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Learning from the City: The Midwest Regional Convening of UN Habitat III, An Interview with Antonio Riley

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in partnership with the U.S. Department of State, is leading U.S. government preparations for the third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III). The Habitat conference, which the United Nations (U.N.) convenes every 20 years, will be held in October 2016 in Quito, Ecuador.

The 1976 Habitat I conference in Vancouver, Canada, sparked an international conversation on urban issues. Twenty years later, at the Habitat II conference in Istanbul, Turkey, world leaders adopted the Habitat Agenda as a global action plan to create adequate shelter for all. The goal of Habitat III is to develop a New Urban Agenda — a roadmap for sustainable urban development for cities worldwide. Learning from the City: The Midwest Regional Convening of UN Habitat III, which took place on March 31, 2016, was the first of five regional Habitat III forums that HUD will co-host to engage local and regional practitioners across the country. HUD Regional Administrator Antonio Riley shares his thoughts on the convening below.

Image of a city skyline in the shape of the United States with the Habitat III logo superimposed.

The Midwest convening attracted a diverse audience. Why is it so important to engage participants from a variety of backgrounds, including students and those new to the field?

The Midwest Habitat III convening was open to the public. We at HUD and our lead partners at the University of Chicago wanted to engage an audience that was diverse in age, gender, race, and ethnicity. U.S. preparations for Habitat III have been intentionally broad and inclusive. To us, this meant ensuring access for students, interested citizens, and public housing residents as well as policymakers, representatives from philanthropies, and academic thought leaders. The policies that we shape today shape the future we will encounter tomorrow. The New Urban Agenda that will be developed at Habitat III must hold for the next 20 years, and the greatest chance we have to develop an action-oriented roadmap that addresses cities’ 21st-century challenges is to engage those who have seen the past as well has those who will have to face the consequences if our efforts to tackle these ever evolving problems are unsuccessful.

What is the role of local governments and regional practitioners in preparing for Habitat III? How has this convening helped local and regional actors engage in the U.S. preparatory process?

The involvement of local civic and community leaders is imperative because, as Secretary Castro has often said, we are living in a “century of cities.” The purpose of the convening was twofold: we wanted to highlight innovations that could inform the U.S. negotiations of the New Urban Agenda as well as stimulate dialogue about the unexpected connections between local and global challenges. Local and regional practitioners confront these issues every day, and the Midwest Habitat III convening gave them a platform to share excellent examples of collaboration in these areas, uplifting U.S. best practices on the global stage.

In addition to sharing what we’re doing, the convening helped prepare local leaders to influence U.N. negotiations. U.N. negotiations are multilateral; that is, they are held between countries. For the first time in its history, the U.N. General Assembly has changed the rules to allow local leaders, such as mayors, and civil society actors, such as nonprofit organizations, to contribute to the New Urban Agenda. These subnational stakeholders will be able to participate in hearings at the U.N. this spring, after our regional convenings. Local leaders who were engaged in our regional convenings will be better positioned to advocate for regional and national issues at the U.N.

Evidence-based policymaking was a key theme at the convening. How is the Midwest region approaching the challenges and opportunities of accessing large amounts of data?

Currently, we are all trying to address increasingly complex problems while operating under significant budget constraints. To effectively dissect the root causes of the challenges facing today’s cities, the Midwest region has been tracking meaningful and interconnected data to confirm what is working and guide our investments.

We were fortunate to have with us Shawn Bucholtz, director of the Housing and Demographic Analysis Division in the Office of Policy Development and Research, to share key findings resulting from matching the data of HUD-assisted households with data from the American Community Survey and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). This groundbreaking work is empowering policymakers and researchers to connect social, educational, and health outcomes tracked by federal agencies with demographic information so that our policies and programs take into account the many factors people face and better target their needs. This analysis has uncovered a few statistics that are already helping us rethink our approach at HUD: (1) approximately 290,000 veterans are living in HUD-assisted housing; (2) roughly 4 percent of HUD-assisted households are multigenerational, defined as 3 or more generations living under the same roof; (3) approximately 30 percent of HUD-assisted adults smoke cigarettes.

Several local panelists also shared innovative uses of data to improve people’s lives, such as Community Rx, which is part of a demonstration project by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services Innovation Center at HHS. The project is using student-sourced community data to help beneficiaries with health-related social needs navigate community resources. A panelist from the city of Chicago also provided an overview of the new OpenGrid tool, which helps residents gain access to neighborhood-level data in real time.


To view a recording of the Midwest Habitat III regional convening, please visit
urbannetwork.uchicago.edu/page/un-habitat-iii.

For more information on Habitat III updates and other regional convenings this spring and summer, please visit
www.huduser.gov/portal/ipi/habitat-iii.html#Overview.