Urban Postcards from Habitat III

December 5, 2016, 5:22 pm

By Jordi Pascual, Agenda21 for Culture

On 20 October 2016, the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) adopted the New Urban Agenda, a document which is expected to provide guidance on the development of urban policies around the world for the next 20 years.

The New Urban Agenda is a significant document because:

  • In the “declaration” or foreword, it contains several interesting mentions of cultural development (par 4), cultural diversity (par 10), and cultural expressions (par 13).
  • There are several positive phrases in the implementation plan. Firstly, some sentences related to cultural services, for inclusion and mutual understanding (par 26, 34, and 37). Secondly, there is recognition of the contribution by heritage and cultural industries to economic development (par 45 and 60). Thirdly, some interesting sentences are devoted to the role of natural and cultural heritage as key elements in integrated urban policies (par 38). Fourthly, in what is surely the most concrete mention, it calls for the due consideration of heritage and culture in urban planning and design (par 97, 124, and 125). Finally, it engages indigenous peoples and local communities in the promotion and dissemination of knowledge of tangible and intangible cultural heritage and protection of traditional expressions and languages, including through the use of new technologies and techniques (par 125).

However, the New Urban Agenda remains a weak document because:

  • There is no chapter dedicated to cultural issues.
  • Culture is not recognised as the fourth pillar of sustainable development.
  • There is no mention of creativity, the arts, rituality, critical knowledge, nor the relationship between culture, access and the internet. Today, all of these issues are fundamental parts of urban life.
  • Some transversal elements of urban policies, such as the relationship between culture and education, or between culture and tourism, are also missing.

As coordinator of the Agenda 21 for culture in United Cities – UCLG, I have had the chance to intervene in the international advocacy on the place of culture in sustainable development. In 2010-12 we tried to influence the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) which took place in Rio de Janeiro, with very limited impact; this was summarised in the report Rio+20 and culture. Advocating for Culture as a Pillar of Sustainability.

In the period 2013-2015, we advocated for cultural issues to be included in the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda and in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We took part in a global coalition, called “The Future We Want Includes Culture”, also known as the #culture2015goal, formed by cultural networks of nations, cities, and various parts of civil society. We published four documents that included: (a) how there could be a “Goal” dedicated to culture in the SDGs; (b) what the “Targets” linked to culture in the SDGs could be; (c) which “Indicators” would be the most appropriate, (d) a conclusive document. These four documents can be downloaded from this page on our website. The title of the final document of this campaign was ” Culture in the SDG Outcome Document: Progress made but important steps remain ahead”. It shows that we are not too satisfied with the results achieved.

In 2014-2016 we focused on the New Urban Agenda to be explicit and effective in the issues dealing with the role of culture in sustainable cities. We were present at the three Habitat 3 preparatory committees, drafted this position paper (with several of the #culture2015goal coalition’s networks) and were active in the “Policy Unit” dedicated to the “Urban Socio-Cultural Framework”.

Is the Rio+20 document approved in 2012 better than the 1992 “Earth Summit” document? Yes, it is. Are the SDGs approved in 2015 more aware of some cultural issues than the MDGs, approved in 2000? Certainly they are. Is the New Urban Agenda approved in Quito more useful than the previous Habitat Agenda approved in Istanbul in 1996? Absolutely. There is progress, but the progress is too slow.

We (as a global cultural constituency) could have progressed more if:

  • We had convinced more voices to loudly say that the current triangular (economic, social and ecological) paradigm of sustainable development does not describe the reality we face and if we have been more to advocate for culture to be a stand-alone dimension of sustainable development. More information in this report
  • If we were not afraid to “repoliticise” the role of culture in sustainable development and could insist that culture is a fundamental human right, resisted to the overwhelming instrumentalisation of culture for economic aims, if we openly discussed that culture is not a “good in and of itself” but an area of conflict, tension and struggle.
  • Had we been more critical to ourselves confronting severe limitations of cultural sectors which too often show a tendency towards elitism, are facing internal quarrels that prevent them from speaking with one voice, fail to document their impact, have no specific policies on culture, access and internet and do not place the active participation of citizens at the centre of programmes and projects.

We will continue to work in the next years with the motto “Culture in Sustainable Cities”, using a very practical document “Culture 21 Actions” that details 9 commitments and 100 very concrete, viable, and transformative actions. This is a toolkit that is coherent with the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda, but it goes beyond these documents, providing coherence, clarity, capacity and agency to the role of culture in sustainable cities. Agenda21 for Culture will support solid local platforms for culture that include civil society, cultural institutions, local governments, and other actors. We will continue the advocacy for a strong global connectivity in the area of culture, that it brings civil society and cities together with UNESCO, other United Nations agencies, and national governments.


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