Engaging architects in the New Urban Agenda

German Habitat Forum

At the German Habitat Forum, roughly 1,000 attendees from 74 countries debated urban development, an area that needs further involvement from architects.

At Habitat III in Quito, architects can begin to redefine their role in urban development

The third convening of the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development (Habitat III) will be held in October in Quito, Ecuador. Its aim is to reinvigorate the global commitment to sustainable urbanization and focus on the implementation of a New Urban Agenda, building on the 1996 Istanbul Habitat Agenda. A New Urban Agenda is urgently needed, as the current patterns of urban development are unsustainable and cities are proving unable to cope with environmental, economic, social, and political shocks and stressors.

Architects and urban planners are largely absent from this global conversation about the path of urbanization. At June's German Habitat Forum in Berlin, the only reference made to an architect or architecture was a slide showing Le Corbusier in the 1920s next to a model of what he visualized for Paris: new high- and low-rise rectangular modern buildings to be built after razing neighborhoods of Haussmann's 19th-century wide boulevards, parks, and unified five-story architecture. The implication was that architects are arrogant, destroying cultural heritage and city images for their own aggrandizement.

Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda are important to architects because these issues are important to the profession, and we can offer answers. Architects can begin their involvement in these spheres by volunteering in grassroots movements and participating in discussions on related social, financial, and cultural heritage issues. They should be guides and facilitators of creative solutions for both day-to-day and future problems in urban areas. Their technical knowledge is invaluable and could provide great assistance.

Without architects and their insight, issues that may go unaddressed are as follows:

  • gentrification, normal citizens from urban areas being driven out for upper-level incomes, a large problem that was not mentioned or discussed in Berlin
  • the need for creative solutions to urban challenges of growth, sustainability and resilience
  • access to clean water, sanitation, and electricity for all
  • daily transportation and congestion issues by creating live-work-study neighborhoods
  • surfaces that are being sealed over by buildings and roads, leading to more flooding of urban areas

It should also be recommended that 20 years is much too long between these conferences. Every five years would make sense, based on all the difficulties besetting our world: changing climate, wars, resettlements based on wars, genocides, lack of access to clean water, lack of access to food, lack of control over funding for cities and their citizens, and uncontrolled building growth.

There is hope for the New Urban Agenda and the opportunities that may arise from Habitat III. Some of these include:

  • a greater role for architects in the early stages of planning
  • a greater role in the short- and long-term planning of more sustainable urban development
  • the development and utilization of possible standard markers and/or benchmarks that measure the progress of a city toward achieving greater sustainable, livable, and resilient goals

These would underscore and validate the recommendations of the German Habitat Forum’s Berlin Declaration. At Habitat III, we can take a further step to make them a reality worldwide.

Sandra Zettersten, AIA, is the treasurer and corporate sponsor chair, as well as 2004 President, of AIA Europe.

Image credits

German Habitat Forum

BMZ/photothek.net/Thomas Trutschel

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