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Taking on Pressing Challenges with the New Urban Agenda at Habitat III

Photograph showing the city of Quito, Ecuador in front of the Pichincha skyline.More than 30,000 people gathered in Quito, Ecuador for Habitat III in October 2016.

More than 30,000 people gathered in Quito, Ecuador, from October 17 to October 20, 2016, for Habitat III, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development and the last major United Nations conference of the Obama administration. HUD’s Office for International and Philanthropic Innovation (IPI) recently returned from this inspiring and thought-provoking event, which happens once every 20 years, filled with enthusiasm for taking action to improve our cities and communities.

HUD and the U.S. Department of State began the U.S. preparation process for Habitat III more than 2 years ago. We drew on the work of our federal, state, and local efforts — and our non-profit, academic, and philanthropic partners across the country — to inform the preparation and to help us all improve our work in cities and towns across the nation. This process included a series of five domestic convenings across the United States co-hosted by HUD as well as five sessions in Washington, DC, to inform and elevate urban policy discussions within the international affairs community. Before the release of the New Urban Agenda, HUD drafted “The U.S. 20/20 Habitat III Report” to share the story of housing and community development in the United States during the 20 years since Habitat II.

At the same time, similar Habitat III preparations were underway around the world. These included preparatory meetings and discussions; policy papers and reports on a range of themes; global, national, and local efforts; and negotiations surrounding the New Urban Agenda. The Habitat III conference built on all these individual and collective efforts, catalyzing a palpable energy among participants eager to tackle the complex urban challenges of our times.

The Habitat III conference provided a forum for HUD to engage with U.S. and international partners across the government, nonprofit, and private sectors to reflect on our common challenges and mutual goals for sustainable and inclusive urbanization. The U.S. delegation took the opportunity to share some of the successes and challenges of President Obama’s administration in working toward greater inclusivity and fostering communities that create opportunity for all Americans. Place-based initiatives across federal agencies, the recovery from the housing crisis, efforts at reducing homelessness, and strategies for building resilience all provide valuable lessons in strengthening communities that we can share with the global community and build on in the years ahead.

Among the global preparations for Habitat III, the negotiation of the New Urban Agenda stands out. This document, the result of a consensus among all member states of the United Nations, puts forward guiding principles and policy recommendations for sustainable urban development. The Habitat III Secretariat held several negotiations in drafting the document, making compromises and adjusting the language to be applicable and appropriate for the wide range of contexts and conditions throughout the world. We at HUD were pleased with the final document — in particular, its focus on inclusivity, integrated approaches to community and economic development, public engagement, environmental resilience, and the importance of strengthening communities to create economic mobility and address issues of poverty and inequality.

With the completion of the New Urban Agenda, the discussion at the conference shifted toward action and the implementation of those guiding principles. The Habitat III participants devoted their energy and time to next steps and the programmatic, logistical, and financial challenges of tackling these issues on the ground.

Photograph of HUD Secretary Julián Castro and nine other representatives at Habitat III.HUD Secretary Julián Castro, joined by HUD staff and leadership, led the official U.S. delegation to Habitat III, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development.

We are proud that the United States had substantial and diverse representation at Habitat III. Secretary Julián Castro led our official U.S. delegation. Much like the participants in our domestic preparations, the U.S. delegation to Habitat III included representation from organizations throughout government, non-profits, professional organizations, and philanthropy. In addition, mayors, public housing officials, academics, and affinity groups represented the United States on various urban issues. The United States was at the forefront of the movement for an inclusive approach throughout the global preparations and negotiations for Habitat III as well as during the conference itself. HUD understands that our collective commitment to the issues of sustainable housing and urban development relies on engagement with this broader set of organizations and stakeholders.

HUD’s representation at Habitat III included Secretary Castro, Chief of Staff Nealin Parker, and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development Harriet Tregoning, and staff from the Office of International and Philanthropic Innovation. Among the highlights from the whirlwind of meetings and events was when Secretary Castro addressed the third plenary session and later co-chaired the High-Level Roundtable on Affordable Housing. HUD also organized an official side event called “Equity & Inclusion: A Mayor and Minister Discussion of National-Local Policies to Combat Inequality and Achieve Opportunity for All.” In this session, Secretary Castro led a roundtable discussion with mayors and ministers from the global north and south focused on achieving inclusive growth and opportunity in our communities. By learning from examples of national-subnational coordination and actionable solutions for cities, the participants studied ways to activate and implement the New Urban Agenda as well as how to develop the community of practice dedicated to building strong communities. The room was packed with attendees eager to hear the comments and to participate in the conversation.

We left Quito feeling energized and eager to take on the challenges facing our communities and build on the principles of the New Urban Agenda. We know that much of this work is already moving forward in the United States, but much also remains to be done. Our domestic partners are planning ways to engage and move their own work forward. We at the Office of Policy Development and Research and IPI are also planning our next steps, advancing an inclusive approach that will draw on the Habitat III conference while furthering the good work in our towns and cities, states, local and regional organizations, and federal agencies. We look forward to collaborating with all of you in the important work of strengthening our communities — and drawing on our collective roles, strengths, and perspectives in tackling these challenging issues.