The future is urban. Per the World Bank, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. A vision of and plan for housing this mind-boggling percentage is crucial. And that was precisely the task undertaken at the October 2016 meeting of the UN-Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador. The conference produced what will surely be a crucial document, the New Urban Agenda (the complete text can be found in PDF here).
Yet, to understand context of this conference and the resulting framework for 21st-century urban policy, history offers valuable precedent.
Mid-19th century Paris was the site of massive transformation via urban planning. The city’s urban slums and twisted cobblestone streets were transformed under Baron Haussmann’s guidance. They gave way to the façades, railings, streetlamps, and wide boulevards characterizing Paris to this day.
At heart was a tension about the city’s future. If on the one hand there was militarization, forsaken heterogeneity and unplanned beauty, and control imposed on lower-income areas, on the other there was public safety, increased capacity for future residents, and vastly improved access to public sanitation. The same competing issues that plagued Haussmann’s renovation of Paris are present in today’s debate on an open versus a closed city.
Essentially, the closed (or functional) city privileges the delimitation of spaces based on use. That is, housing in high-rises in the periphery, office buildings downtown, free time spent in green public spaces, and a surrounding network of time-saving highways. At the IV International Congress of Modern Architecture in 1933, such a conception was considered ideal. This was especially tantalizing, for the concept of an urban future was terrifying, with the city viewed as diseased, dystopian.
Out of the congress, Le Corbusier and company developed the “Charter of Athens,” emphasizing functional city planning. The document avers a firm belief in technology and rigid, compartmentalized design as the solution to modern ills.
Although premised on the achievement of equality through urban planning, the Charter of Athens has led to the opposite, according to the proponents of open cities. Such a critique drives the New Urban Agenda. Roughly eight decades after the Charter of Athens, the voices of UN-Habitat III are enamored of the city’s chaos. Its makers call for enhanced public transit, more sustainability, greater interconnectedness; in short, a city open to changes.
In the New Urban Agenda, the antiprivatization emphasis is amplified. Although not an explicit part of the document, Saskia Sassen‘s charge that logics of extraction and expulsion have permeated our society is prominent. That is, urban-planning and (international and domestic) financial-lending policies are reminiscent of the strategies of the mining industry, which are focused on maximizing short-term gain to the detriment of long-term sustainability. Therefore, it is no surprise that the New Urban Agenda only passingly mentions the private sector, tacitly arguing for an almost exclusively public-led future of urbanization.
As could also be expected, the document occasionally slips into platitudes about not leaving anyone behind. Another area meriting further attention is religion, which is ignored save for positing that there should be no form of discrimination in the open city. To some extent, this is understandable. The New Urban Agenda is not about dictating people’s religious beliefs. Nevertheless, not touching the subject is counterproductive given the role of urban growth in countries with explicitly religious governments and the importance of religious institutions worldwide in terms of access for the urban poor.
That said, the document captures the staggering importance of water and urban agriculture, both of which will shape the future of cities in the developing and the developed world. The New Urban Agenda’s promulgation of a sustainable and flexible city demands awareness of environmental concerns. To this end, a host of critical if unsexy issues (i.e., water, urban agriculture, informal housing and work, food security, gender violence, waste decentralization, the right to housing, and bans on land speculation) forms the base of the New Urban Agenda.
The impact of the New Urban Agenda may be far-reaching, but its readership likely is not. Thus, the technical New Urban Agenda is distilled in “The Quito Papers: Towards the Open City.” Despite not relying on technology as messiah, the open city’s backers recognize the short film’s ability to spread their message. Specifically, they argue for a less functional city design. This visual presentation of the philosophy guiding the UN-Habitat III conference draws on the words of Joan Clos, Saskia Sassen, Richard Sennett, and Richard Burdett.
Set against a backdrop of urban spaces around the globe, The Quito Papers feels like a slick new TV show. It is full of bright colors, varied angles, cleverly framed shots, and sun-splashed images of foreign locales. The combined effect borders on a fetishizing of urban poverty, though I would not attribute this to the filmmakers’ intention. Occasionally heavy-handed (a problem compounded by the ominous music), the voice-over calls for a deeper engagement with the city as a place of forward-thinking social change.
The city, one narrator holds, is the place of fortuitous encounters; it is incompleteness and constant interaction. Design, policy, vision, and regulations all matter. However, on this point, the academic love of dissonance, chance, and disorder, that is, architecture designed for addition, runs into reality. Nonetheless, the official document—the New Urban Agenda—and the film it inspired—The Quito Papers: Towards the Open City—are persuasive cases for the power of narrative in crafting the world’s urban future.
Paris photo by Thierry Bézecourt from Wikimedia Commons under CC lic.