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September 8, 2015

Graphic highlights ‘overlooked links’ between Habitat III issue papers

An article from CitiScope:

The 22 thematic, research-based ‘issue papers’ that were released in May as a core part of the Habitat III process might have seemed daunting at first. Their scope attempts to cover the full range of issues that will likely find their way into the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of next year’s Habitat III cities conference. The papers also provided fodder for a robust online debate last month.

The issue papers explore complex issues characterizing today’s urbanization processes worldwide, and each of those 22 issues is covered in a discreet study of its own. Yet that doesn’t mean these topics are not interconnected. The Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS) in Rotterdam has now created an infographic that “visualize[s] one of our main concerns about the Habitat III issue papers: the many (overlooked) links among them,” IHS research assistant Alexandra Tsatsou said in an e-mail.

The graphic can be found in a broader set of formal comments by IHS on the issue papers.

The image reveals an intense web of connections between the issue papers that would not be readily apparent to someone reading each paper sequentially, although the 22 documents are grouped into six thematic categories. “The complex network of connections in between [the six categories] is what we believe that is missing,” Tsatsou said.

The visualization reveals a strong set of connections emanating from, for instance, the issue papers under the categories on urban frameworks and spatial development. The “Urban Rules and Legislation”, “Municipal Finance”, “Urban and Spatial Planning and Design” and “Public Space” papers illustrate the highest number of connections to other topics.

This visual analysis could now help to prioritize broad issues for the New Urban Agenda. “As a clearer statement of Habitat III goals is currently missing, the issue papers look to multiple directions without an overarching aim,” Tsatsou said.

The ability to highlight cross-cutting issues will be vital to ensuring the successful implementation of the New Urban Agenda. Contemporary thinking in urban development and policymaking attempts to break down barriers between sectors and recognize, for example, that housing, transportation and jobs must be planned in concert and not independent of one another.

“As a clearer statement of Habitat III goals is currently missing, the issue papers look to multiple directions without an overarching aim.” Alexandra Tsatsou, Research assistant, Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies

Tsatsou points to the relationship between informal settlements and urban land or migration and urban-rural linkages as obvious places where a sectoral approach would be ineffective. Yet these topic areas are classified under different themes in the current configuration of the issue papers.

“Most of the issues cannot realistically and efficiently be solved in isolation, but only in conjunction with other issues,” she said. “Moreover, the sectoral approach contributes to a certain tendency in promoting rather static and statutory planning approaches, while it favours the creation of silos and hampers further integration.”

The issue papers are also relatively light on visual information, even though many of the issues at hand relate to inherently visual ideas such as urban form and the shape of the built environment.

“Similar visualization of information and data is missing from most of the issue papers and comment documents as well,” Tsatsou said, “although it is of major importance for effective communication and dissemination of facts and ideas.”

Above all, IHS hopes that its infographic will initiate a conversation.

“The complexity of cities and urban development, which is much greater than the web of connections between the 22 issue papers, is the main challenge of drafting the New Urban Agenda under the upcoming ecological and socio-economic changes,” Tsatsou said.

As an academic institution, IHS sees its role as encouraging a more nuanced set of ideas around Habitat III in order to deepen the debate in the hopes of a more effective outcome.

“Neglecting the links between the different issues does not only contradict the aim of integrative urban development,” she said, “but results in fragmented solutions that cannon ensure significant impact.”