Habitat III was as much a cultural event for the city of Quito as it was a conference discussing the proposals of the New Urban Agenda (NUA). The massive crowds of Quiteños who flocked to the venues in and around the Casa de la Cultura are a testament to that.

On show was more than debate and discussion on sustainable urban development but also attractions such as the One UN Pavilion highlighting the key principles of the NUA; the Quito Pavilion, celebrating the diversity of the city’s people’s backgrounds and ethnicities, and the Ecuador pavilion highlighting the key attractions of the country. What impact this had exactly, beyond attracting the crowds and how well the principles of the NUA have been absorbed into popular culture, only time will tell. I also wonder beyond the enthusiastic bubble of Quito whether the world has been watching – or is even interested for that matter – that this past week the adoption of what is supposed to be a momentous document that will set the globe on the path to sustainable urban development has been taking place.

Regardless of these questions, there is no denying the effort that has been made to market Habitat III as a culturally significant event to the wider city – which makes it somewhat of an irony that the NUA document only mentions the potential of culture explicitly as a tool for embedding sustainable urban development, in a handful of chapters¹. Yet the magnitude of what needs to be undertaken if we are to meet the goals of the New Urban Agenda is immense, and nothing short of a cultural revolution in how we make and develop our cities is required.

It is difficult to contend with the ambition of the NUA: ‘By readdressing the way cities and human settlements are planned, designed, financed, developed, governed, and managed, the New Urban Agenda will help to end poverty and hunger in all its forms and dimensions, reduce inequalities, promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, in order to fully harness their vital contribution to sustainable development, improve human health and well-being, as well as foster resilience and protect the environment.’ However, the implementation of these just ambitions will be the greatest challenge. In a Socio-Cultural Frameworks discussion led by UNESCO during Habitat III, Jordi Pascual of Culture 21,² put it best by describing how the current triangular model of Economy, Environment and Social Inclusion needs to be made square by adding the element of Culture, in order for sustainable development projects to be effective.

Across the conference there was a lot of discussion on the importance of inclusive cities, and participatory cities but it seemed less discussion around how to actually achieve that. There were several remarks made during the culture-focused events that we were for the first time in the conference speaking about people.

Most of the panelists acknowledged the lack of focus on culture in the NUA as a missed opportunity. The UNESCO Global Report on Culture for Sustainable Urban Development which was launching the same day as their event, also came under criticism. For instance, one person from the audience questioned why the document seemed to focus only on the classical idea of culture showing plenty of images of museums, theaters and the established arts with little regard for contemporary urban cultures and no images of graffiti, for example.

Interestingly, despite being a co-author of the UNESCO document, Charles Landry opted not to be on the panel. Instead he was invited to take the floor at the end of the panel, to highlight that “culture is of course who we are, and creativity is what we do.”

At Pidgin Perfect this is something that we understood instinctively from the outset of founding the practice. We use creativity in order to engage people culturally. This is the critical element that gives weight to projects when helping to regenerate parts of the city, in the process creating more sustainable, attractive vibrant places that meet the lifestyles of the people using them. It is by employing imagination, technology and craft that we are able to connect with the patterns of everyday life, building capacity within communities and fostering a deeper sense of ownership over their spaces. In this way, the relationships that are created give the projects we are involved in a longevity well after our formal involvement is complete.

It remains to be seen whether the goals of the New Urban Agenda will be adopted culturally around the world but I sincerely hope they will, for the sake of the well being of the planet and the people inhabiting spaces both urban and rural.

  1. See paragraphs 10, 26, 38, 124,125 of the New Urban Agenda.
  2. The Committee on culture of the world association of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG)