Habitat III: From Global Conversation to Creative Commitment

Habitat III: From Global Conversation to Creative Commitment

Habitat III
Habitat III, a global summit born out of the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, is set to take place in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016. This round of global gathering is the third in a series that began in 1976 with the goal to reinvigorate a global, political commitment to the sustainable development of rural and urban human settlements. Termed the New Urban Agenda, Habitat III delegates have the auspicious goal of setting a global strategy for the next two decades of urbanization (“New urban agenda”, 2016). On the docket are topics such as poverty, environmental degradation, quality of life, development patterns, and – last but not least – global climate change.

With more than 50 percent of the world’s population living in urban settlements, Habitat III provides a well-timed platform to bring together world leaders to discuss issues perceived as most important to urban settlements around the globe. However the vagueness of purpose, in addition to the sheer magnitude of the aims laid out by the Sustainable Development Goals, is enough to suggest that it would be worth taking a moment to step back and evaluate the process through which we attempt to convene and act on urban settlement initiatives.

For starters: who is invited – and, more notably, who is not? Habitat III is not open to local or city-level leaders who would be implementing urbanization strategies as ideas move from global to local (termed “glocal”). We can tout ideals of international cooperation, information exchange, and sustainability, but it is equally important to provide pathway to tie those words back to action in community – something that local leaders are uniquely positioned to actualize.  

Similarly, at what scale should we be discussing how to shape urban ethics? As it currently stands, Habitat III appears focused on discussions relating to how governments and economies can perpetuate growth through accumulation while simultaneously paying lip-service to conversations regarding equity and quality of life. Moreover, sorting through the myriad of cultures, approaches, values, and ethics related to urban settlements becomes an often overlooked practice of complexity before the conference even begins. Gatherings such as Habitat III are then in danger of quickly becoming global exercises in reiterating standpoints without also providing the ongoing connections or mechanisms through which we might approach urban opportunities.

Addressing Disparities: Social Support and Responsible Being
To their credit, the Sustainable Development Goals were crafted with an overarching goal of reducing inequality. Inequalities – the “unequal distribution of costs, benefits, power, and access to resources” – determine who has agency, and are therefore deeply linked to perceptions of well-being and the ability to pursue well-being for self and others (Hicks et al., 2016). Power as the use of force, exerted at many levels, by various means, bounds the agency of individuals and groups to pursue well-being in a social and environmentally sustainable manner. The extent to which exerted power, or force, perpetuates inequalities also creates potential areas of conflict. Therefore, to pursue a reduction of inequalities and set the urban agenda on a path towards sustainability, we must also evaluate goals and actions through the lens of justice. However, this then necessitates a conversation and agreement upon what is “fair”, “just”, and accepted in how we treat people.

So where does this leave us?

When we collect data, design programs, implement ideas, and evaluate ‘success’, I return again and again to the ethic of living in responsible relation to people, place, and self. Enabling every human to lead a life of dignity – one in which they are able to cultivate a sense of belongingness and relatedness to the communities, both human and ecological, that surround them remains key to creating and sustaining the resilient communities we are striving towards.

Factually, we can say that “social support has consistently been found to buffer the effects of violence on children’s problem outcomes” (Margolin & Gordis, 2000), or that just ten minutes of exposure to nature, two to three times per week – be it in a wilderness area or an urban green space – can have significant mental health restoration benefits (Bergman et al., 2012; Hunter & Askarinejad, 2015). Intellectually, we can place value in cultivating a sense of empathy for the people and places that surround us. However, if we are unable to embody and act on that empathy – or if we discard the sense of being in relatedness to each other and our environment – we do ourselves, and the communities of which we are inevitably part of, a great disservice. A failure to act in relatedness is typically grounded in the inability to see beyond the conditioning myths that guide our behavior and dictate culture expectations. This close-mindedness poses a very real threat to the validity of global conversation and connection of the sort that Habitat III is attempting to foster and sustain.

Additionally, the tendency to view and approach whole systems from fragmented perspectives, in which each academic discipline claims to have their own version of a silver bullet, disintegrates avenues for social support at all levels. This disintegration enables the deconstruction of humans in-relation to each other and, I believe, is one of the great reasons we allow the continued existence of complex and corrupt systems which produce the very health and environmental disparities we are called to struggle against. With these conditions in mind, and Habitat III quickly approaching, we must now ask: In what ways can a global gathering address living in relatedness at the local level?  

Adaptive Co-Learning Model
While it may be impossible to equally involve all players and stakeholders in problem conceptualization and goal setting, we can take steps to broaden the inclusivity of the conversation. Building opportunities not just for global discussion, but for active collaboration and understanding through an adaptive, learning dialogue may be critical to bridging the gaps in creative future envisioning, problem conceptualization, goal clarification, implementation, and evaluation.

Creating psychologically safe spaces where personal and cultural assumptions can be examined individually and within a learning group may be a way forward. As Kofman and Senge (1993) suggest, focusing on building “communities of commitment” as an exercise in personal commitment and community building shifts the focus from problem solving and learning (fact gathering) to generativeness and relatedness (belonging in relation to people and place). Cultivating a continued commitment to place and thriving networks will be vital to rebuilding disintegrated social support ties – at the local level, in particular.

Additionally, more inclusive processes will help blur the distinctions between fragmented approaches to problem solving that seek to gnaw complex systems into bite-sized pieces that can be addressed by appointed and area-limited experts. These same processes of genuine connection and dialogue also make it possible for shifting from a problem-solving mindset to a listening-learning mindset that best positions experts – at all levels – to be more effective agents of action. Indeed, the seemingly simple act of reframing the purpose of a dialogue from problem-solving to one of creative, future visioning equips participants to navigate the tension between how we perceive the world as it currently is, and the world we envision and would choose for the future. As Grant (2012) writes, “crafting a vision is not a matter of describing foreseeable futures, but rather creating a future that does not already exist. This process is a creative act that brings into being a possible future that was previously non-existent, improbable or unforeseeable.”

Donella Meadows (1996) noted that we cannot achieve a desirable, just or sustainable world before we can envision what that would world look like – and, I would argue, until we are also able to exercise the agency to communicate and act on those creative visions without being constrained by our analysis of, or attachment to, the past. Through this hard work of creative commitment to future, we may be better able to overcome not only problem and approach fragmentation, but the disintegration of social networks and the breakdown in genuine empathy for ecological and human communities. Kofman and Senge (1993) point out that “the word health has the same roots as ‘whole’ (the old English hal, as in ‘hale and hearty’)”. The possibilities for moving from individual thinker to systems thinker – meaning thinking in terms of being and relatedness – are fundamentally generative rather than simply subtractive, additive or competitive.

However, this type of action in partnership or dialogue relies on the ability of stakeholders to set aside their standpoints and any held beliefs in the power of their fragmented expertise. Critical too will be the ability of the stakeholders to be equally open to having their understandings, definitions and positions challenged by the other in community with them, while reflectively challenging themselves to acknowledge underlying held assumptions (or stories or biases) encompassed within their own disciplines or positions. Additionally, the task of uncoupling an individual’s stated beliefs and identities from their lived actions will be necessary to overcome years of distrust and diplomatic relations.

In no short order, this type of generative dialogue would need to be handled in a manner that both acknowledges the stakeholder’s valuable expertise (meaning the value of an individual’s contribution in relation to the whole of which they are a part) while providing a platform for the clarification and development of common language, approach, and goals. Working interdisciplinary – by which I mean melding, bridging, and transcending the boundaries of epistemological communities – these types of learning communities may begin to conceptualize a new vision for urban sustainability which conceptualizes a different set of problems than originally perceived, and would thus be better equipped to lead collaborative and embedded approaches that address the pressing and persistent ecological, economic, and health challenges faced by urban communities today.