UN-Habitat and partner host Urban Law Day

By on 06/15/2016

New York, 15 June 2016–The Urban Law Center at Fordham University and UN-Habitat co-hosted an Urban Law Day event at the United Nations in New York, addressing the often overlooked role and importance of legal frameworks to advance sustainable urbanism. The session was moderated by Ms. Nisha Mistry, Director of the Fordham Urban Law Center.

Mr. Robert Lewis-Lettington, Urban Legislation Unit Leader said that the pace of urbanization around the world is happening at an extraordinary pace. Legal tools like planning laws and basic services regulations can help cities predict growth and associated needs and establish responses that are most advantageous to the long term health and vitality of a developing city. The capacity to predict and adequately adapt to long-term population growth in developing cities will be one of the hallmarks of UN-Habitat support to Member States.

During the first session on “The Challenges of Access to Sustainable Housing and the Pragmatic Possibilities of Urban Law”, the importance of the aspect of urban planning; ‘Creation & maintenance of sustainable housing’ was highlighted. Dean Nestor Davidson of Fordham Law School introduced four dimensions of urban law and sustainable housing and explored ways in which the law intersects with the four variables: through 1. Direct regulations (housing rights, tenure); 2. Indirect regulation (tax abatements); 3. Direct intervention by the state with programs that supplement the failures of the private market (transparency/justice); and lastly, 4. Indirect intervention. It was also noted that provision of sustainable housing is a challenge that is interconnected to most aspects of urban life.

Justice Zione Ntabaof the High Court of Malawi, analyzed the challenges of sustainable housing in developing nations whereby sustainable housing is rarely a top priority for the government as compared to education and healthcare. She gave a recent example of a public-private partnership between the Government of Malawi and a Chinese firm to develop affordable housing in a former slum, which was not successful. She emphasized the importance of access to justice and housing and that all the issues are interconnected and therefore efforts to ameliorate these conditions would be successful when confronted in an intersectional context.

A question about the unintended effects of a formalized regulatory framework

A question about the unintended effects of a formalized regulatory framework was posed with a concern that these formalization efforts might exacerbate the negative aspects of gentrification and create more problems. Displacement is an issue that must be addressed and that public-private partnerships that build middle-income housing might be a plausible solution to displacement. However, these partnerships might not prevent displacement of low-income households as direct interventions. It was argued that one of the tools that should be used to mitigate displacement and reduce the effects of formalization is the law and expansion of access to justice.

The 2nd session ‘From Participation to Collaboration: Legislating for a Shared Governance of Cities’, concentrated on how governments can become more effective and responsive to the need of its citizens. Professor Sheila Foster of Fordham University discussed new forms of local governance with potential to be more effective, efficient and responsive to the needs of its citizens. In Seoul, South Korea for example, a law was recently passed that expanded the avenues for participation and interaction between citizens and local government. In Bologna, Italy a law encouraging pacts of collaboration between government bureaucrats and citizens was passed. In these examples, government is an enabler of collaboration, not a monopoly. It was stated that the existence of slums is a failure of legal frameworks and government administration. With great leadership a balance between law and entrepreneurial ideas that ensure ideas to move forward without causing chaos is stroked. Participation in the early stages of planning is key for implementation. Finally, the panel on Legal Aspects of Urban Information Platforms focused on the idea of broadband and open data platforms as urban infrastructure. Three benefits of open data were discussed: 1. Open data to promote accountability in government; 2. To allow citizens to have more direct input in policy discussions; and 3. To facilitate inter-agency collaboration to promote a more efficient and responsive government.

In conclusion, the overarching theme of the day was to incorporate legal dimensions into urban planning. Understanding the centrality of urban law to urbanism is strengthened by the diversity of perspectives. From public administration to planning to engineering and judicial reform, all benefit from a better understanding of the relationship between urban law and urban planning. Urban planning is most successful when it incorporates an interdisciplinary viewpoint.

The Urban Legislation Unit of UN-Habitat encourages its partners to organize Urban Law Day events to discuss current topics and relevance of urban law. In the past, two Urban Law Day events have been organized by the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, University of London, UK, in 2014 to launch the cooperation between the IALS and UN-Habitat and to define and consolidate, through open discussion, the medium term priorities of a research agenda in urban law and in 2015 on Effective Legal Frameworks as a Tool for Sustainable Urban Development. The next Urban Law Day event will be held in London on the 15th of July 2016 on Good Urban Legislation in Resource-poor Settings: Challenges & Practical Solutions.

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