Report on the Habitat III Conference

Geschrieben am 07.03.2017
Kategorie(n): ARCH+ news, Planetary Urbanism, Habitat, Quito

by Zhen Zhang


Habitat III: To Stay in the Front

The UN Habitat Conference (formally called the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development) is held every twenty years. The first Habitat Conference took place in Vancouver, Canada in 1976, followed by a second in Istanbul, Turkey in 1996. The third Habitat Conference—Habitat III—was held in 2016 from October 17 to 20, in Quito, Ecuador, where delegates adopted a framework called the “New Urban Agenda” to guide urban policy at every level for the next twenty years.

H III: Impressions

Anyone arriving to Quito in early October couldn’t have missed the huge “HABITAT” signs at the airport and all over the city. Yet the signs weren’t the only welcoming gesture: days before the event began, local workers were busy freshening up the paint jobs on the city’s buildings, pruning the plants in the parks around the conference venue, repaving the roads, painting new bicycle lanes that had never existed before. Police were marching here and there around the city, giving an impression of strengthened security that was echoed by the faraway sirens of police cars ringing constantly throughout the days of the conference. So what did it mean for Quito—beyond the evident investment in beautifying the city, the heavy investment in advertising the country’s touristic offerings—to better acquaintance itself with and become the sudden focus of the rest of the world?

The main conference venue, Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, has probably never witnessed a crowd of this magnitude before—over a four-day period, it hosted some 30,000 guests. This main venue is located in an enclosed area together with the Parque del Arbolito, fenced off from the rest of the city. The exhibition area, where the national pavilions were housed alongside pavilions overseen by institutions, universities, and groups from civil society and the private sector, was located less than a kilometer from the conference zone, constructed under a landscape of huge white tents that protected it from the unpredictable weather of Ecuador’s October rain season. Trips back and forth between the conference and exhibition areas became a daily routine over the six days of Habitat, involving lots of walking, security checks, and queues. One eventually grows accustomed to life at the conference; indeed, you could describe the fenced-in conference venue as a kind of world village, with booths offering every sort of global culinary specialty in fast-food format, each with its own colors and different designs. However, in total, the village fades into something like a stage set, where all the colors and designs merge together to form a collective personality, the street view of this global village called United Nations, whose residents, mostly wearing variations of the same dark suit and tie, are just as unique as they are anonymous, merging into a whole. A global city it may very well be, but the term “generic city” also applies.  

Altogether, some 30,000 people made the effort to gather in Quito for four to six days, where they attended plenary meetings or other events, visited exhibitions, joined discussions at special sessions and round-table talks, or simply networked. Yet what, ultimately, was achieved? Should it be judged as a conference that only a few heads of state attended (compared to the 2015 Sustainable Development Summit or the Paris Climate Change Conference)? Should it be judged by its “New” Urban Agenda, which (as many Habitat ’76 alumni have criticized) is not new at all, but represents instead a series of old ideals repeated now for the simple reason that they were never actually implemented? Should it be judged by the final draft of these, which was determined before the world gathering in Quito during the pre-conference in New York? By the twenty-three-page document itself, which is as all-inclusive and comprehensive as you can hope for, yet repeats content throughout the pages? Should it be criticized as a UN event purporting to encourage participation through inclusive roundtables and stakeholder discussions, yet whose rhetoric is clearly dominated by policymakers with predefined objectives and issues, forming a glass barrier against participation or any kind of paradigm shift? Should it be viewed as indicative of the wider gap that exists today between governmental institutions and civil society, as the ’76 alumni charge? How should we understand a discussion about issues affecting our “habitat” that scarcely explores the spatial aspects of the topic or takes the built environment into account —a discussion from which architects and planners, the main actors who shape the urban habitat in reality, were largely missing?

Considering that all the UN member states are brought together to work through the “New Urban Agenda,” the dialogue itself is certainly an educative and participatory process for many national governments. Habitat attendees speak of themselves with solidarity, as a collective “we”—after all, across the vast scope of UN territory, some 30,000 people came together for a few days, each participating to a certain extent. It needn’t be pointed out, however, that none of these 30,000 are faced with existential need—those who are don’t have the leisure to attend. This points to the real dilemma of global participation: the world discourse leaves out a large number of world citizens, even though the discourse seems open. What does this mean for the 30,000 politicians and professionals whose voices were heard on the world stage?


As part of the contribution for the German Pavilion at the Habitat III conference, ARCH+ brought the exhibition “Planetary Urbanism” to Quito from October 15–20. The ARCH+ exhibition was sponsored by the Federal Foreign Office, consulted by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), and exhibited in partnership with the Museum for Architecture and the Art of Engineering (M:AI).

Using concrete examples, the exhibition gives a snapshot of contemporary urban living conditions across the world. Exhibits take the form of visualizations realized using information design, as well as models and videos. On the basis of the focuses of the individual works, the exhibition identifies six themes that serve as framework conditions and backgrounds of “planetary urbanism”; these themes function as guideposts for understanding and interpreting the ongoing, global urbanization process. The six themes identified are both independent phenomena and issues contingent to policy, a circumstance that triggers political reflections and discussions.

There’s great value to joining the urbanization discourse at the Habitat Conference with our own independent voice—and to presenting our work, as an active stakeholder in the German Pavilion, side-by-side with government agendas. The government’s attitude toward fostering open and free dialogue is a necessity if independent criticism is to survive and bridge various levels of society. The Habitat Conference—the world’s most important conference on housing and sustainable urban development—was a great opportunity for our exhibition to reach a wide variety of audiences: national and subnational policymakers, organizations and academic institutions, civil society, the private sector, as well as individual citizens on the global scale. By presenting empirical realities to these politicians and institutions, we hoped to deepen their understanding and empathy, as well as to facilitate reflections about the past or about ongoing policies. Beyond the extent to which political insiders agreed or disagreed, the exhibition also generated a great deal of interest from the public thanks to its interactive information design. Through our guided tour, we sought to engage in a dialogue with civil society and individual citizens, in the hope of further raising social awareness and helping to foster a responsible, participatory process. Looking at Habitat III in retrospect, in light of the Brexit referendum and the catastrophic presidential election in the US, adds a new urgency to our endeavor in an epoch characterized by lost equity, value, and judgement.

Over the past few decades, the worldwide priority laid on fostering economic development has contributed to a reduction in the overall poverty level. However, human living conditions have not risen proportionally with the world’s accumulation of wealth. Extreme concentration of wealth has left behind the majority of the world population. The polarized result of this process can be summarized under the term “neoliberalism,” as the process itself has been undergirded by the financial mechanisms and incentive structure of neoliberal policy, characterized by an uneasy collaboration between the state and private sectors and minimal state intervention in public affairs. Itself an American invention of the late 1970s, neoliberalism has become the dominant ideology and practice among the world’s major economic players ever since.

In our exhibition “Planetary Urbanism,” by highlighting the theme “neoliberal urban policy,” a topic rarely addressed at major world conferences (including Habitat) due to its political nature, and placing it side-by-side with the theme “informal vs. regulated,” we sought to establish a comparison, using concrete examples, between the highly concentrated, privileged, and isolated metropolitan elites (represented through the project “Gated Communities”) and the urban squatters who are left behind (represented through the project “Information Overload”), for whom there are no choices left beyond self-organization. If we are to seriously talk about a paradigm shift, it’s difficult not to reflect on these two themes.

It’s true that land use is one of the focal points of the New Urban Agenda: the agenda calls for fulfilling the “social and ecological function of land with a view to progressively achieving the full realization of the right to adequate housing . . . universal access to safe and affordable drinking water and sanitation . . . to public goods and quality services” (NUA 13). In other words, the agenda seeks to address the would-be battlefield between “cities for people” and “cities for profit.” In terms of the theme “migration,” one of the six covered in our exhibition, the New Urban Agenda addresses the “human rights of refugees” and of “internally displaced persons and migrants” (NUA 18). Our themes “urban metabolism” and “interconnected cities” are reflected in the New Urban Agenda in the call for “facilitating . . . sustainable management of natural resources . . . that protects and improves the urban ecosystem and environmental services, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, and promotes disaster risk reduction and management” (NUA 65), and for “supporting territorial systems that integrate urban and rural functions . . . thus promoting sustainable management and use of natural resources and land, ensuring reliable supply and value chains” (NUA 50). Adding to this, the agenda goes on to encourage “urban–rural interactions and connectivity by strengthening sustainable transport and mobility, and also technology and communication networks and infrastructure” (NUA 51). This suggests a tendency in the direction of infrastructure development, or the so-called Smart City.

Lefebvre’s concept of a “right to the city,” although introduced in the late 1960s, continues to reemerge in political and academic discourses, to an extent that the term often generates more confusion than clarity—which serves as a partial explanation of why the full recognition of a “right to the city” remained one of the critical issues in the drafting process of the New Urban Agenda (NUA 11). The development of the “right to the city” discourse runs parallel to how the word “rebellion” has been colored and complicated over the years, especially in a post-9/11 era; the relevance of this word, however, can no longer be ignored.

The democratic election of Donald Trump has presented the world with a heavy blow against the establishment, a warning of how much anger and resentment exists among the people—an act that could be described as a “democratic rebellion” realized via a legal election, and interpreted as the culmination of the peaceful protests that have taken place over the past decades. This resentment is targeted against globalization and “outsiders”; one’s own misery must be the fault of others. With some white Americans blaming globalization as the reason for their loss of financial status, the theme “local effects of globalization” tries to draw a more complete picture of the process and history of globalization, in order to reveal the game of power shifting behind the globalization process, carried out before the backdrop of the worldwide adoption of neoliberalism (using the example of the project “Urbanism of Disassembly”). It also strives to illustrate how globalization has influenced and continues to influence the living conditions foremost in the Global South.

In our age, the widespread belief in false facts and interpretations—a phenomenon that was especially evident in the US presidential campaign—has now triggered reflections among professionals from all walks of life, who are expressing a heartfelt sense of responsibility in their own daily endeavors. When it comes to the field of media, the better educated have access to more elaborate information sources and are arguably accustomed to larger amounts of information intake, while the less educated are left behind even in terms of the information they have access to.

We’re confronted, on a daily basis, with information overload. The problem today is not a lack of information, but rather—quite the contrary­—an overflow. It’s extremely difficult to differentiate true facts from false facts, to filter out useful information, and to structure data in a way that helps us better understand reality. Indeed, we could describe this state as a “black transparency” of information. In such an era, critical media must understand their task in the following terms: to fight against false facts, to provide orientation, and to present structured data. It’s precisely with this task in mind that the competition and exhibition “Planetary Urbanism” were organized and presented. We hoped to give people a carefully selected and curated view of specialized fields and the confusing reality that faces us, while doing our best to ensure that the topics were presented accurately and fairly. Some journalists speak of “presenting the truth”; it must be pointed out, however, that any analysis approaches its subject with a certain value and a specific engagement—and it’s the value and engagement we choose that ultimately makes a difference in our time.

Participation is the key word. In order to bridge our polarized society and facilitate a fair dialogue between the establishment and the people, we must endeavor to encourage participation. Therefore, the kind of information, and how it reaches the two poles, becomes crucial. In this endeavor, information design is our tool. In addition to our own contribution to Habitat III, we were happy to encounter other academics who are working on bridging theory and practice, which will better enable participation: Habitat X Change from Potsdam, for example, which is striving to bring science together with visualization for a sustainable urban future; Urban Age from LSE, which is conducting a worldwide investigation into the future of cities; or the MIT Metro Lab, committed to bridging the gaps in metro coverage, and The New School, with its commitment to dissolving the walls between disciplines to effect positive change.

After H III: from Vision to Action

Habitat III concluded on October 20 with the adoption of the New Urban Agenda. Considering that member states and local governments are not obligated to take any specific actions or meet specific targets, the agenda serves more as a vision than a policy. Nevertheless, in such a turbulent age, it seems even more necessary to once again rearticulate and reconfirm our shared vision. Dr. Joan Clos, the executive director of UN Habitat and the secretary general of the conference, expressed the need to go “back to basics,” and called on delegates not to see the document as a new agenda, but to see it as a blueprint for the “forgotten agenda” [1]. 

At the closing press conference, Joan Clos stated: “Urbanization creates value to the citizens, and it is the responsibility of national governments to distribute this value in a fair and equal manner to all the citizens” [2]; for this vision to be enacted, in other words, requires a joint effort from all stakeholders—yet, first and foremost, it must be implemented on the political level. Recent world events have demonstrated how people are increasingly losing faith in grand visions; people who are disappointed will eventually disappoint politicians.

Whether the new manifesto exists solely on the page, and is destined to become another “failed dream,” is yet to be decided, and will be judged by the implementation plans on the national and subnational levels. Germany, for example, has set up the “Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative” to facilitate investment of a billion euros next year, and intends to expand funding for projects related to urban development in the International Climate Initiative (IKI) to the tune of about 30 million euros [3]. The subnational level constitutes another active force for implementation; as Berlin’s Mayor Michael Müller said, “The New Urban Agenda only has a chance of succeeding if cities are allowed to be involved in its implementation” [4]. The implementation plans will be reviewed on the basis of indicators to be developed by global institutions and within individual states. Considering that Dr. Eduardo López Moreno, the Director of Research and Capacity Development at UN-HABITAT, is advocating for the indicators to be collected locally, while Professor Michael Cohen from The New School in New York City emphasizes the need for a limited set of general indicators to enable comparability [5], it will definitely be important to continue keeping an eye on how the indicators develop.

As the representative for the German delegation, State Secretary for Building Gunther Adler addressed the opening session of Habitat III: “Conventional development strategies can no longer serve as our blueprints. If we pursue business-as-usual, we will be steering the planet toward climate collapse, and running the risk of grave social dislocation, with serious hardship, violence, and waves of people fleeing their homes” [6]. Even though the NUA is intended to work toward “an urban paradigm shift for a New Urban Agenda that will readdress the way we plan, finance, develop, govern and manage cities and human settlements” (NUA 15), as Chair of the WBGU Hans Joachim Schellnhuber pointed out, “a paradigm shift on how cities need to be designed and built to make sure that we do not breach the planetary guardrails is not made clear” [7]. Apropos of a paradigm shift, the coordinator of the Habitat III Secretariat, Ana Moreno, mentioned in the Habitat III Journalism Project: “Unless we manage in twenty years to have this capacity of knowledge connected with the policy and connected with the accountability, it will not be a real paradigm change. A paradigm change can only happen if behavior changes” [8].

As media members, institutions, and academics who witnessed Habitat III, we must understand it as our task, over the next twenty years, to contribute to this capacity of knowledge connected with policy and accountability, to bridge policymakers and citizens as well as to bridge theory and practice, in order to enable a truly participatory urban process for creating “cities for all” or a “right to the city.” David Harvey has given further definition to the latter, describing it as “the exercise of a collective power to reshape the process of urbanization.” Bearing this in mind, ARCH+, in partnership with M:AI and in consultation with WBGU, will bring the exhibition “Planetary Urbanism” to more outposts in 2017, with the goal of helping to deepen the global understanding and awareness of the ongoing process of global urbanization. It is this process that will determine our future.

Author: Zhen Zhang


[1] [2]








(All rights reserved. © ARCH+ Verlag GmbH, the author.)

(Graphic design of the exhibition “Planetary Urbanism” by: kikkerbillen,


(Architecture of the exhibition “Planetary Urbanism” by: AL BORDE,

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