historic heart of Quito, Ecuador
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Habitat III launches a ‘New Urban Agenda’ for the world, but where were Australia’s decision-makers?

The UN’s third major summit on cities saw countries adopt a global blueprint for sustainable urbanisation, but Australia’s federal government was under-represented at the decision-making table.

Australia’s national government was under-represented at a key international summit on cities relative to other countries, a leading academic says.

Professor in Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne, Carolyn Whitzman, was one of about 60 Australian delegates to attend the Habitat III summit, in Quito, Ecuador, in October.

The third Habitat summit saw close to 170 countries, including Australia, agree to adopt the finalised New Urban Agenda, the United Nation’s blueprint for sustainable urbanization, which calls for compact cities, polycentric urban growth, mixed-use streetscapes, prevention of sprawl and transit-oriented development.

While non-binding, the agenda represents a series of agreed upon guidelines surrounding a global strategy for cities over the next two decades.

Some 30,000 people attended the four-day conference from an estimated 100 countries, according to organisers.

Australia’s official delegation was led by the country’s UN Ambassador Gillian Bird, who discussed strategies for aligning Australian policy and practice with the new international benchmark.

In a statement delivered at Habitat, Ambassador Bird said the New Urban Agenda was a ‘truly ambitious undertaking’ requiring the ‘active involvement of all relevant stakeholders: from local and national governments, to the private sector, civil society, and, critically, residents who live in these cities’.

Prof. Whitzman, who was part of a delegation of 15 from University of Melbourne at the summit, told Foreground she was ‘particularly happy’ to see UN Ambassador Gilian Bird representing the country.

But Prof. Whitzman believed Australia’s official delegation to Quito had compared poorly to others.

‘I take the glass half-full approach; some representation is better than none. But compared to other countries, especially Canada which is of similar size and governance, the difference was pretty stark’.

‘how will the new urban agenda fit in with other agreements including Sustainable Development Goals?’

While the Canadian Government had sent its housing minister, Prof. Whitzman said notably absent was Australia’s closest equivalent, Assistant Minister for Cities Angus Taylor.

‘The Ambassador reports to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We have an Assistant Minister for Cities, but he wasn’t there,’ Prof. Whitzman said.

‘The representation from the Australian Government was not as impressive as others.’

A spokesperson for the Assistant Minister for Cities Angus Taylor told Foreground ministerial attendance ‘was not possible’ because it was a parliamentary sitting week.

On the summit itself, Prof. Whitzman said while successful, there were some concerns with what she considered to be ‘hazy outcomes’.

There was ‘a lot of uncertainty’ about how the agenda would fit in with other agreements including last year’s Sustainable Development Goals, which Prof. Whitzman said ‘foregrounded cities as places where the fight against climate change was won or lost’.

Tensions to do with national governments making urban planning decisions on behalf of city municipalities and whether the New Urban Agenda would ‘lead to changes in terms of governance in metropolitan areas’ were other important questions, she said.

However, Prof. Whitzman said she was pleased there was a ‘strong emphasis’ on inclusive public spaces at the conference and noted University of Melbourne, RMIT, and Monash University urban researchers were ‘strongly represented’.

She said this would likely result in a ‘push’ among Melbourne’s universities to implement the New Urban Agenda.

Change ‘didn’t happen after just one summit’ she said, and important changes had come out of the two previous Habitats, including shifts away from anti-urbanisation and the idea of tearing down slums or informal housing networks.

‘A lot of bad ideas have been abandoned, and Habitat has been part of that,’ Prof. Whitzman said.