Habitat III and the Question of What it Means to be “Glocal”

LAURA M. HAMMETT (FES M.E.M. 2017)

In mid-October 2016, over 40,000 urban leaders from all over the world gathered at the United Nations’ Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in Quito, Ecuador. The conference, known as “Habitat III,” was the first conference of its kind in 20 years, and the outcomes from this gathering aim to shape the future of cities for decades to come.

As an urban planner studying climate risk and cities, I was part of a small group of Yale School of Forestry students participating in the conference. We prepared for months—planning presentations on urban energy and water systems research, liaising with organizing committees, and studying the draft New Urban Agenda text. Attending was arguably a career-defining opportunity of a lifetime; in the conference center halls, panel sessions, and at happy hours I met inspiring urbanists from around the globe and engaged with peers working in climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction.

However, as is often the case, deliberations at a large UN conference are more a catalyst for questions than a panacea for global problems. For me, attending Habitat III highlighted the tensions between local, national and global capacities and priorities that are now increasingly evident in our political processes.

Ours is a world where the nature of the nation state (the very cornerstone of the UN itself) is questioned by globalization trends. In this context, do cities have the autonomy or responsibility to serve as innovators in political, socio-economic, and environmental action both within their own country and on the global stage? How can the diverse nature of all cities—big or small, well-resourced or budget-strapped—be accounted for by policies deliberated at a global conference that is both expensive to attend and highlights case studies from a few, large cities like New York and Singapore over and over again? And how can cities connect with the increasingly complex resource footprints that extend far beyond their borders to help further global environmental sustainability?

In the aftermath of the conference, I’m not convinced the answers to these questions will ever be clear, but they provide an enhanced framing for my work in climate risk management moving forward. They have highlighted the ever-critical importance of integrated stakeholder engagement in planning processes, the necessity of thinking beyond a specific jurisdiction, and the increasingly complex and networked nature of urban environmental challenges. There is so much work to be done to make our cities safer, healthier, and more efficient, and I am grateful for the reminder that while no nation is homogenous, no city is an island.