Habitat III Leader or Laggard – Wales and Sustainable Urbanisation


Next week the third United Nations conference on Housing and Sustainable Urbanisation – Habitat III gets underway in Quito in Ecuador. Given these conferences only happen once every 20 years or so, for those concerned with these issues it should provide a useful global learning opportunity and a prism through which to reflect on our local progress.

The draft outcome document for the conference “The New Urban Agenda”, many years in the drafting

( that’s how these events work), reads like a sustainability practitioners dream programme, rightly setting an ambitious vision and outlining key characteristics against which to judge progress on delivering sustainable urbanisation.

“By readdressing the way cities and human settlements are planned, designed, financed, developed, governed, and managed, the New Urban Agenda will help to end poverty and hunger in all its forms and dimensions, reduce inequalities, promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, in order to fully harness their vital contribution to sustainable development, improve human health and well-being, as well as foster resilience and protect the environment.” The New Urban Agenda – draft Habitat III outcome framework.

There has been alot of discussion in the UK recently about “inclusive growth” in the context of city regions, as the primary vehicle for growth, and more specifically locally in the context of the developing Cardiff Capital and Swansea Bay city regions and their City deals.

Habitat III provides a useful reminder, if one were needed, that regardless of whether its Rio or Rangoon, Dhakar or Durban or Cardiff or Swansea, the integration of economic, social and environmental goals is essential in helping address the gulf in life experiences those living in and around cities experience.

While none of us would dare to rank the challenges facing South Wales on the same scale as those facing the sub-continent or South America the principles, approaches and solutions being advocated at Habitat III provide a useful checklist to help address our own housing and urbanisation challenges. There can be no doubt that Wales as a country is leading the way, in some respects ,through the adoption of the Well Being of Future Generations Act in 2015, creating the legislative framework for ensuring  more integrated thinking. Changing ingrained cultures about what the future might look like and mainstreaming that debate in every aspect of policy is however proving more difficult.

Contradictory messages about building new motorways and ditching anti –poverty programmes show Wales still has a long way to go until it walks the walk as well as it talks the talk of sustainable development.

A bureaucratisation of the process of identifying Well Being “needs” is underway that is struggling to consistently engage with local people and as a result may lack the oomph to challenge existing orthodoxies. The risk is that whilst branded as “imperfect” and evolving these initial efforts may be judged by policy makers , at least until they need to be repeated in 5 years, as the best that can be done, undermining the credibility of the approach with all those concerned from the outset.

Habitat III provides the platform to sustain the debate about Wales’ global sustainable development credentials but also should provide the prism to honestly reflect on the reality and integrity of what we are trying to achieve on our doorstep.

Our place planning work in Llanelli and other areas across Wales highlights the importance of shared decision making and co-production with local residents in addressing evidence led problems with really local solutions, at a level where the difference can be felt and measured , progress can be celebrated and inaction challenged. Localising the principles of Habitat III in the most tangible way possible.

Check our Place planning in Wales prospectus

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