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An Urban Future? The Habitat III Conference and Alternative Forums

Held in Quito, Ecuador this past October, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, known as Habitat III, focuses the “official” vision of the future on the development of cities. However, there are diverse voices arguing for a different perspective, one that focuses on the collective pursuit of the common good, on respect for nature and on the right of all the planet’s inhabitants to live in decent conditions

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Aerial view of the Mexico City Metropolitan Area
Aerial view of the Mexico City Metropolitan Area

In 1976, facing a housing crisis driven by growing migration from rural to urban areas, which created urban sprawl and the deterioration of city dwellers’ living conditions, the United Nations (UN) organized the first Conference on Human Settlements in Vancouver, and concluded that a guarantee of adequate housing for all, and urban planning issues in general, were top global priorities. The United Nations Committee on Human Settlements (UNCHS) was created, and since then, the concept of habitat, taken from the social sciences, was adopted by urban development specialists and strategic planners to define a broad, complex and interdependent object of study.

Twenty years later, Habitat II was held in Istanbul. This second world conference produced a Habitat Agenda that outlined how sustainable human settlements could ensure decent housing for everyone, and serve as a guide for developing the urbanized world; it essentially defined cities as the engines of the global world, and posited urbanization as an opportunity, with the participation of local actors as fundamental to this process.  

Two decades later, many of the goals have not been met, and many of the problems have gotten worse. For the first time in human history, most people live in cities, and this trend is likely to persist; the opportunity that urban society seemed to offer, however, has run up against a crisis of injustice, inequality and marginalization that has millions living in miserable conditions.

Habitat III Conference Videoconference with Joan Clos, General Secretary of Habitat III, during one of the plenary sessions.

The world united against the habitat dilemma

Over time, the UNCHS transformed into the UN-Habitat program, with a mandate to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities as a way to secure adequate housing for everyone. To deal with the challenge of making this new era of hope a reality, of proving that urban prosperity is possible, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, also known as Habitat III (HIII), was held in the capital of Ecuador from October 17-20, 2016, with the participation of official delegations from 198 different countries, as well as 30 thousand people from around the world. The event also sparked a wide range of forums organized by social groups, academic institutions, and representatives of indigenous peoples. These alternative forums sought to make their demands and proposals known before the imminent adoption of the New Urban Agenda that, with an apparent worldwide consensus and marked by a somewhat suspect optimism given the difficult situation that billions of human beings face today, was to emerge from Habitat III.

In coordination with the Ecuadorian government, the UN set up forums, meetings, discussion tables, plenaries, exhibits and other activities within the context of Habitat III. The activities were held in downtown Quito, mainly at the House of Ecuadorian Culture, the National Assembly, and Ejido Park, and included the participation of representatives from UN agencies and programs, as well as national, regional and local authorities from member countries, non-governmental organizations, academic and research institutions, consulting agencies and private firms.

 

Diversity of voices and futures

Within the framework of Habitat III, which the UN organized in collaboration with the government of Ecuador, the Habitat International Coalition (HIC) celebrated its 40th anniversary at a general assembly with delegates from over 40 countries of the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia. There was a tribute to the first president of the HIC, Han Van Putten, with the presence of important actors in the management and social production of habitat, as well as ex-presidents of the HIC, such as Enrique Ortiz, of Mexico; Kirthee Shah, of India; Davider Lamba, of Kenya; and Jordi Borja, president of the Observatory of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of Barcelona, among many others. An interesting debate confirmed the network’s position, which demands “a habitat for people, not for capital” and advocates a housing market that respects human rights, the social production of housing, and other grass-roots alternatives.

The Ecuador campus of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (Flacso, in its initials in Spanish) organized a forum called Toward an Alternative Habitat 3, with renowned thinkers and researchers including Jordi Borja, Fernando Carrión, Marcelo Corti and Saskia Sassen, and well as numerous students and specialists in habitat, the social sciences and anthropology.

Habitat III Conference General view of the work sessions with members of non-governmental organizations at the Global Platform for the Right to the City.

The Central University of Ecuador (UCE, in its initials in Spanish), for its part, launched a program with the slogan “A space for all voices,” which combined academic topics with student and grass-roots actions addressing the management, planning and production of housing, urban mobility and public spaces. Among the participants were Latin American researchers and academics such as Alicia Ziccardi and Ana Sugranyes, as well as the renowned post-Marxist geographer David Harvey.

The Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE), in accordance with the concept of “Global agenda, local actions”, held several on-campus activities organized by teachers and students, which gave exposure to the projects and programs sponsored by this Jesuit university, a member of the Association of Universities Entrusted to the Society of Jesus in Latin American (Ausjal, in its initials in Spanish), relating them from both a theoretical and practical perspective to the debate about the objectives and implications of urbanization.

Much of the questioning of the HIII New Urban Agenda came from the Habitat 3 Social and Popular Resistance Forum, where different social, rural, popular and student organizations staked out a clear position rejecting and resisting neoliberalism, capitalist dispossession, and resource extraction. The forum included the Fifth Session of the International Tribunal on Evictions, in Guayaquil, plus over 100 events in Quito. Under the banner of “All voices in resistance,” RH3 brought together an extensive and diverse array of groups, collectives, academics and teachers who work on community projects with marginalized rural and urban populations, both in Ecuador and around the world.

 

A new agenda for an existing model

HIII was officially inaugurated on Monday, October 17, 2016, with Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa as host, and the participation of Joan Clos, executive secretary of the United Nations Agency for Human Settlements, known as UN-Habitat, and Ban Ki Moon, the outgoing secretary general of the UN.

In the inaugural address, Clos defined the core topics of the conference and the New Urban Agenda (NUA): a new model of urban development that promotes equality, social prosperity and environmental sustainability, with urbanization as a strategy for social development and transformation. He praised the culmination of three years of “very productive” debates and discussions, and stated that the world has reached a new stage of prosperity and hope, with cities as the engines of the new economy.

The process for managing and implementing the New Urban Agenda was carried out in several phases, which included meetings of the three preparation committees starting in 2014, seven thematic meetings (“Intermediate Cities”, in Cuenca, Ecuador; “Sustainable Energy and Cities,” in Abu Dhabi; “Financing Urban Development,” in Mexico City; “Public Spaces,” in Barcelona; “Informal Settlements,” in Pretoria; “Civil Commitment,” in Tel Aviv; and “Metropolitan Areas,” in Montreal), and four regional meetings (Asia-Pacific, Africa, Europe, and Latin America and the Caribbean). Ten “lines of work” were defined by experts who put together the recommendations to be debated at HIII and the “final conclusions” or NUA draft, with the consensus of the state delegates. Academics and social organizations, however, criticize the process that limited participation to national agencies, secretariats and ministries, who reconciled and negotiated the final draft that was sent to Quito. Furthermore, they argue that the scant public consultation and minimal popular participation makes the New Urban Agenda a document that is far removed from the people, that does not reflect the will and aspirations of the grass roots, but rather answers to economic and political interests.

Habitat III Conference Irregular settlement in the Metropolitan Area of Lima, Peru

 

Networks of hope and alternative networks

During her participation in the inauguration of the Alternative Habitat 3, held at Flacso Ecuador, Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, denounced the minimal input of actual city governments in the drafting of the New Urban Agenda, when they will have the greatest responsibility in implementing its policies. She pointed out the absurdity of excluding ordinary citizens and grass-roots organizations and movements from the official debates, and the futility of discussing the future of cities without listening to cities’ opinions. She also urged citizens, activists and independent social organizations to keep their guard up and to work in networks for the social transformation of their cities. For her part, Manuela Carmena, the mayor of Madrid, agreed with the need for social movements and local governments to take a central role in dealing with the democratic and parliamentary crises that urban societies are undergoing, and recommended inviting university students to help solve habitat issues. “The university is the street,” she concluded.

At the Che Guevara Auditorium of the UCE, before a full house of students, members of the press, and foreign visitors, English geographer David Harvey explained his critique of capitalism and denounced that the world is governed by stockholders, and that the future of capital would not be discussed at HIII, despite the fact that cities are built according to commercial principles, and that speculative values are imposed on an already excessive use value and extraction of capital gains; he warned against the danger of debt paralyzing the population, or worse, becoming an anti-value that ends up alienating the population and forcing it to live in an “indebted city.” At the San Roque market, one day earlier, Harvey had addressed the contradictions involved in the disappearance of popular markets, and with them, of people’s food security.

In the work of the Habitat International Coalition leading up to the conference, as well as at the forums of Resistance Habitat 3, and at UCE Habitat, participants discussed topics that have a direct impact on the population, but in relation to the decisions made in the upper echelons of power: the defense of territories, the resistance of indigenous communities to resource extraction, women’s rights, food sovereignty, community empowerment, the right to the city, among others. The participation of students and academics, local authorities, social leaders, researchers and professionals confirmed that the one-sided vision of international institutions and agencies needs to be hybridized with different bottom-up alternatives that gradually show how useful and effective they are in solving urban and rural problems that contemporary societies face today.

Habitat III Conference Police restrain a protest march by activists and citizen groups that met in Quito during an assembly parallel to Habitat III.

Words and ideas

HIII set out to reach a consensus around the New Urban Agenda. It appeared to achieve this goal, and as far as national states and international agencies are concerned, it is now in the instrumentation stage, with the conceptual lines that were agreed upon setting the form and substance of the global agenda: governance structures, social inclusion, spatial development, urban prosperity and environmental sustainability.

Critical reflections and questioning of the structural aspects and applicability of the topics discussed at HIII were the main elements of the forum Toward an Alternative Habitat 3, which was clearly academic in nature and included the presence of renowned theoreticians and professionals in urban sociology and other schools of Latin American thought, representatives of citizens’ organizations, collectives, social groups and movements, as well as local and parliamentary authorities from Latin America and Spain, students, and the general public, who filled most of the venues – this helped to position the hashtag #Hábitat3Alternativo as a trending topic, outpacing the hashtag assigned to the official inauguration, #H3, on the morning of October 17, 2016. While Joan Clos argued for sustainable urban development in his inaugural address, at Alternative Habitat III, Jordi Borja stated, categorically and almost simultaneously, that HIII was pure fiction.

PUCE opened its doors to a wide range of activities that explored habitat issues from the perspective of the actual community’s activities. One highlight was the open-air exhibition called “Bahía, six months after the earthquake, this is how we live…” organized by students of the School of Architecture, Design and Art who visited the community on the Ecuadorian coast and bore witness to the precarious conditions of the families who lost their homes in the 7.8-magnitude earthquake (on the Richter scale) that devastated the country’s coast in April of 2016. The photographic exhibition and presentation of the Living Landscape Cultivation Workshop showed a keen understanding of the socioenvironmental element present in the projects developed by architecture students in peri-urban areas of Quito: by considering every element as a being, and taking the community’s celebrations as the organizing principle, the methodology proposes new management and interaction models for habitat improvement. In the meantime, the pavilion of the French embassy presented habitat-related projects promoted by the French Agency for Development in Ecuador and other Latin American countries.

Habitat III Conference Members of non-government organizations, citizens and indigenous peoples march in the streets of Quito, Ecuador.

Nations united for a better… urban?… world

Some social organizations found the official UN-Habitat declaration worrisome, given its one-way definition of the planet’s inevitable urban future, as expressed in its official slogan “A better urban future.” In a press release, days before the inauguration of HIII, the International Association of Inhabitants (IAI) announced that it would not participate in the official proceedings, and denounced Joan Clos for stating that the future problems of humanity would be urban in nature, which implied that UN-Habitat would help to “consummate the dispossession of farming and indigenous communities around the world within the upcoming decades.”

Indeed, for the first time in human history most of the world’s population lives in cities, and this poses great challenges and opportunities for urban societies. But it also means that just under half of the world’s population still lives in rural areas, and this agenda should concern all of the planet’s inhabitants, inasmuch as it has a direct impact on the production of resources that are essential to the survival and development of civilization – urban societies included: food (vegetables and animals) and raw materials (animal, vegetable, mineral and fossil resources), as well as the misnamed “natural resources,”[1] such as water, soil, and different energy sources (wind, geothermal and hydraulic energy, to name the most important).

These official positions set forth in international multilateral agendas have compelled more and more people to express their firm belief in the possibility of a different model, and these alternatives to the capitalist model have diverse origins, scopes, and fields of action. This has been evident on multiple occasions in recent decades: at the protests in Seattle (1999) and Davos (2001) against neoliberal economic policies adopted by nation states and United Nations agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund; at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre (2001); in the 15-M, or “indignados,” movement in Spain, and Occupy Wall Street in the United States (2011); among other mobilizations and forums that have shaped social militancy in the struggle for human rights in general, and different social causes in particular. As Ada Colau put it, there is a disconnect between the grand declarations made at high-level summits and people’s day-to-day reality. The struggle for habitat is an issue that is still on the agendas, because of both the size of the affected populations, and the current relevance of the issues and their direct impact on the development of urban societies.

Habitat III ConferenceParticipation in an interactive display simulating urban planning processes, at Chile’s Habitat III pavilion. 

The realities of urban and rural settings involve complex issues, and solutions call for broad, inclusive strategies. History tells us that social movements have driven the great changes in our civilization, which is why it is important for them to get involved in global matters. Action on the local level through collective participation – even if it is not entirely accepted at first by those in power at the time – can consolidate, with tenacity and hope, the alternatives to our current model of civilization, bearing witness to the conviction that a different world is possible.

In response to the proposals of the New Urban Agenda, voices of resistance call for a global agenda that does not point in just one direction, serving the interests of the few. The final resolution of Alternative Habitat 3, the Quito Manifesto, expresses it in unmistakable terms: “Who makes cities?”. Given the planet-wide scale of our current crisis, it might be time to shed our passive fear of the future[2] and move on to a stage of active hope. Both HIII and alternative forums speak of hope, but they differ in the way they understand it: for some, it is a commercial opportunity, while for others, it represents the possibility of experimenting with new forms of social organization. It would seem that this “dual city,” as Fernando Carrión put it, will not go away unless we are willing to listen in order to include and implement grass-roots alternatives, interacting in favor of the hybridization of a new model that is not limited to governance, prosperity and development, but also includes social production[3] and the participative management of habitat: a model that focuses especially on respect for common goods,[4] nature, and the rights of all. m.




[1] From the viewpoint of political economics, calling a natural element such as water a “resource” inserts it into a production chain, making it a raw material or a negotiable commodity on the capitalist market, and taking away its initial condition, in social discourse, as an incommensurable, invaluable good that is not subject to ownership.

[2] M. Cohen, “De Hábitat II a la Pachamama: mucho por hacer y pocas expectativas para Hábitat III”, in Ciudades para cambiar la vida. Una respuesta a Hábitat III, by Jordi Borja, Fernando Carrión and Marcelo Corti (eds.), Flacso, Quito, 2016, pp. 61-84.

[3] María Mercedes Di Virgilio and María Carla Rodríguez, Producción social del hábitat, Café de las Ciudades, Buenos Aires, 2013.

[4] Common good as defined in Promotio Iustitiae No. 121, January 2016, Secretariat for Social Justice and Ecology, General Curia of the Society of Jesus; Sumak Kawsay, good living (Quechua concept).

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