Habitat III is all about cities. The UN should give them a seat at the table

Shanghai is one of the world’s most populous cities. At next year’s UN urbanisation conference, city mayors and councillors may not be present to discuss the future of the urban environment. Photograph: Eugene Hoshiko/AP

UN conferences on urbanisation occur just once every 20 years. The third, Habitat III, will convene in Quito, Ecuador late next year. It is a unique opportunity for the world’s nations to debate the future of their cities, as urbanisation becomes the defining social phenomenon of our time.

There’s just one problem. It remains possible that the cities of the world – from small metropolises to New York and London and Tokyo – may not get a seat at the table. Even in a world that is now majority urban for the first time in history, the issues of city economies, slums and climate crises may well be discussed without a single mayor or city councilperson able to speak.

It’s up to the nation states to decide whether to allow in cities and spokespeople for civil society. A clear precedent to welcome them was set at the last Habitat conference, in Istanbul in 1996; the General Assembly’s resolution authorising Habitat III added that the Quito conference should exceed that level of public participation. But negotiating the details is complicated, and at a recent UN session in Nairobi, some nation-state delegations blocked agreement on a similar open-door policy for Quito. Now the issue will have to be shoehorned into an already crowded agenda of the General Assembly meeting in New York this fall.

It’s not just Habitat III where this is happening. Roughly three-quarters of all carbon emissions are generated in cities, or for the benefit of urban dwellers – but cities were effectively excluded from the global climate negotiations in Lima last year. They fear the same may happen at the next, potentially decisive round of negotiations in Paris this December. In preparatory documents for the conference, cities weren’t even mentioned.

Favela Morumbi, one of Sao Paulo’s biggest slums. With a population of 20 million, the city is the largest in South America. Photograph: Alexandre Meneghini/AP

Yet while they’re the prime polluters, cities are also on the forefront of climate solutions – and not just by setting goals. Some are cutting their carbon emissions already. A recent UN-Habitat study shows that at least 19 cities – among them Berlin, Cape Town, Copenhagen, Mexico City, New York and Toronto – can prove they’ve reduced their annual CO2 emissions.

Some nation-state leaders do recognise the importance of cities in the battle for a safer environment. US Secretary of State John Kerry, expressing concern that the Paris negotiations would set unambitious goals, recently told the Washington Post that it’s time to bring the weight of global civil society to bear, starting with cities and mayors. And in a dramatic broadside issued 30 June, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced they would co-host the Climate Summit for Local Leaders in Paris on 4 December, timed to coincide with the climate negotiations there.

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