By Cassie Cohen
As the world comes to terms with Donald Trump’s shock presidential victory, Australians are piecing together what the next four years will look like under the Trump Administration.
While immigration and national security may have been the headlining policies of the Trump campaign, a glance towards his approach to urban policy issues does not provide much solace to those disappointed by the election result.
Throughout his campaign, Trump painted a bleak picture of the lives of the two thirds of Americans living in cities, pointing to the “poverty, joblessness, failing schools and broken homes” plaguing American cities. Trump’s solution, it seems, is to deport illegal immigrants in an attempt to create safer, more secure cities.
However, according to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the more appropriate response would be to develop urban infrastructure such as water and sewer systems and roads. Before the election, Landrieu summarised Trump’s position as ‘more divisive rhetoric, big promises without real solutions’. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, had a well-developed plan to tackle urban issues.
Urban issues may seem like a domestic challenge for the U.S., but with more than three out of every four Australians now living in cities, we are starting to look to overseas allies for ideas on how to tackle issues such as traffic congestion and rising house prices.
Given the relevance of these issues for Australians and Americans alike, it would be interesting to hear and engage with the ideas put forward by urban planning and policy experts on how to approach these challenges.
A forum to do just that took place in Quito, Ecuador, in late October this year. It was the UN Housing and Urban Sustainable Development conference, known as Habitat III. Did you hear about it? No? I’m not surprised.
Despite the momentous forum only occurring every 20 years (Habitat I in Vancouver in 1976, Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996), media on the ground in Quito was scarce. The abundant media center was sparsely populated throughout the conference, leaving those who did attend – such as the New York Times’ Architecture and Design critic Michael Kimmelman – urging major media organisations to give cities’ issues more prominence in their publications in order to educate citizens.
Habitat III saw the final agreement of the New Urban Agenda, which charts a roadmap to improve cities across the globe for the next 20 years, to create a more socially inclusive world. The document was developed over more than five years of negotiations in the lead up to the conference, and should certainly have attracted more media fanfare than it did.
Given they house more than half of the world’s population, it follows that cities experience most of the world’s greatest struggles. Key discussion topics at Habitat III ranged from migration to natural disasters and climate change mitigation. Country representatives presented first-hand perspectives and suggestions on how to improve global urban sustainability. For example, the delegate from Canada expressed regret that the New Urban Agenda avoided mention of the LGBTI community, while the Turkish representative called on the UN community to increase financial support to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Without amplification from the media, these statements will fail to make any kind of impact in the wake of Habitat III. Indeed, they may not even leave the room from which they were spoken. Given that the most powerful man in the world will now be a man who describes the lives of those in cities as a “living hell”, the detailed analysis of these issues has never been more important.
UN conferences are often criticised for being too high level in thought and lacking in tangible action-oriented outcomes. However, if the issues discussed are not given any airtime in the media, it is difficult for them to gather the momentum required to create change.
While the entertainment value of sustainable urban development issues may be somewhat limited compared to the salacious news cycle that Trump perpetuates, it is important that these issues are reported for the sake of an open public forum. It is the media’s inherent responsibility to communicate policies and government positions to the taxpayer, in order for these ideas to be taken, challenged and scrutinised in America, Australia and indeed, across the globe.
Trump may only be in office for the next four years, but with another twenty years until the next UN Habitat conference, this dialogue is even more important. Given his disregard for urban policy reform, governments will become sidetracked by more pressing issues of the moment, allowing sustainable development issues to disappear from public consciousness.
Rising urban populations create their own issues that need to be reported thoroughly and responsibly in the media, unhindered by an unsupportive American president. It is up to us as consumers to inform our news sources that urban prosperity is too important to ignore.
Cassie Cohen attended the UN Habitat III conference as an Australian Youth Scholar on behalf of Global Voices.