H3 Policy Brief: Urban Culture and Heritage in the New Urban Agenda

By Simenon Shtebunaev


Summary: The Habitat III Conference was the culmination of a long negotiation process which resulted in a document aimed at addressing the challenges that lie at the forefront of future urban and rural development. The New Urban Agenda is a non-binding document that would, however, work together with other binding UN Commitments – The Paris Agreement, UN Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda. The actors involved with Culture2015Goal campaign, which actively sought the inclusion of culture as a Sustainable Development Goal in 2015, have been once again vocal about the need to recognise culture as a fundamental pillar of sustainable development. Whilst culture is strongly acknowledged within the text, marking a certain improvement from the Millennium Goals, the agenda does not deliver a clear recognition of the importance of culture as a standalone aspect of development.


Cultural activities and outputs have been central to human activities since the beginning of organised societies and as such have continuously shaped urban and rural development. The New Urban Agenda aims to be the guiding document for the next 20 years, shaping national and local government policies. The link between society and culture therefore would have to be recognised and strengthened for a new form of urban development to be achieved – one that is more sustainable socially, economically and environmentally but also promotes social cohesion and equality.


A view of the UNESCO Old City of Quito, Ecuador from the Basilica del Voto Nacional


Introduction: The New Urban Agenda does make good references to culture and cultural activities. This has been recognised in the lead up to the conference with the addition of Issue Paper Four – Urban Culture and Heritage as well as the Policy Unit of Socio-Cultural Urban Networks. UNESCO and ICOMOS have been two of the main bodies driving those documents and sessions centred around the inclusion of culture. Within the text there are several points worth noting:

Section 38 highlights the role tangible and intangible heritage play strengthening “social participation and the exercise of citizenship.”

-Section 45 provides for “vibrant, sustainable, and inclusive urban economies, building on endogenous potentials, competitive advantages, cultural heritage and local resources.

-Section 60 calls for sustaining and supporting urban economies through promoting cultural and creative industries, sustainable tourism, performing arts, and heritage conservation activities, among others.

-Section 125 calls upon the parties to: “support leveraging cultural heritage for sustainable urban development, and recognize its role in stimulating participation and responsibility.”

These passages recognise culture or heritage as some of the tools to be used in achieving the goals of the agenda, notably in the context of city economies, citizens’ access to urban services, regeneration and social cohesion. There is a clear view, however, of culture and heritage as inferior and instruments to capital – they are there to further an economic agenda. A clearer commitment needs to be sought, one that recognises culture as equally relevant to society as capital and looks towards policies that promote and protect sustainable production of cultural outputs divorced from purely economic measures. In a dynamic landscape of changing personal values, migration conflicts and digitisation, promoting and protecting cultural expression and heritage will be an important element of robust urban policies.

Approach: Cultural events at the Habitat III Conference were few and far between compared to some of the other strands such as housing, disaster relief and technology, which is indicative of the position culture takes within strategic urban development. However, a clear interest was shown by public and stakeholders alike at increasing that presence and raising the debate. Discourses from the events are reflected in this brief.

In 2015 the ‘Cultural Heritage Counts for Europe’ campaign culminated at European level and a report was produced, highlighting the policy challenges and opportunities with five strategic recommendations. Building on this work, at Habitat III the first report on the state of Culture Worldwide was launched – UNESCO’s Culture Urban Future, delivering twelve key recommendations focused around three key strands – People, Environment and Policies. This policy brief builds on the main messages of the report and provides further analysis of the points raised at the debate at Habitat III.

Analysis and Discussion

Humanising the Agenda:  By far the most important and contested aspect of the New Urban Agenda has been the ‘Right to the City’ commitment at the heart of the text. It is a forward looking right that aims to bind existing human rights with more diverse ideas about common and inclusive cities, access to services for all and freedom of expression amongst others. There are many aspects of this issue that a cultural approach can try and tackle. Migration waves, globalisation and internationalisation were continuously being brought up as factors that create multi-cultural cities. By encouraging arts and community-based initiatives, cultural policies can strengthen citizens’ ability to participate and reassert the right to the city at a ground level, empowering communities. The tension between gentrification, cultural tourism and price entry to access heritage was recognised by speakers at the conference. Whilst clear solutions were not provided, a strong statement was delivered – that culture stems from the people and not from the built environment. It is a recognition of failed policies in many regeneration projects worldwide where heritage is frozen in time and of cases such as Barcelona, where cultural tourism pushes the environmental and social networks of a city to the brink. Cultural belonging fosters pride and respect to one’s locality – whether urban or rural and improves a person’s wellbeing. It was widely agreed that it is such aspects that are underutilised in development policies around the world and that are worth prioritising.

Looking at the environment: Future development needs to be efficient and environmentally friendly if we are to deliver the aims of the Paris Agreement. Heritage based policies can provide cities with the revitalisation of historic centres, promoting the concept of compact cities. Through adaptive reuse of existing building stock, cities can play on strengths and minimise the energy outputs needed to demolish and construct anew. Whilst a lot of attention was given to data-based policies and technologically driven solution within the Agenda, little importance was placed on the hardware of a city – its existing building stock, and how best to optimise that. Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture, gave a strong statement in support of the close connection between public space and heritage. Public space fosters community participation and improves urban economies. Cultural policies are strongly aligned with the promotion and creation of public space, thus alleviating some of the pressures in a city. A point that emerged very strongly at the conference was the interlinked view of culture as something that bridges the natural environment, manmade landscapes and built heritage. It was a continuous spectrum that those three elements lie on – there is no separation between how important a monument is to the landscape surrounding it or its natural setting. This understanding can provide local planners with a unique and different perspective to current zoning practices and piecemeal development.

Putting the case forward for strong economy: At one of the side events, compelling arguments were put forward by the US firm Heritage Strategies International about the links between creative industries and preservation of historic centres. Strong correlations were shown between the increase in jobs in the arts and entertainment industry and their proximity to local historic centres. In the case of New York City, four per cent of the land contained eighty per cent of the creative industries. Knowledge workers uniformly seemed to show a preference for congregating in historic cores or neighbourhoods. Put in the context of the global rise of creative industries as the fastest growing sector in many economies, such studies prompt serious consideration about the viability and value of heritage assets. What came up in the debates was the link between the cultural assets that those industries inhabit and the culture that they themselves create. There is an evolving discourse about the economic potential of cultural economies and the value they bring to local sustainable development. Heritage needs to be seen as an opportunity and not a limitation. Studies of Foreign Direct Investment patterns have also found a higher number of direct investments focused in cities with UNESCO World Heritage Status than in counterparts which did not benefit from such status, claims backed by the experience of the host city – Quito. UNESCO’s expanding network of creative cities is another strong indicator at the possibilities of cultural economies.

Culture and Politics: For such changes to be achieved, however, one topic was a constant add-on – the nature of urban governance and the role culture plays within it. The ability of city management to directly influence cultural and heritage developments in its locality was acknowledged. It was also noted that in the current mindset, cultural budgets, activities, libraries and assets are the first to be cut, sold off or restructured in times of austerity. In the context of Habitat III, a clear push for delivery from the local and sub-national level emerged and this exactly where culture can be leveraged most effectively to achieve economic, environmental and socially sustainable development. The Mayor of Strasbourg presented his case study of a city in flux, facing the challenges of the modern era whilst trying to preserve its historic assets. He defended the use of culture-based development policy in preventing urban sprawl, promoting mixed city where tourists and locals use the same amenities and fostering an understanding of the opportunities that globalisation can bring. A strong attitude towards educating city planners to be flexible and innovative was exhibited, which in the case of Strasbourg was used to regulate and compete with the free market policies. The case for using cultural based development policies provides city makers with the creation of alternative economies – community groups galvanising around a cultural asset, promoting neighbourhood-based activities, funding the gap needed to preserve tangible or intangible heritage through fund-raising, self-organising and participating in the citywide decisions. It is this commitment to collaboration and coordination between different stakeholders that can most benefit city governments in delivering the aims of the New Urban Agenda for transparent and participatory cities.

Conclusion: It is clear that the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda have missed an opportunity to push a much stronger policy vision reflecting the reality of how culture and heritage interact with society. They have, however, moved in the right direction and in cases have taken big leaps forward. What needs to come out of the debate now are clear ways to implement the goals. It is within the adoption of the agenda and its translation into national and local policies that those principles can be strengthened and have new life given to them. Grounded and practical policies need to reflect the evolving nature of culture and heritage definitions and to promote and protect them.

Policy Recommendations:

– A much clearer commitment should be adopted by national and local governments in their implementation of the New Urban Agenda about the centrality of culture as a fundamental pillar of sustainable development alongside social, environmental and economic aspects. Culture should be present at the core of national and local development policies.

– Educational policy should recognise the importance of cultural awareness and diverse cultures in fostering one’s engagement with other citizens, empowering participation in local government and protecting the urban and rural environment through a greater understanding of its importance.

– The link between culture and creativity should be strengthened in national and local policies and recognised at international level. Creativity as human expression should be safeguarded and promoted in economic, educational and development policies. Resilient cities can benefit from the diversity a creative city inherently possesses.

– Better instructions should be delivered as part of the New Urban Agenda implementation documentations on how to deliver cultural diversity, leverage the economic and social potential of heritage assets and preserve and promote the diversity of urban culture.

– An intelligent set of indicators should be promoted and developed at UN level that recognises the successful integration of urban culture and heritage from a social and not purely economic perspective. This set of benchmarks should provide for flexibility and localisation to adapt to different contexts and locations around the world.


UNESCO (2016) ‘Culture Urban Future: Global Report on Culture for Sustainable Urban Development’, Paris, France

UN HABITAT (2016) Issue Paper 4: ‘Urban Culture and Heritage’ Available online at: http://unhabitat.org/issue-papers-and-policy-units/ Accessed 28.10.2016

ICOMOS (2016) Cultural Heritage, The UN Sustainable Goals and the New Urban Agenda, concept note, Available at: http://www.usicomos.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Final-Concept-Note.pdf  Accessed 28.10.2016


About the author: Simeon Shtebunaev is a Masters student in Architecture and Town Planning at the University of Sheffield. His interests lie in culture and heritage, participatory education, smart cities and urban governance. He has completed a BA(Hons) Architecture at Sheffield and has practical experience working on regeneration projects in the North of England with BDP Ltd. He can be contacted at sgshtebunaev1@sheffield.ac.uk


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