympathy for his view. So do former fans of the over-heated cores, now more contrite, like Richard Florida (with his “creative class”) and Ed Glaeser (with his “triumph of the city”). They and other urbanists have expressed new reservations in the wake of growing malfunctions in these over-heated cores: gentrification, displacement, loss of affordability, homelessness, pockets of poverty, and (ironically) a certain kind of stagnation.

But in his analysis of Jane Jacobs and her view of cities, I think Mr. Kotkin gets some things terribly wrong.

He is far from alone in doing so. As someone who regularly uses Jacobs’ texts in teaching, research and writing about her ideas, I am often struck by how many bright people attribute things to her that the woman simply never said – or in some cases, ignore points she did indeed address (like topics of race and class).

More broadly, I am struck by how few people can actually get their heads around some of her best and most important ideas. The ones that relate to gentrification and “the self-destruction of diversity” are among those, I think.

Perhaps most important is her idea that cities are indeed “social reactors,” capable of generating great creativity and wealth. They bring us together to interact and create in various public and private places, built on the fundamental connective framework of public space, especially streets. Florida and Glaeser are right that this network phenomenon is very powerful, and it’s key to understanding how cities can generate so much immense wealth.

But as Jacobs warned, too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing. “Money floods” can be just as bad as “money droughts,” and over-concentrated, monocultural cores can be just as bad, in their own way, as desolate slums. In either case, the self-destruction of diversity results in a dangerous kind of stagnation.

What Jacobs argued for was something of a “Goldilocks principle” – neither too much of one thing in one place (money, new buildings, density, etc.) nor too little. Diversity, mixing and “spreading it around” are at the core of her urban recipe. Following her logic, that includes geographic diversity too – and a range of densities and settlement types.

Jacobs did note, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that she was writing about her primary interest at that time, big cities and their cores – and especially, her home city of New York. But her ideas (including a later series of books on urban economics) apply equally well to other kinds of settlements, and indeed any settlement.

At heart, she was describing the ways we connect to one another in urban spaces of all scales. We do sometimes connect within “special land” – her term for the private spaces, and other parts of cities that are restricted from free movement and connection. But we connect more fundamentally within “general land” – the larger network of inter-connected streets, squares, parks, and other public spaces.

She was especially interested in sidewalks and their “lowly, unpurposeful and random” contacts that form “the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.” In her later work, she expanded this notion to other forms of wealth, including economic development and creativity. Public space networks, in her view, form the ultimate framework within which we create “knowledge spillovers” – the life-blood of the “catalytic network” that generates the wealth of cities.

Why is public space fundamentally important to this system? Because it’s the natural connective fabric that underpins all the other “multi-stranded” networks that we form with one another. To take a simple example from my own life: walking down the street with my sister recently, we ran into a friend who is a fellow board member in my neighborhood association, and I introduced the two of them. They might now pass on knowledge to one another about a job opportunity, or a new idea – or they might not. But our respective “multi-stranded networks” just grew another tiny strand – and by myriad such “lowly” processes, a city generates its immense network of human connections and, ultimately, creative wealth.

Mr. Kotkin doesn’t indicate a grasp of any of this. On the contrary, he portrays Jacobs much as her nemesis Robert Moses did – nostalgic, out of touch with modern American socio-economic realities, and having sweet but impractical ideas.

He rightly points out that big cities didn’t re-urbanize in the way that Jacobs advocated – they were indeed too focused on the wealthy and the childless. But he fails to recognize that this trend did not occur spontaneously in a vacuum: it was actively encouraged by policy and practice. This is the “voodoo urbanism” that too many city boosters have bought into of late: build up your white-hot cores with creative classes and innovation districts, and watch the wealth shower down to everyone else.

In that respect it doesn’t work, of course: instead, as Florida and Glaeser have recently acknowledged, it produces a wave of unaffordability, gentrification, displacement, growing inequality – and a growing political backlash against “urban elites.”

But in another sense it works all too well, creating great (if unequal) wealth for city administrations, tech companies, and urban core (often high rise) developers. We could call it, with considerable irony, “Donald Trump Urbanism.”

Precisely the same kind of monocultural thinking from on high formed America’s modern suburbs, of which Mr. Kotkin seems so fond. Like other suburban champions, he seems to imagine that they formed spontaneously out of sheer consumer desire. But there is a long history of government planning and spending, from GI mortgages to zoning codes to street and highway systems, not unlike the kind that Robert Moses promoted around the country. That history is built on a modernist planning model of functionally segregated homes, workplaces and shopping, re-connected mostly by cars.

We have choices, Jacobs said, and out of those choices our cities are shaped, for better or worse. Our cities are built on our mental models, and if the models are defective, so are the cities – or their suburbs.

To be fair, these modern suburbs also work as engines that generate immense economic wealth – but not in the way Jacobs prescribed. The issue is not density per se, but rather, public space: the modern American suburbs are largely without it. Of course there are parks and recreation centers, and neighborhood streets with sidewalks – sometimes.

But for the most part, these bits and pieces don’t add up to a coherent public space system of the kind that Jacobs advocated. There is no “sidewalk ballet,” no “eyes on the street.” There is little serendipity and little propinquity in this network. My sister would never meet my fellow board member walking down the street.

Instead, the economic spillovers have to take place across more private networks – and much more resource-intensive ones: suburban office parks, conference centers, private shopping malls, phone and data networks, and especially, automobile travel networks. We are consigned to live and work in capsules (home, workplace, shopping), connected by capsules (cars) fueled by prodigious amounts of fossil fuel and other resources.

This investment of resources is immense, and the spillover return on resource investment is relatively meager. Another kind of stagnation, of “self-destruction of diversity,” sets in. The evidence is growing that this suburban enterprise is unsustainable, in the most basic sense of the word: there are insufficient resources to sustain it, and too many “externality costs” to be paid by others, at potentially catastrophic levels: climate change, resource depletion and shortage, ecological destruction, pollution. Then too there are more subtle social and health costs, notably a growing obesity epidemic.

The trouble with Mr. Kotkin’s critique of “nostalgia” – suggesting that all aspects of cities in the era before modern suburbs must be permanently consigned to irrelevance – is that it expresses a one-dimensional conception of history. “That was then, this is now” – and this “now” is an inexorable arrow forward. But on the contrary, history is more like a fugue, and we have choices now, just as we did then. Indeed we have a responsibility, to make cities work better in both their suburbs and their cores. Therefore all options – including learning from and possibly recapitulating aspects of cities that worked well in the past – need to be on the table for fresh consideration.

None of this is to take away from Mr. Kotkin’s valid point that the densest cores of cities are not for everyone. Instead we need geographic diversity too, and polycentric cities. Different people with different life choices need different kinds of places, certainly.

What they all need, however, is good quality, livable public space: that is to say, well-connected, walkable places, the core characteristic of all good-quality urbanism and urbanization of whatever scale. Without it, we are all immensely poorer – and all threatened by immense dangers in the future.

One year after Habitat III:

Returning to the “Key Messages” from the Future of Places forum

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At this writing we are fast approaching the one-year anniversary (on 23 December) of the historic adoption by acclamation — by all 193 countries of the United Nations — of the “New Urban Agenda,” the outcome document of the Habitat III conference.  This agreement was unquestionably a watershed for global urbanisation, placing human life, health, equity, and well-being at the centre, and establishing a “new paradigm,” in the words of Secretary-General Joan Clos, in our ways of thinking about, and acting on, cities, towns, and other settlements for the benefit of all.

Now, however, all eyes are on implementation, and here is where even greater challenges remain.  How can we change “business as usual” — destructive patterns of inequality, fragmentation, and unsustainable development?  How can we reform the “operating system for growth,” by reforming the codes, models, laws, standards, financial incentives and disincentives, and all the other elements that make up our urbanization systems?  How can we use, and share, our existing knowledge base  to do so?

This is where the Future of Places Research Network is focusing its efforts  — particularly around the essential urban framework of public space.  How can we achieve better-quality cities and towns by leveraging the benefits of better-quality urban space?

Over the last four years, the Future of Places forum (the predecessor to the FOPRN and the Centre for the Future of Places at KTH University)  brought together over 1,500 researchers, practitioners, officials and activists, representing more than 700 organizations, 275 cities and 100 countries from all around the world.  Over a series of conferences, working sessions, task groups, and UN side events, the forum included 77 academic papers and 96 sessions, culminating in a series of “key messages” that fed into the New Urban Agenda, and also influenced the principles of the Charter of Public Space and the UN-Habitat Global Public Space Toolkit.

The seven messages focus on the role and value of public spaces, and public places — that is, spaces considered from a human-centred point of view: squares, parks, playgrounds, gardens, open spaces, public facilities and venues, and importantly, streets and alleys too. Public space is any urban area that is open and accessible to all people, with minimal restrictions aimed only at safeguarding the access and enjoyment of others. Public place is urban space with social and cultural meaning.  Public spaces are locations for public activities, from informal markets and community festivals to civic events and official ceremonies.  The public spaces of a city must form a connected system, giving all people access to the benefits of social, economic and environmental networks.

Here, then, are the Key Messages as they emerged from the Future of Places forum:


Cities and human settlements need plans, strategies and frameworks that define coherent public space through fine-grained patterns of blocks, streets and other types of public spaces. This task is particularly urgent in cities that are challenged with accommodating rapid demographic change and spatial growth. To fulfill their civic role, public spaces need to be inclusive, connected, safe, and accessible. Public participatory processes give residents the opportunity to help plan and design their city and its public spaces.

The Future of Places affirms the role of public spaces as the connective network on which healthy cities and human settlements grow and prosper. Public spaces enable synergistic interaction and exchange, creativity and delight, and the transfer of knowledge and skills. Public spaces can help residents to improve their prosperity, health, happiness and wellbeing, and to enrich their social relations and cultural life.

These messages and principles are essential in the current period of rapid urbanization to inform and shape legislation, norms and practices, and is a key and integral part of the ‘new urban agenda’ for Habitat III.

The following messages, in no particular order, reflect the challenges identified and addressed by the Future of Places:

1. Citywide approach

A holistic approach to the city includes the form, function and connectivity of public spaces. Streets should serve as multimodal networks of social and economic exchange, forming the interconnected framework of public space and physical mobility. Walkability, social interaction and multimodal accessibility should be supported by a fine-grained, uninterrupted network of blocks and streets, lined with buildings of mixed uses, ages and sizes. In addition to physical connectivity, cities and human settlements should provide electronic and digital infrastructure adequate for timely communication and transmission of information.

2. Human scale

Public space needs to be of human scale to respect and respond to people’s values, sensibilities and aspirations. Appropriate shape, character and scale of the buildings that form the edges of public space contribute significantly to their character, aesthetics and success. Well-designed, appropriately sized public spaces improve the visual and spatial character of a city, while stimulating face-to-face social interaction.

3. Economic spillover

Investing in public space can have powerful economic benefits. If people are committed to their future in a specific place, they invest more time and money, supporting a virtuous cycle of local economic growth and resilience. Public space can stimulate the small scale, local and informal economy, while generating tax revenue for local governments. To be fully productive and effective, the space needs to be physically flexible in function over the day and seasons, and adaptable over the years.

4. Adequate public space for all

In many places there has been a reduction of urban public space, an increase in private, gated communities, and a lack of clear boundaries between public and private realms, reducing both freedom of movement and the variety of public and private spaces. A nuanced range of clearly demarcated places that provides public, semi-public, semi-private and private space is essential. Public space needs to be flexible and sufficiently open to serve both informal and formal settlements, as well as an inter-generational mix of diverse people and cultures. Methods and means to protect all vulnerable members of the population need to be established to secure equity in the allocation and design of these spaces.

5. People-centered approach

The task of planning is to create places that empower residents to develop their individual and collective capacities. As the arena for citizen activity and interaction, public space is typically developed, managed and maintained by municipal and metropolitan governments. A people- centered, participatory approach to urban planning by municipal and metropolitan agencies will achieve longer-lasting, more sustainable human development. Public, community, civic, charitable and private entities with differing capabilities and responsibilities must collaboratively share in the planning, design and maintenance of public space. Temporary physical interventions and demonstrations in public spaces have the ability to encourage future investment and permanent change.

6. Sustainable spaces

Public spaces and the buildings of cities and human settlements need to be socially, economically and environmentally sustainable. Social sustainability requires security, public health, equity and justice for all members of society. Economic sustainability requires balanced capital and operating budgets, and affordable but robust policies and practices. Environmental sustainability requires smaller energy and ecological footprints per capita to reduce climate change and urban heat islands, and to promote resource-efficient and resilient urban development. The sustainability of cities is enhanced by compact, mixed-use development, and dense centers served by a safe, well-connected network for pedestrians, bicycles and motorized vehicles. Renewable energy and waste recycling systems, native trees

and vegetation, clean air, water, soil and sanitary systems all serve to sustain and benefit public spaces.

7. Culture and context

Public space is made unique and meaningful through cultural and contextual elements that complement and enrich its identity. Spaces should be place-based, adaptable and responsive to geography, climate, culture and heritage. Public art and performances in public spaces can celebrate and validate a sense of community, identity, belonging and well-being. The more that our cities’ architecture and urban design is admired and loved by the public, the longer it will be cared for, adapted and sustained.

Action and Implementation:

The New Urban Agenda must identify action and implementation mechanisms that establish, support and protect public space and its users.

a.) Advocacy and Mobilization

Raise awareness and create citizen planning movements to advocate for and mobilize stakeholders to build community through discussions, forums, workshops, pop-up projects and public space prizes.

b.) Measurement and Monitoring

Establish policy and frameworks at the national level for cities to allocate a third or more of their land area to public space. An inventory of public space assets will allow a city to address shortfalls and encourage an equitable balance of public spaces throughout its neighborhoods and districts.

c.) Public Space Financing

Utilize creative financing for public land acquisition, conversion of private space to public space and land value capture to produce greater amounts of economically viable public space.

d.) Policies and Legislation

Establish policies, legislation, and regulatory mechanisms for the design, provision, management and use of public spaces. Long-term structures and partnerships at the national, regional, metropolitan and local level can align government and multiple stakeholder interests. Open feedback and transparent accountability can ensure meaningful discussions among stakeholders and government officials.

e.) Tools and Knowledge Management

Promote open-source knowledge and capacity building with training workshops, tools, best practices, model legislation, big data, Smart Cities and digital methodologies for planning, monitoring and managing public space. Assure that empirical, evidence-based research on the practice and theory of public space is made understandable and widely available.

See also:

Video address at Habitat III plenary:


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.