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Habitat III

Posted: 29th November 2016

Peter Geraghty

Director of Planning and Transport, Southend on Sea Borough Council

Chair of the RTPI International Committee

Habitat III has been much in the news recently – but what relevance does it have to UK built environment professionals? The UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) took place over the 17th-20th October 2016, in Quito, Ecuador, when an estimated 35,000 people from 193 nations descended on the city. It included architects, engineers, planners, activists, environmentalists, administrators and public officials including mayors and presidents. The outcome of Habitat III is the New Urban Agenda. This document is a blueprint for sustainable development and for that reason I believe that Habitat III is very relevant to UK built environment professionals and members of the Construction Industry Council (CIC) in particular.

The tendency is to think of the New Urban Agenda and the associated Sustainable Development Goals[1] as something for the developing world; as if the shortage of decent housing, impact of natural disasters such as flooding or increased pollution levels are issues that substantially apply only to some far off lands. However, much of what is contained in the New Urban Agenda and embodied in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (particularly SDG11, discussed below) are what we, as built environment professionals, would recognise as the basic principles for a sustainable future applicable to any context.

Cities account for only 2% of the Earth's surface, and yet, are inhabited by more than 50% of the world’s population and consume 75% of the world’s natural resources. By 2050, the world urban population is expected to nearly double, making urbanization one of the 21st century’s most transformative trends. The UK population is expected to increase by 46% by 2060, to 79 million inhabitants. This means that the UK will face some of the demographic challenges experienced in developing countries. At the same time, the average population in the UK is becoming older. In 2011, 10.4 million people (16% of the population) were aged 65 or over and by 2061 this will be more than a quarter of the UK population. In England 61% of adults and 30% of children aged between 2 and 15 are overweight or obese. Health problems associated with being overweight or obese costs the NHS more than £5 billion every year. The UK is facing many of the issues around resilience that are being confronted throughout the world. The principles described in the New Agenda can provide the means to enable UK built environment professionals and decision-makers to meet these pressing urban challenges.

The New Urban Agenda has a vision for cities and settlements that:

  • fulfil their social function, including the social and ecological function of land, with a view to progressively achieve the full realization of the right to adequate housing, as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, without discrimination, universal access to safe and affordable drinking water and sanitation, as well as equal access for all to public goods and quality services in areas such as food security and nutrition, health, education, infrastructure, mobility and transportation, energy, air quality, and livelihoods;
  • are participatory, promote civic engagement, engender a sense of belonging and ownership among all their inhabitants, prioritize safe, inclusive, accessible, green, and quality public spaces, friendly for families, enhance social and intergenerational interactions, cultural expressions, and political participation, as appropriate, and foster social cohesion, inclusion, and safety in peaceful and pluralistic societies, where the needs of all inhabitants are met, recognizing the specific needs of those in vulnerable situations;
  • achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal rights in all fields and in leadership at all levels of decision-making, and by ensuring decent work and equal pay for equal work, or work of equal value for all women, as well as preventing and eliminating all forms of discrimination, violence, and harassment against women and girls in private and public spaces;
  • meet the challenges and opportunities of present and future sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, leveraging urbanization for structural transformation, high productivity, value added activities, and resource efficiency, harnessing local economies, taking note of the contribution of the informal economy while supporting a sustainable transition to the formal economy;
  • fulfil their territorial functions across administrative boundaries, and act as hubs and drivers for balanced sustainable and integrated urban and territorial development at all levels;
  • promote age- and gender-responsive planning and investment for sustainable, safe, and accessible urban mobility for all and resource efficient transport systems for passengers and freight, effectively linking people, places, goods, services, and economic opportunities;
  • adopt and implement disaster risk reduction and management, reduce vulnerability, build resilience and responsiveness to natural and man-made hazards, and foster mitigation and adaptation to climate change;
  • protect, conserve, restore, and promote their ecosystems, water, natural habitats, and biodiversity, minimize their environmental impact, and change to sustainable consumption and production patterns.

There is a role for built environment professionals to promote these principles in the UK in their dealing with government and when engaging with policy and decision-makers. The skills of CIC members can make a difference both in the UK and in practice internationally. For example, the UK Built Environment Advisory Group for Humanitarian Action (UKBEAG) was launched at Habitat III. This UKBEAG[2] consisting of the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Royal Institute (RTPI) of British Architects (RIBA) and the Institution of Structural Engineers has been created to provide the international humanitarian and development community with a more effective conduit to the collective expertise of its member institutes together with access to the combined resources of over 100,000 members working in more than 150 countries throughout the world.

UKBEAG has been established to provide an effective route for the transfer of built environment expertise to a range of humanitarian and development partners together with foreign governments. It will provide engagement, advocacy and dissemination together with access to the best of British skills in the field of built environment expertise. UKBEAG also intends to work with the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies as well as with associated humanitarian agencies such as the Global Alliance for Urban Crises.

The strength of working together with colleagues across professions is that the skills base is widened and professionals can work together in a complementary fashion. Complex urban crises demand multi-scale, multi-faceted, cross-sector based approaches well beyond traditional humanitarian and development boundaries. One of the key Sustainable Development Goals (SDG No. 11) that featured at Habitat III focuses on making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. CIC members and the UKBEAG can play its part in achieving this goal by providing access to the knowledge and experience of built environment professionals not only at times of crises but also in helping future-proofing the resilience of towns and cities and supporting sustainable development.

I believe the outcomes of Habitat III are much more prescient and relevant than many built environment professionals in the UK might at first think.

Contributor: Peter Geraghty is the Director of Planning and Transport at Southend on Sea Borough Council. Peter is also Chair of the RTPI International Committee. All the views expressed in this blog are his personal views and not those of his employer

[1] The global development goals can be found at:

[2] The Group has established a web site hosted by the RIBA: