Crisise in Cities and Cities in Crisis: One year on from Habitat III

By Lydia Darby

The United Nations Habitat III conference on Sustainable Urban Development took place in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016. It was attended by more than 36,000 people who discussed and debated the New Urban Agenda, which was eventually ratified as the roadmap to creating more inclusive, resilient and sustainable cities. I attended the conference with 7 other students from the University of Sheffield’s Global Leadership Initiative, where we worked as policy analysts for the Global Policy Journal. Attending the ‘Cities in Crisis’ conference, held 15-16 November 2017, has given me the opportunity to reflect on the same issues, 13 months after Habitat III.

Lydia Darby, Aidan Kidder and Simeon Shtebunaev

Photo: GLI policy analysts, Lydia Darby with Simeon Shtebunaev and Aiden Kidder at Habitat III in Quito, Oct 2016.

The two-day conference in London, hosted by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), aimed to develop some key messages for the global humanitarian community. We were joined by representatives from DFID, the Global Alliance for Urban Crises, 100 Resilient Cities and many other organisations working in the field. There were also a number of researchers, representatives from local governments – and familiar faces from Quito. I attended an opening discussion on the contemporary state of urban response, as well as sessions exploring responses in conflict-affected contexts and building community resilience. There was a clear research-driven dynamic to the conference, balanced by rich empirical evidence from a range of urban crises practitioners. A clear message that emerged from the conference was that a move from emergency responses to durable solutions was needed, and for it to be driven predominantly from the bottom-up.

A key theme throughout the conference has been on the importance of collaboration between local and global actors, something that was repeatedly emphasised during Habitat III in Quito last year. The value of engaging municipalities, who have been excluded from the Global Compact for Refugees in Geneva, is becoming more widely recognised around the world. While city government capacities can vary widely, they were clearly identified as vital actors for coping with crises in cities. Their potential for helping to manage the flows of NGOs and humanitarian organisations to a city following a disaster was identified. At Habitat III, this problem of a lack of coordination between humanitarian groups on-the-ground was mostly discussed in terms of the need for cluster-systems and improved communication.

We learnt from a presentation on the Nepalese earthquake of the benefits that community-based resilience can have on relief and recovery processes. Establishing a knowledge base in a community, training local human resources and establishing disaster management committees can be essential for reducing the impact of urban hazards. Community-led resilience building can help to ensure the necessary preparedness and put effective contingency plans in place, including investment in risk-reduction strategies. Collaborative and participatory planning can allow cities to take advantage of disasters, for example by re-building poorly planned areas of the city to generate more integrated and inclusive communities – and ‘Build Back Better’.

It was emphasised that urban crises contingency planning should look beyond the first response, particularly to building the capacity of local actors in the face of a serious deterioration of critical infrastructure. There were repeated recommendations that the international community (IC) should recognise domestic capacities, and identify and strengthen, rather than duplicate, existing local bodies and systems. Yet in some cities, the social systems simply do not exist, and the humanitarian system may be the only one in place to deliver certain services. This requires the IC to change its way of thinking and to invest in these systems for the long term, building capacity while providing interim support.

During Habitat III there was a decidedly positive feeling in the air that “business as usual was no longer an option”. Yet 13 months later, there was a slight feeling of frustration amongst attendees that now really is “the time to stop talking”. On the final afternoon a passionate member of the municipal government in Kampala told us that we need to think national, regional, even continental, to move beyond addressing the symptoms of these crises to talking about what is causing them. Otherwise, as she phrased very aptly, “we’re just putting lipstick on a pig” and going around in circles. The closing session finished on a very optimistic note. The organisations attending know that they cannot single-handedly solve these crises, but that they have an important role to play in contributing to a greater urban resilience. The knowledge shared over the two days of the conference will undoubtedly have a very positive impact on the work of the different organisations. This was captured perfectly by an attendee from Sierra Leone who said, “In terms of knowledge about urban crises, I came here a lamb. I go back home a lion.”


Lydia Darby recently graduated with a first-class honours in International Relations and Politics. She is now studying an MA in International Development on the University’s postgraduate scholarship. She is also a Programmes Officer for SIDshare and a student advocate for Women for Women International UK.


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