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Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda – Lessons on Understanding Risk and Building Resilience
By: Joe Mulligan and Shreya Mitra
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Photo: Kounkuey Design Initiative. Ibrahim Maina (KDI Program Coordinator) facilitates a community meeting regarding a drainage project in Kibera, Nairobi, March 2016.

A New Urban Agenda

“By 2050 the world urban population is expected to nearly double, making urbanization one of the 21st century’s most transformative trends.” Draft Quito Declaration On Sustainable Cities And Human Settlements For All (Sept. 2016)

This week Heads of State will formally adopt a ‘New Urban Agenda’ in Quito, Ecuador. This will be the outcome document agreed upon at the third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) that aims to set the narrative for development in human settlements for the next 10-20 years.

The New Urban Agenda, following on the heels of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, will seek to strengthen the links between urbanization and sustainable development. Most urban growth is after all expected in the developing world; in the expanding cities and informal settlements of Africa and Asia. A significant proportion of this urban expansion is occurring in fragile and conflict-affected contexts. Here, the risks of unplanned and poorly managed urbanization resulting in inequitable, exclusionary, fragmented, and violent cities are significant. Cognizant of this, the draft outcome document calls for special attention to cities in countries facing situations of conflict and those affected by natural and man-made disasters.

In 2015 and 2016, International Alert and KDI have been working together under the ESRC-DFID funded programme Urban ARK to examine the interaction of environmental and conflict risks in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest informal settlement, and the impact of three major housing and infrastructure initiatives on building future resilience.

What lessons do these projects hold for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda? How can we strengthen urban resilience in contexts where conflicts, environmental risks, and disasters collide?

Compounding Risks in Kibera

Kibera, located in the centre of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, is one of the largest informal settlements in Africa. Residents of Kibera face many challenges, often including poverty, unemployment, insufficient water and sanitation infrastructure, poor housing and high rates of crime and insecurity. Kibera was also a hotspot of the post-election violence in late 2007 and early 2008.

With the Ngong River and major tributaries running through the settlement, riverine flooding is a significant risk, particularly for those living closest to the river banks. Due to poor drainage and inadequate solid waste management, Kibera residents living away from the river banks are also subject to localised flooding. Global climate change is already aggravating the flood risk residents face across the city as the intensity of rainfall events increases in line with projections for East Africa.

New infrastructure and services developed in the last two years under a multi-sector program delivered by the Ministry of Devolution and the National Youth Service (NYS) have already contributed positively to improving the living conditions in Kibera. Roads, power lines, health services, water and sanitation blocks, urban agriculture initiatives, and police posts have emerged. For the first time, people can easily catch a matatu, boda or Uber into the heart of Kibera to get from work to home, or bring supplies to their businesses.

The Kenyan government along with the World Bank and UN-HABITAT, have also undertaken major housing efforts. Two projects are notable in this regard; Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme (KENSUP) and the Nairobi Railway Relocation Action Plan (Railway Project) that introduce multi-story housing to the largely single-story settlement.

These three projects will go a long way in determining the future development pathways and resilience of Kibera residents. Despite some successes, there have also been many challenges. Indeed, some of these initiatives are creating new and renewed tensions due to a lack of effective consultation and engagement with affected populations.

Building resilience: Lessons on implementation from slum upgrading and development efforts

The successes and failures of these projects point to specific lessons for city and national level actors implementing development and slum upgrading initiatives. These lessons are relevant not only in Nairobi but also in other rapidly urbanising centres.

  1. Projects that are integrated and multi-sector in nature have a stronger potential to effectively address multiple risks, be it environmental or conflict risks, compared to single-sector projects. Of the three projects, only the NYS project is truly multi-sectoral in design, addressing infrastructure, basic service provision, employment and the causes of insecurity. Implementation challenges have however, hindered the project from reaching its full potential.
  2. Where the social contract is already weak, projects need to be particularly sensitive to the urban political context or risk facing obstruction. In the opposition stronghold of Gatwekera in Kibera, low levels of trust in government-led projects resulted in youth being incited to oppose the NYS projects. They set fire to ablution blocks and resisted the extension of the sewer line into the area.
  3. In such fragile contexts, projects needs to strengthen the social contract in order to be effective. This requires meaningful consultation, transparency, and equity. In the Railway project, stringent criteria for eligibility, community-led enumeration, dialogue, and consultation built trust and helped mitigate the risks of opposition and conflict from local residents. By contrast, lack of transparency in housing allocation and limited buy-in, led to structure owners opposing KENSUP via lawsuits. This lack of transparency and trust delayed project implementation and undermined relations between the government and project beneficiaries.
  4. In addition to strengthening the social contract, projects that build social capital have positive outcomes for resilience. Social capital and networks are important to Kibera residents, who rely on them to access information, livelihood, and business opportunities. The relocation process under KENSUP disrupted people’s access to information and networks by moving residents significantly further away from their homes in Kibera. These residents struggled to continue their income generating activities at the same level, undermining their resilience.
  5. Effective action for climate change adaptation needs to be specific to the social, economic, and physical context at a local scale, as risks vary significantly from one area to the next. For example, planning for the NYS sewer line failed to take into account the variation in river levels through the settlement; this led to the flooding and failure of the sewer line at various points. Readily available local knowledge on flood levels or simple flood mapping were not utilised to inform good design in the rush to deliver the project. Opportunities to enable local facilities to connect to the sewer were missed and residents made illegal connections that have contributed to the blockages.
  6. Micro-scale and local improvements of physical and social resilience can reduce risk in and of themselves-if designed properly, but they can also amplify the effects of larger infrastructural interventions to build social cohesion and contract (i.e. by plugging info formal government infrastructure). For example, localised public space projects delivered by Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) have connected to formal water and sewerage infrastructure and allowed for the municipal adoption of pedestrian access, creating an interface and interaction between the informal and formal cities.

Looking past Quito – achieving “participation” key to implementation of the New Urban Agenda

With world leaders gathering in Quito this week to adopt a formative New Urban Agenda, city authorities and national governments in rapidly urbanising centres are making planning and infrastructure decisions that will lock us into development pathways for the next 30-50 years. The language of participation is rightly central to the Quito Declaration. While the modalities of incorporating grounded perspectives on local needs, priorities, and risks are certainly complex, our research confirms that meaningful participation and consultation is key to building the social contract and cohesion, and hence resilience, in fragile urban contexts. Finding workable and affordable modes of public consultation are critical to avoiding conflict and to creating responsive and flexible resilience development initiatives.


International Alert and KDI will be publishing more detailed information on this research funded under the ESRC-DFID programme Urban ARK in the coming months. If you have any questions or queries about this piece please contact Joe Mulligan and/or Shreya Mitra.

Joe Mulligan is a board member and Associate Director of Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI). He has published papers on community participation in infrastructure development and sustainability assessment for urban master planning.

Shreya Mitra is a Senior Programme Officer with International Alert’s Environment, Climate Change and Security programme.

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