NCWQ Habitat Report: July 2019

By Dr Donnell Davis 

NCWQ report on United Nations Habitat

This report encompasses the concise history, evolution of focus, and roles for women in human settlements now and in the future.

UN Habitat Program evolved from the urban drift of people over the last 50 years moving from rural lifestyles to town and city living. Some countries, like Australia, Netherlands and Bangladesh having the highest intensities of urbanisation and sprawl, face some challenges. Cities are a microcosm evoking challenges with human health, environmental stewardship, economic engine-rooms, cultural cocktails, and good governance. Even climate change language evolves with an urban context, from natural rural hazards to being described as an extreme event or disaster, when impacting intense human populations.

In 1976, the UN Human Settlements Council met with many UN signatory countries to establish UN Habitat 1 Agenda that mandated policies and guidelines for safe infrastructure, building on the responsibilities for human health that commenced with 1864 town water supply and distribution. The Agenda planned for the next 20 years, to develop our towns and cities in a desirable direction. In 1996, UN Habitat 2 Agenda concentrated on social justice and care for the people within cities, because inequity was considered a trigger crime (against the person and to property), and civil unrest tested industrial systems. In 2016, UN Habitat 3 focussed on 8 urban policies and demonstrating integration of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) into the microcosm of SDG11. The UN Habitat role evolved from “right to shelter’ to ‘planning sustainable cities’ to ‘regenerative cities’. In 2001, UN Habitat became a fully-fledged program of the United Nations (led by Doctor Anna Tibaijuka), because it was previously embedded as a ‘Practice’ arm of United Nations Environment Policy (UNEP) led by Klaus Toffler. This is understandable because many of the problems in human settlements resulted from inequities and the lack of environmental stewardship for clean water; clean air; access to food, access to natural spaces, forests of timber and resources for building housing; and sanitation.

UN Habitat was a milestone in UN history. It was a UN Program inaugurated by a woman, and it was also the first to work directly with local governments, civil society, professionals, and academia, (rather than have the sole conduit with National Government bureaucrats and politicians of the moment.) Being a practice-oriented organisation opened new doors previously elusive for good governance and localisation of international policy. One of the major achievements was gender-land-tools for tenure security (most applicable where women are not allowed to own assets or property in their own right).

I have been a UN Habitat CSO representative and country representative through CHEC since 2001, and was elected NGO spokesperson in 2009 Governing Council. The Governing Council meets every 2 years in UNH/ UNEP/ UNOP head office in Kenya to determine policy.

In alternative years, UNH hosts a practice-oriented Word Urban Forum in a different country. In 2019, Kuala Lumpur hosted. Today, the permanent Asia-Pacific Regional Office Prepared by Dr Donnell Davis for National Council Women Q of UN Habitat (ROAP) is in Fukuoka, Kyushu, Japan. However, in the early 2000s, Habitat Pacific was registered through UNAA in Queensland, dissolving as Pacific Island Countries established their own systems. There are 24 Pacific countries within PIANGO, 12 in the Commonwealth of Nations, and only a few funded directly by Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) systems. In 2019, DFAT Friendship Grants were made available to NGOs to support on-the-ground projects in the Pacific.

Feminism was demonstrated in UN Habitat because it rediscovered its roots where ‘the woman is where the home is’ , ‘woman is at the hearth’, ‘a woman and children make a home’, and housing is an important basic human need for physical security especially for women and children. Accordingly, women should be participating strongly in decisions about housing. Until recently town planning was a man’s domain, but now more women than men graduate from urban design and planning university courses. In Australia, 70% of those graduating from urban and regional planning were female (2017). This trend is now evident in engineering, architecture, transport planning, social planning, and public infrastructure management.

Australia was described as urbanised with 92.1% of the total population live in towns and cities, when using UN Habitat criteria that relates to potable water and sanitisation (2009), but we are also the most suburbanised with our sprawl. Unfortunately, most of us live in the most fertile coastal land where the highest purpose might be growing food rather than concrete. This also where the most dense vegetation and forests that sequester carbon providing the most valuable ecosystem services, are those decimated by rapid urban development. Furthermore, we are building in the places at high risks of natural climate change impacts (sea level rise and cyclones) exacerbated by anthropogenic greenhouse gas production in cities. Our cities are making us live like ‘boiling frogs in greenhouse soup’ (Davis, 2014). But is does not have to continue that way.

We previously used the philosophy of ‘planning and development’, but despite 40 years of improvements in urban design and planning, recent changes in Queensland have only reflected development, without adequate evaluation or planning policy compliance (many references). The archaic mindset that we need more development for economic security, needs to be reconsidered as done in other countries, where ‘prosperity without growth’(Jackson, 2009) has proven that urban consolidation provides stability. In South East Queensland, civil society debated our future of 6 cities, 47 urban centres and 137 towns, resulting in a ‘Peoples Declaration for Habitat 3 for SEQ’ (UNAAQ, 2017).

Resilient cities resulting from a decade of focussed UN Habitat research and practice, are those retrofitting and redesigning to prevent, mitigate impacts, adapt systems, and enhance quality of life for people. This mainly concentrated on economic investments in resilient infrastructure, but this did not go far enough.Prepared by Dr Donnell Davis for National Council Women Q Regenerative cities espouse ‘net-positive-development’ (Birkland, 2008) for integrated economic, environmental and social benefits that do not ‘kill the goose that lays the golden eggs’. They are designed for greater good and regenerative impacts, often embracing biomimicry (Benyas, 2002), encouraging stronger Biophilia (Wilson 1929), better community collaborations, and giving back more than taking from the earth. Cities do not have to be unhealthy, unbalanced, and undesirable (Blakely & Carbonell, 2012). In most cases, we need to retrofit our cities housing and living conditions to meet changing demographics, public expectations of safety, climate change, and cost of living. What was being built in 1920s or 1950s might not be useful in 2020, but repurposing existing buildings is a worthy consideration. It is always easier to design a green-field site with the perfect design, but these days it is an expensive luxury with land availability, pricing and risk management decisions.

I will provide good case studies and updates about November each year after performance reporting by OECD. Australia has fallen from 7th to 37th world ranking in a few short years. Please refer to the hotlink for quick reference for SDG 11 goals, indicators, targets and measures.

What can women do better to make cities safer, fairer and more sustainable?

1. Participate in your own community, city, and state and nationally in any urban development proposal that does not appear ethical or regenerative. Write to your respective politician (councillor, LG development chair, minister, shadow minister, parliamentary committee, federal minister and shadow, and your federal member as appropriate.)

2. Speak up if infrastructure is unsafe (like walking to public transport) and suggest solutions to the problem. It may as simple as lighting, gardens, artwork or making attractive to broader community use.

3. Participate in NGOs contributing to international debates for shelter for all, safe climate sensitive-infrastructure, social collaboration, environmental stewardship, and good local governance.  We won’t change policy if we don’t do it in our backyard first.)

4. Support women in professional decision-making roles by providing informed research and community voice to important local policies and practices, so they have credible evidence.

5. Encourage girls and women to study in professions that practice sustainable development (not the unsustainable method), and get involved with community wellbeing.

6. Change the way you behave to reflect a regenerative attitude and leave an honourable legacy.

To leave no-one behind, we need to build modern, sustainable cities. To survive and prosper, we need new, intelligent urban planning that creates safe, affordable and resilient
cities with green and culturally inspiring living conditions. Secretary General UN Antonio Guterres


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