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Urban Law Center Fostering Sustainable Cities with UN Habitat

OCTOBER 5, 2015
Cities across the world now hold more than half the world’s population and have become engines of growth and centers of job creation, responsible for 80 percent of global GDP.

But ad hoc urban development often undermines efforts to promote sustainable urban environments and infrastructure—issues addressed during the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in late September, which laid out 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to stimulate collective action on worldwide challenges. To help usher in SDG reforms in cities through more effective legal and regulatory frameworks, the United Nations Commission on Human Settlements (UN-Habitat), has formed a partnership with Fordham’s Urban Law Center, which will contribute research, scholarly exchange, and a growing comprehensive database of urban laws to inform the development of cities for the 2030 Agenda.

“There will be no sustainable development without sustainable urban development,” UN- Habit Executive Director Jean Clos told the General Assembly at the Summit. “Good urbanization does not come by chance; it comes by design.”

According to Urban Law Center Director Nisha Mistry, the Center will add substantial value by helping UN-Habitat’s Kenya-based Urban Legislation Unit populate UrbanLex, its open- source research database of urban laws across the globe, with U.S. urban law. UrbanLex has the potential to enable city planners, officials, and urban collaborators around the global to more easily access and shape laws related to issues such as building construction, land management, economic development, natural resources, and urban financing.

“Many cities borrow wholesale and wind up with foreign models of development that don’t suit their goals,” Mistry said. “There are reserves of creativity in the legal field that could be better mobilized to improve urban problem solving. It’s been conventional wisdom for decades now that one-size-fits-all approaches to regulation and policymaking don’t work at national and transnational levels. This has alway The new partnership has a term of three years. Critical work will be underway between now and October 2016, when UN-Habitat convenes its Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in Quito, Ecuador.

Habitat-III, which builds off two previous Conferences in 1976 and 1996, aims to assist governments in addressing challenges through national and local development policy frameworks; deciding how sustainable urbanization will support the relevant 2030 SDGs; and revising and renewing UN-Habitat’s mandate to promote a new model of urban development.

Both the 2030 Agenda and the UN-Habit Conference will play crucial roles in the shape of future urban progress. Across the world’s city centers, administrative discretion and complexity have created a “prevalent trend of unaccountability and a lack of access— particularly for the poor, youth, and women who face real obstacles to economic and social mobility,” Mistry said.

While many traditional legal and regulatory frameworks propose detailed management for cities, they frequently fail to provide municipal decision makers with the practical tools to actually make productive city planning a reality.

“The problem we face nowadays is that most of the new urbanization is spontaneous and unplanned,” Clos said to world leaders. “Therefore, instead of positive outcomes, it often yields negative externalities such as congestion, urban sprawl, and segregation.”

UN-Habitat proposes a radical departure from traditional—and more technically advanced structures—favoring legal instruments that provide the simplest possible fixes to a given problem, as well as urban development that can be built upon, as needed and as capacity and resources allow.

The Urban Law Center understands this vision well. “The goal is to offer up and circulate legal and regulatory frameworks from as many corners of the world as possible,” Mistry said. “It is a response to the ‘silver bullet’ mentality that leads to piecemeal or superficial tweaks rather than truly sustainable development.”
Adrian Brune