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Why Are U.S. Mayors Missing Habitat III, Arguably the World’s Most Important Meeting for Urbanism?

Every 20 years, the United Nations has a conference to discuss the future of cities. So far, it appears almost no mayors from America will attend.

Quito, Ecuador, will host Habitat III, which is expected to produce a global strategy on sustainable urbanization known as the "New Urban Agenda."
When he was mayor of Baltimore, Kurt Schmoke often looked abroad for ideas he could use at home. Schmoke was active in Baltimore’s sister city initiatives and traveled internationally whenever he could to learn what other cities were doing. On a trip to Israel, he visited two cities that transformed his thinking about public housing. It was part of what led him to initiate a broad program of tearing down high-rise towers and rebuilding them as low-rise neighborhoods. 

So Schmoke did not need much persuading when Henry Cisneros -- then the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) -- asked him to fly to Istanbul in 1996 to attend a major United Nations conference on cities. The convening was called Habitat II. Schmoke joined a U.S. delegation that included more than a dozen mayors. He found the experience enriching. “Habitat really reinforced my view that there is value in international exchange of ideas,” says Schmoke, who now is president of the University of Baltimore. “We were in Istanbul listening to local officials talk about problems that could have been from Indianapolis -- that was inspiring and gave you some hope that we could maybe unite around common problems.”

Twenty years later, the next major U.N. conference on cities is approaching: Habitat III is to be held next month in Quito, Ecuador. For more than a year, global networks of mayors and local governments have been gearing up for what amounts to the Olympics of urbanism. Habitat III is arguably the world’s most important conversation about the future of cities. And it’s taking place at a time when rapid urban growth on all continents, especially Africa and Asia, makes that discussion more crucial than ever.

Officially known as the U.N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, Habitat III is a rare event in global policy circles -- the one time every 20 years when heads of state and national ministers gather to discuss and debate urban policy. (The first Habitat conference took place in Vancouver in 1976.)

The gathering in Quito is expected to produce a sweeping but nonbinding global strategy on sustainable urbanization. Known as the “New Urban Agenda,” this strategy will include recommendations for fighting urban poverty, devolving authority to local governments and bolstering streams of municipal finance, among other issues. Diplomats are still negotiating the details, but once finalized in Quito, the document will join last December’s Paris climate agreement and other recent accords to create a global framework for sustainability.

As yet, however, U.S. mayors are nowhere to be found in the Habitat preparations. Indeed, it’s difficult to find an American mayor who knows that the conference is taking place at all, let alone the policy process leading up to it. The void became clear in May, during a unique series of hearings at the United Nations. Mayors and other local officials from around the world had come to share their views on what the city of the future should look like. In a procedural coup, city leaders were given the floor at the U.N. to speak on equal terms with national governments -- the first time that the U.N. has offered such a position to local officials. Julián Castro, the current U.S. HUD secretary, addressed the crowd in New York. And while Castro used to be mayor of San Antonio, it appears that not one sitting U.S. mayor showed up.

In the U.S., the State Department is taking the lead when it comes to Habitat III negotiations, while HUD is spearheading the domestic conversation. HUD has produced a national report, citing urban trends and major policy initiatives undertaken since Habitat II, and is also working on a forward-looking report for release ahead of Habitat III. 

During the first half of this year, HUD held five forums in Washington, D.C., focused on reaching out to the policy crowd. Five more regional sessions were held in Chicago, Denver, El Paso, Miami and Philadelphia. These were meant to draw in a broad spectrum of urbanists -- including city officials, professionals, academics, nonprofits and activists -- to connect their experiences and priorities with the Habitat III talks. The five regional events were the most concerted outreach effort to bring mayors into the discussion. While two, the mayors of Racine, Wis., and Gary, Ind., participated in the first event, no others accepted HUD’s invitations.

Racine Mayor John Dickert says he went because the day-to-day grind of being an elected official can limit the search for solutions to big, complex urban problems. “As mayors, we spend far too much time in this country worrying about the next election or issue of the day, instead of worrying about how to solve the problems our constituents are facing -- infrastructure, housing, poverty,” he says. “So whenever I get a chance to start showing people that there are answers in cities, we try to get people to start thinking outside of the box.”

Salin Geevarghese, deputy assistant secretary for international and philanthropic innovation at HUD, says the regional meetings yielded substantive exchanges despite the overall lack of mayoral engagement. “Certain light bulbs started going off,” Geevarghese says, adding that he repeatedly heard about “the power of mayors in the global context, in terms of networks of mayors working across these same ideas.”

HUD is planning to include mayors in the U.S. delegation to Quito, but it’s not yet clear who those individuals will be. Without their participation, U.S. mayors risk missing out on the sort of city-to-city learning that Schmoke finds so valuable. They’re also missing out on a chance to influence the policy recommendations that 193 countries -- including the United States -- are expected to adopt in Quito.

Emilia Saiz says the lack of participation on the part of U.S. mayors “is a source of great concern.” Saiz is a top official with United Cities and Local Governments, a global association that has been a key player in negotiations at the U.N. “U.S. local governments are missing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the international agenda of cities.”

Pamela O’Connor is planning to go to Quito. O’Connor is a councilmember in Santa Monica, Calif., as well as its former mayor. Santa Monica, which is just outside Los Angeles, has long been known for its efforts around sustainability, particularly its work to define, measure and improve the well-being of its residents. O’Connor deals with sustainability issues internationally as chair of the regional executive committee for ICLEI, a global network of cities engaged on environmental issues, particularly climate change.

While O’Connor sees the value in Habitat III, she says she also understands why many U.S. local officials do not. First, there’s longstanding skepticism of multilateral processes. “In the U.S., there’s a streak that is anti-United Nations,” she says. Indeed, a U.N. development framework agreed to in 1992 known as Agenda 21 continues to spur right-wing conspiracy theories about a “world government” taking away Americans’ property rights. The recently adopted 2016 platform of the Republican Party calls Agenda 21 “erosive of U.S. sovereignty.”

Diplomats at the U.N. don’t do any favors with their opaque processes and the bureaucratic language they use either, says O’Connor. In fact, core Habitat III issues such as affordable housing and equity are discussed constantly at the local level in the U.S., but using different terms and reference points. One draft of the New Urban Agenda rather confusingly called for a commitment “to support territorial systems that integrate urban and rural functions into the national and subnational spatial frameworks.”

“The closer to the U.N. in New York you get, they have their own culture of how they speak and explain things,” O’Connor says. “We don’t talk that way. We are operating off of the same concepts and same goals, but we don’t frame it in that U.N.-speak.”

Tim Campbell thinks Habitat III has a branding problem. Campbell is a former World Bank official and author of Beyond Smart Cities: How Cities Network, Learn and Innovate. For a crucial conference on cities, Campbell says, the name Habitat III “doesn’t capture anything.”

Campbell says the conference is occurring at a point when many Americans seem to be turning inward, symbolized by growing resistance to immigration and foreign trade -- although some of that insularity may be a function of the country’s sheer size. Campbell notes that U.S. mayors have hundreds of American cities to learn from, including many on the forefront of innovation and new ideas. By contrast, mayors from smaller countries who want to find breakthrough ideas may have no choice but to look abroad.

All of this helps explain the tepid response from the primary networks of American mayors. The U.S. Conference of Mayors doesn’t appear to have a stance on Habitat III (multiple requests for comment for this story were unsuccessful by deadline). The National League of Cities has been more involved, via a national committee formed by HUD. But Jim Brooks, the league’s director of City Solutions and the point person on the issue, says members haven’t expressed interest in the Habitat III process. “I’m really not seeing any,” Brooks says, “and we haven’t tried to manufacture enthusiasm.”

Brooks notes that this lack of engagement stands in contrast to the energy more than a dozen U.S. mayors brought to the Paris climate talks, also known as COP 21. There, American mayors joined forces with hundreds of colleagues from around the world to ratchet up pressure on negotiators to strike a climate deal. They also wanted to demonstrate the important role cities already are playing on combating climate change, and to highlight their own initiatives fostering renewable power, energy efficiency and clean transportation options. “The nice thing about COP 21 was that we catalyzed some of the positive energy around the sustainability agenda,” Brooks says. “None of that is the case with Habitat III.”

The lack of engagement by U.S. mayors is detrimental for a few reasons. One thing lost is the perspective and ideas that American cities can offer their counterparts, both in the developed and developing worlds. For example, U.S. cities are leaders in the use of smart technologies to manage traffic, leverage public-private partnerships, collect data on government performance, and manage services such as waste management and public health. They have deep experience in the pros and cons of the devolution of power from central government to “subnational” authorities, a governance structure of the sort more countries are moving toward. As cities around the world look to sell their first municipal bonds, they could benefit from more than a century’s worth of experience that U.S. local governments have with the tool.  

Lack of engagement also means that the full spectrum of mayors’ priorities is not being transmitted to the U.S. negotiating team working on the New Urban Agenda. In other words, the U.S. diplomatic position on global urbanization is being shaped more by State Department and HUD officials than by the people who actually run cities.

What’s more, U.S. mayors risk missing out on a burgeoning global constituency concerned with urban issues and the centrality of cities’ roles in dealing with the big, complex problems facing the world today. In this regard, the strong response by local authorities, including U.S. mayors, at the Paris climate talks is heartening for many because it signifies that the urban issues at the center of Habitat III are gaining prominence globally. “In 1989, climate change was nowhere,” says Eugénie Birch, a University of Pennsylvania professor and head of the Habitat III General Assembly of Partners, a key umbrella group of stakeholders. “Then, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created, and all of a sudden mayors are on the bandwagon.”

It’s not impossible to get U.S. mayors interested in the rest of the world. But they usually want something tangible in return. Mayors rarely hesitate at the chance to join their Chamber of Commerce on trade missions if there’s a chance it could create jobs locally. The benefits can be political: The U.S. mayors who went to Paris could do so with the confidence that showing global leadership on climate change would resonate with their left-leaning urban constituencies back home.

There’s reason to hope that some U.S. local officials see learning as a benefit, too. Relationships brokered through the group Sister Cities International have long been a popular avenue for this. Global networks such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which a dozen U.S. cities are part of, also have learning networks that facilitate idea exchange on niche issues such as municipal building efficiency and bus rapid transit.

The International City/County Management Association (ICMA), with 10,000 members mostly in the U.S., also has begun facilitating city-to-city exchanges through its CityLinks program. It’s one of the group’s most popular initiatives, says Joshua Franzel, the group’s director of policy research. “There’s definitely a trend of increased interest in looking at lessons learned and parallels with international contexts,” Franzel says, citing work around transportation, water and sanitation.

ICMA is participating in Habitat III, mostly focusing its efforts on the issue of urban health and, more broadly, how to create healthy communities. Franzel says ICMA’s membership is particularly interested in how to tackle this question through local government management. He believes Habitat III is an opportunity for cities both to show off their own work and to see what others are doing in this complex area. “It’s going to be a two-way street,” Franzel says. 

Schmoke says he hopes more U.S. mayors will get involved in time to have a meaningful presence in Quito, using the event to get out of their daily modes of thinking in ways that can help them deal with “universal problems” once they return home. “I hope that having municipal officials gather can help us more broadly with achieving peaceful goals for the world,” he says. “I think mayors will find that they have more in common than divides them.” 

Carey L. Biron is news editor and Neal Peirce is editor-in-chief of Citiscope, an online news site covering urban innovations in cities around the world, with a special focus on the upcoming Habitat III conference.

Carey L. Biron is news editor and Neal Peirce is editor-in-chief of Citiscope.
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