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Habitat III: Charting a New Urban Agenda

October 12, 2016

By Mark Koenig

Next week, an estimated 40,000 people are expected to descend on Quito, Ecuador, for Habitat III, the third-ever United Nations conference on housing and sustainable urban development. Government delegations led by ministers and city mayors will engage with leading academics, civil society leaders, private sector actors, and urban planners to assess progress made on the recommendations presented at Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996. The summit will culminate with the adoption of a New Urban Agenda, a shared vision that sets out a global strategy for responding to rapid urbanization, and how we can better plan, manage, and support cities.


Asia accounts for 60 percent of the world’s population today. Rapid urbanization in cities like Jakarta, above, is increasingly straining the resources. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

The New Urban Agenda lays the groundwork for policies, support strategies, and research agendas for actors engaged in shaping our urban futures. The current draft suggests an international community resolved to increase its focus on urban governance and effective policy-making, generating more resilient and cleaner cities, inclusion and equality in urban areas, as well as effective and participatory spatial planning. Coalescing around these key themes will galvanize those working on urban issues to advocate for key improvements to policy and planning, focus international funding to support urban development on critical issues, and influence key actors as they develop strategies and solutions to improve the world’s cities.

I’ll be attending HABITAT III with a clear recognition that rapid urbanization is one the most critical trends shaping the world today. According to the UN Habitat’s 2016 World Cities Report, cities now make up 54.5 percent of the world’s population, up from 45 percent 20 years ago at the time of the Istanbul summit, and 37.9 percent in 1976 when the inaugural Habitat summit was held in Vancouver. Cities emit 70 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and account for 80 percent of global GDP. Some 30 percent of developing country populations now live in urban slums (with the highest number in Asia), and 75 percent of cities worldwide now have higher levels of inequality than two decades ago.

Nowhere will the impact of our collective successes and failures in managing our cities be greater than in Asia, which accounts for 60 percent of the world’s population today. The World Bank estimates that more than 200 million people have migrated to cities in Asia since 2000, but that approximately half of the continent’s population still live in rural areas. This means that rapid urbanization is likely to continue in Asia for decades, leading to a region that will boast 25-30 megacities (with populations over 10 million) by 2025, and see urbanization increasingly strain the region’s resources while also driving much of its economic growth.

Sprawling unplanned settlements on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

For decades, The Asia Foundation has supported the governments and residents of cities across the region to achieve a wide range of goals including strengthening service delivery, supporting local business climates, and promoting inclusion. More recently, however, the Foundation has been making a more concerted effort to analyze problems using the lens of urbanization and urban governance when planning and implementing programs. Becoming a more conscious urban actor has enabled the Foundation to design higher-impact programs in Asian cities to improve the lives of residents. This evolution in our strategy has affected programming in a number of ways. A few examples of this include:

  • Placing a greater emphasis on collecting and analyzing data and information that helps us to understand complex urban environments. In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, we developed a community mapping process that supported residents of unplanned settlements to fill critical information gaps that were limiting government planning for service delivery. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, our program team used GIS trackers to study inefficiencies in solid waste transportation.
  • Responding to the unique governance challenges facing cities. In many countries, city governments often lag behind national counterparts in terms of government capacity, transparency, accountability, and anti-corruption efforts. In 25 municipalities across Nepal, we supported improved budget and decision-making transparency to reduce corruption and waste that was negatively impacting the quality of services and infrastructure projects being received by local residents.
  • Responding to the clear challenges that dense urban populations pose to the environment and help mitigate potential negative effects of global climate change. In China, we supported academics in Guangdong province to study how well its cities were able to support small business to develop environmentally friendly and profitable business ideas that would increase China’s low-carbon economy.
  • Recognizing the growing role that cities and their leaders have in sharing experiences with their peers and heightening international cooperation. The Foundation has worked closely with the mayors of Ulaanbaatar and Seoul to support the “Northeast Asian Mayor’s Forum” which brought together mayors from around the region to explore their innovative solutions to promoting green growth and explore greater cooperation between cities in the region.
  • Better understanding of the unique challenges for inclusion and equality that cities create. This has meant a focus on better integration and support of unplanned settlements or slums in some cities, as well as efforts to reduce barriers that prevent women and girls from accessing opportunities that cities can offer. For example, in India the Foundation supported the development of SafetiPin, a mobile application designed to help women move through the city without fear of violence or intimidation.

We look forward to sharing our experiences at HABITAT III, but also to using this moment to continue to engage with the cutting-edge thinkers that will help us support the creation of livable cities throughout Asia that will drive the region’s development. Stay tuned here for our insights and reflections from HABITAT III over the coming weeks, and follow #Habitat3 on Twitter from the event.

Mark Koenig is associate director of The Asia Foundation’s Program Strategy, Innovation and Learning (PSIL) unit. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: Cambodia, China, India, Korea, Mongolia, Nepal
Related programs: Environment and Climate Action, Inclusive Economic Growth
Related topics: Urbanization

1 Comment

  1. A good and timely introduction to a major change underway and global efforts to respond to and steer that change in positive directions. I appreciate the work of The Asia Foundation (TAF) on this important issue and enjoyed reading the descriptions of TAF projects related to urbanization. US cities have as much to learn from Asian cities as vice versa.

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