Habitat III: Day One Wrap-Up

By Cassandra Cohen, RMIT University 

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaking at the Habitat III Opening Plenary

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaking at the Habitat III Opening Plenary

As we emerged from the airport in Quito after a 30-hour commute from Melbourne, we were amazed by the hoards of volunteers, delegates and taxi drivers waiting to greet us. We knew the conference would be big – this conference only takes place once every 20 years and 50,000 people were registered – but it took seeing the organised chaos at the airport and the entire city covered in ‘Welcome Habitat III citizens’ posters for it to truly sink in. 

After some complex negotiations between the awaiting taxi drivers and my fellow delegate Rufael (our Spanish-speaking savior), we decided to take the Habitat shuttle bus to our hotel to get some shut-eye before our 7am breakfast start.

Having heard tales of eight-hour waits to register for the conference, we had braced ourselves for the worst. Thankfully though, the Global Voices magic delivered and we were able to make our way closer to the front of the queue and into the conference in time to make it to the opening plenary meeting. 

An intense round of ‘paper, scissors, rock’ between the four delegates ensued, and Caleb and I emerged victorious, gaining access to the main room. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the conference, while Habitat III Secretary-General Dr. Joan Clos explained the importance of the New Urban Agenda in promoting equality and sustainability in our cities. It was surreal to be in the company of these highly esteemed leaders, as well as delegates from the UN member states.

After the plenary meeting, we all split up to experience events in our key interest areas. I attended the launch of the National Urban Policy Programme as part of the New Urban Agenda. Each city is unique, and this was perfectly characterised by the contrast between the experiences and living conditions of the German panelist compared to the delegate from Liberia. As a communications student, my key takeaway from this event was the need for effective communication with the public about the purposes and progress of policy formulation, in order to justify their taxpayers’ financial investment.   

Next was the High-Level Roundtable entitled ‘Leave No one Behind: Urban Inclusion and Prosperity.’ While Caleb and I had initially trusted our new Spanish vocabulary (thanks to Rufael) to see us through the session without translator devices, we were unfortunately brought back down to earth when we realised that complex sustainable development issues tend to use words more advanced than ‘Hola’ and ‘Como estas?’

Once the translator devices were secured, I found this session particularly interesting, as delegates from member states and multinational organisations were invited to share their progress in promoting social inclusion in relation to the goals of the New Urban Agenda. For example, a Canadian representative expressed regret that the document avoided mention of the LGBTI community, while the Turkish delegate called on the UN member states to lend greater financial support to the Syrian refugee crisis. Helen Clarke, Administrator of the UN Development Programme, emphasised that the poor are hardest hit by natural disasters, as their homes are not built to withstand such devastation. The session left me with a deeper understanding of the countries’ positions and more aware of the challenging negotiation process that led to the development of the New Urban Agenda.

Our first Global Voices meeting was with Remy Sietchiping and Runze Wang from UN-Habitat in Nairobi. Remy is involved in Regional and Metropolitan Development and Planning, while Runze is an Urban Planning Officer. We were fortunate to hear about the work of UN-Habitat in developing the New Urban Agenda, as well as the negotiation process that occurs between countries to create it. We were also excited to hear about the UN-Habitat internship program, where Runze got his start. Remy and Runze were extremely generous with their time and we thank them for meeting with us. 

With our official duties complete for the day, we ate dinner at a restaurant called ‘Vista Hermosa’ (which Rufael informed us translated to ‘beautiful view’) in the old town of Quito and the 360-degree view certainly didn’t disappoint. 

It was a fantastic first day, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the next three days of the conference. I am humbled to have received this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity from Global Voices, and I am incredibly grateful to my RMIT University for supporting this experience.