The COVID-19 pandemic came at a time of already insufficient progress towards development goals. Achieving the UN’s 2030 Agenda has gone from hard to much harder, and with it, the need for ambitious, concerted, innovative effort has grown.
Both the challenges we face, and the potential for finding solutions, are so often concentrated in cities. As the places and structures in which people live, work, socialise, learn and create, our ability to realise our potential, and our rights, is heavily influenced by them. Getting cities policy – or policies – right, makes a huge difference.
With the half-way point in the 2030 Agenda fast approaching, the World Urban Forum just next month, and with the General Assembly reviewing the implementation of the New Urban Agenda recently, this question is high on the international agenda.
To shape thinking, the World Urban Campaign, of which IFLA is a member, launched a 2.0 version of its The City We Need Now campaign. This looked to bring together thinkers from across the board in the urban policy space, in order to identify themes around which to build action.
On 25 April, following consultations around the world, the key conclusions of this work were published, highlighting 10 priority areas for action. These are being promoted by Campaign members, and brought to decision-makers, from the local to the global levels.
The document is a helpful one for libraries, both in terms of identifying themes which matter for libraries, and actions where libraries have a strong role to play.
This blog summarises these, in order to help libraries and library associations draw on this as a resource for advocacy, especially with local governments and local government associations. It focuses on each of the identified highlights in turn:
1) The city we need now is healthy and promotes wellbeing: an obvious priority in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, this nonetheless focuses on how to improve quality of life durably, including in the face of non-communicable diseases. Improving mental health and wellbeing, as well as the determinants of health (education, housing, social connections) are all underlined.
Libraries of course have a long-standing role in supporting wellbeing, through their collections (including growing awareness of the potential of bibliotherapy) and simply offering a quiet space. They can contribute more actively to healthy living through supporting public health campaigns and enabling access to eHealth.
2) The city we need now is free from violence, war and fosters a culture of peace: the threat of insecurity has always been there for many, with Russia’s war against Ukraine only the latest reminder. The Campaign highlights the need, in addition to an immediate end to aggression, to support initiatives that bring people together and move them away from conflict.
In their role as community hubs, open for all of the community, libraries are well placed to support here, acting as living labs. They are on the front lines in some cases, for example Colombia where they have been among the first public services to return to areas previously marked by conflict. Through supporting democratic engagement and empowerment, they also strengthen people’s ability to find solutions and act.
3) The city we need now is resilient, low-carbon and adapts to climate change: COP26 marked a major reaffirmation of the need for action to reduce emissions and promote adaptation and resilience. Cities are part of this, both as actors in limiting climate change, and in needing to respond. The Campaign calls for stronger engagement in climate action, as well as a drive to change behaviours.
As IFLA highlighted in the run-up to COP26, libraries have the potential to play a powerful role in climate action and empowerment. Through informing decision-making, sharing information that drives behaviour change, and providing a space for communities to build consensus around action, there is much that they can do to make a difference here.
4) The city we need now is inclusive and promotes gender equality: linked to the highlight around a culture of peace, the Campaign underlines the need for tolerance – and indeed celebration – of diversity, and forms of decision-making that include everyone. It calls for proactive efforts to educate and share experiences, and value the lives and experience of all.
As spaces open to all, libraries can act as catalysts for successful multiculturalism and broader equality, designing services which respond to the needs of all. Focused programming can go further, especially when libraries benefit from investment and training. They can also offer a ‘safer’, more structured environment for all to get involved in decision-making.
5) The city we need now is economically vibrant and provides opportunities for all: the need for people to have a livelihood and to encourage local business and job possibilities also features. The informal economy, as well as new forms such as the shared economy, can play a role, but of course rely on people knowing about opportunities, and having the skills to realise them.
Public libraries in many countries were founded on the principle that they would help people continue to learn throughout life, and they continue to do this in a huge variety of ways as a core part of the lifelong learning infrastructure. In parallel with this, they offer crucial support for jobseekers, both in applying for support (where available) and finding new opportunities.
6) The city we need now has a strong sense of place and has room for diverse identities: in effect, this is the culture goal of the Campaign, stressing the need both to consider cultural factors, and to engage cultural actors in order to support sustainable development. The sector has, however, suffered from the forced closure of venues and limits of travel. There needs to be investment now, in order to ensure future returns.
Libraries are often the densest, and best-used cultural networks cities have, enabling people both to access their shared culture, and achieve their broader cultural rights. They need to be better recognised within cultural policies however, in particular those that look to realise the potential of culture to drive integration and success in wider policy goals.
7) The city we need now is managed through public participation and democratically governed: as stressed already above, there is a pressing need for citizens to be involved in decision-making, not just in order to increase a sense of engagement and belonging, but also to improve the quality and relevance of decisions taken. The Campaign notes in particular the value of open data, and proactive outreach to all members of the community.
Libraries are increasingly realising their role as part of the democratic infrastructure. In addition to traditional work in helping people to take informed decisions, many provide space for democratic debate for the community as a whole, key public legal information to help people realise their rights, and portals for engaging with open data. Some even help designing these portals in order best to meet user needs.
8) The city we need now fosters comprehensive and integrated planning and development: the way in which buildings and neighbourhoods are planned and used is a key concern, and something over which city authorities can have a significant impact. The need to move towards more localised communities (15-Minute Cities) is on the agenda, as is the need to regenerate and re-use existing places, rather than simply taking more land.
There are already great examples of libraries sitting at the heart of efforts to bring life back to previously run-down areas, including IFLA’s publication on new libraries in old buildings. There is also clearly an important role for information in effective urban planning and policy, something that library and information professionals are well placed to support, either within governments or wider research centres.
9) The city we need now ensures access to housing, services and mobility: closely linked to better planning is the need to ensure that everyone can access the services and opportunities that they need. Clearly, improving housing provision is also essential, as this unlocks a major series of other economic and societal benefits (health, wellbeing, disposable incomes, education).
Through operating as networks, public libraries already represent an example of decentralised service provision in action (and indeed, in many cases act as multifunctional service centres, partnering with other parts of government). When libraries are accessible on foot or by bicycle, this reduces the need for polluting travel, or for excluding those without their own form of transport. In parallel, through internet access provision, as well as helping people find out about their rights, libraries can also support access to housing and the defence of tenant rights.
10) The city we need now learns and innovates: building on a point already made above, the Campaign stresses the need for intelligent policy making, based on strong information management, a readiness to innovate, and the encouragement of partnerships and connections.
Libraries in the government and parliamentary fields already do just this at the national level, helping to ensure that decisions are based on the latest data and research. The skills and services they offer are also invaluable at the local level, and could certainly be drawn on more.
The City We Need Now campaign is not over. With key moments coming up this year, the above highlights will be referred to regularly in a variety of events and processes. Take a look at The City We Need Now site, and in particular its regional campaigns, to find out about new opportunities, or simply reach out to your own local government associations to talk about how libraries can make a reality of the Campaign’s goals.