Current Issues in Planning: Habitat III: Prospects, Possibilities, Problems

2016W Term 1
14:00 to 17:00
WMAX 240

The course is structured around the students’ participation in the UN Habitat III conference, and focuses on the paired themes of the current state of urbanization as a global phenomenon and the range of policy responses as articulated through the Habitat process and other channels.  

The course is structured as a seminar with short lectures by the instructor, group work, and presentations by students.  The course will include participation in Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador from Oct. 17 – 20. 

The occasion of the Habitat III conference (Quito, 17 – 20 October 2016) provides an opportunity to reflect upon not only the nature and consequences of urbanization as an increasingly global phenomenon of human society, but also its implications as an increasingly global policy discourse.  This one-time course is offered by Penny Gurstein, who as a SCARP student was involved in the first Habitat conference (Vancouver, 31 May – 11 June 1976) and Michael Leaf, who as a SCARP faculty member attended the second Habitat conference (Istanbul, 3 – 14 June 1996), and will be structured around the students’ participation in the Quito event. 


The course will address a number of themes related to the conference and to the Habitat process more broadly (listed below), though what might be regarded as the overarching concern is to consider this relationship between urbanization as an on-the-ground manifestation of shifting social (and socio-economic) relations and its portrayal or representation at multiple scales of policy setting, from municipal, to national, to supranational. Does the discourse of global urbanism properly and sufficiently represent the full implications of the phenomenon itself? Do rhetoric and reality in this regard reinforce each other or are there inherent contradictions between the two? Do we as a society have sufficient capacity in our practices of urban governance and planning for steering urban growth onto a truly sustainable path?  Clearly, for a phenomenon as all-encompassing and consequential as how humans inhabit the earth there will be no easy yes or no answers to such a questions, yet how we understand urbanization, and consequently, how we work to address the challenges it presents, will have significant follow-on implications for both the planet and those who inhabit it.


Themes to be addressed in the course include:

  1. Understanding Habitat III: the structure of the conference.
  2. Habitat III as a UN process, and in historical perspective – from 1972 onward.
  3. Habitat III and the “development industry.”
  4. The question of rights-based interventions and global policy-making.
  5. Shifting scale: national and urban scale issues: Habitat and WUF.
  6. Role of NGOs and Habitat-NGO relations / the role of HIC.
  7. Habitat III as a mega-event / place-marketing.
  8. Evolution of a discourse: progress and its portrayal in human settlement policy.
  9. Effects on the ground: what has changed since Habitat I?
  10. Private sector roles: or, urbanization in the global context of neo-liberalism.

Participation in Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador is mandatory for those taking the class. Students are responsible for their own travel expenses.  


After completing this course, students have a detailed understanding of:

  • The current state and future prospects for urbanization in the world today.
  • The potential and limitations of policy-setting at local, national and supranational levels regarding problems of urbanization.
  • The organization of the UN system with regard to urban development and change.
  • The challenges for the evolving field of urban planning in responding to ongoing problems of urbanization.

Attendance is required in all classes at UBC and at the Habitat III conference, and in group work with other students. 

As the Quito Conference essentially divides the term in half, term assignments are conceptualized as a group assignment in the first half, in preparation for Habitat III, and an individual term paper in the second half.


Group Assignment

  • The group assignment will entail the research, design and production of a poster for presentation at the Habitat III conference which demonstrates the lessons learned from the first Habitat I conference in Vancouver, BC in 1976 and reflects upon changes which have occurred since.   


Individual Term Paper

  • The individual assignment can be thought of as a conventional term paper (5-6,000 words, proper citations, etc.) though there is also scope for students to suggest alternative formats, media or approaches.  Topics for this assignment should be developed by the students in consultation with the faculty, should address one or another of the concerns of the course, and be informed to one extent or another by the student’s own experience at the Quito conference.


Grading for the course will be based on the following:

  • Group Assignment (poster for display in Quito)                                 30% (Due Date: Oct. 14)
  • Individual Paper Assignment                                                                      50% (Due Date: Dec. 12)
  • Participation                                                                                                       20%


UBC courses are graded on a percentage basis. Corresponding letter grades are assigned automatically by the Registrar. (See UBC Calendar, Academic Regulations, Grading Practices). For master's students registered in the Faculty of Graduate Studies, Fail (F) for individual courses is defined as below 60%:


Percentage (%)

Letter Grade


















Grading Criteria

The following guidelines offer a broad-brush characterization of the type of work that might be associated with various ranges of grades.

80% to 100% (A- to A+)

  • Exceptional performance: strong evidence of original thinking; good organization; capacity to analyse, synthesize, apply and evaluate; superior grasp of subject matter with sound critical evaluations; evidence of extensive knowledge base.

68% to 79% (B- to B+)

  • Competent performance: evidence of grasp of subject matter; some evidence of critical capacity and analytic ability; reasonable understanding of relevant issues and/or application of skills expected; evidence of familiarity with the literature and professional practice standards.

50% to 60% (D to C+)

  • Adequate performance: understanding of the subject matter; ability to develop solutions to simple problems in the material; acceptable but uninspired work, not seriously faulty but lacking in analytic rigour, style and vigour in argumentation or evidence.

00% to 49% (F)

  • Inadequate performance: little or no evidence of understanding of the subject matter; weakness in critical and analytic skills; limited or irrelevant use of the literature.
  1. Only required readings and videos

    1. On-line PDF copies of journal articles and E-Books (E-links and/or PDF Copies available on Connect)
    2. UN Habitat, 2016.  World Cities Report 2016: Urbanization and Development – Emerging Futures, Nairobi, United Nations Human Settlements Programme - Chapter 1: From Habitat II to Habitat III: Twenty Years of Urban Development, pp. 1 – 26.

Week 1 – Sept. 14 –  Introduction and the Habitat Process (Urbanization and the Development Industry)

  • An introduction to the course and an overview of the history of the UN conference cycles
  • Situating the UN Habitat process within the larger context of development practices


Week 2 – Sept. 21 –  The Urban Transition: Where We Are Now; Where We Are Headed

  • Understanding the social and economic underpinnings of ongoing urbanization
  • Analysis of urbanization in relation to demographic change
  • Articulation of the main economic and environmental challenges of urbanization and the analysis of trends


Week 3 – Sept. 28 – Evolution of a Discourse: The Problem of Slums

  • The importance of language and terminology in the representation of urban problems
  • The idea of discourse and representation as political processes
  • The enduring issue of standards in the development of urban areas
  • Implications of standards for urban social polarization


Week 4 – Oct. 5 – A World of NGOs

  • An understanding of the role(s) of non-governmental organizations in urbanization and development
  • The evolving relationships between NGOs and governmental structures, including the Habitat International Coalition and the UN system
  • Discussion with local members of NGOs active in Habitat process


Week 5 – Oct. 12 – Final Preparations for Habitat III


Week 6 – Oct 17 – 20 – Habitat III Conference, Quito, Ecuador

  • Attendance and involvement at the Quito conference


Week 7 – Oct. 26 – Reflections on the Conference

  • Discussion and analysis of conference events and activities
  • Implications for thinking about urban policy
  • Implications for conceptualizing final term project


Week 8 – Nov. 2 – The Question of Capacity (and the Question of Informality)

  • The viability of rights-based interventions and global policy-making
  • Countervailing pressures, including informal practices by local governments and impacts of private sector development.
  • Urbanization as a challenge for governance


Week 9 – Nov. 9 – The Scope of Planning – Global Trends and Local Responses

  • An analysis of the evolving practices of urban planning, both positive and negative, in shaping urban outcomes
  • Tools for understanding the effects of local contexts in shaping planning practice


Week 10 – Nov. 16 – Toward the Future: A Counter-narrative to the Counter-narrative

  • Alternative analyses for thinking about the urban future in social, environmental and economic terms.


Week 11 – Nov. 23 – Final Presentations


Week 12 – Nov. 30 – Final Presentations and Conclusion

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