What can Habitat III learn from Habitat I?

The healthy, neighbourly polis we dreamed of 40 years ago feels further away now than it did then. We need to heed the example of the Vancouver of 1976, not the Vancouver of 2016.

On the opening day of the Habitat Forum, Han van Putten, the first head of the Habitat International Committee (now Coalition), addresses the crowd, 31 May 1976. (Erol Baykal/City of Vancouver Archives)

Habitat I, the first major international gathering on sustainable human settlements, was held in Vancouver from 31 May to 11 June 1976. Of course, we Vancouverites never called it Habitat I; we just called it “Habitat” or a little later “Habitat ‘76”. But “Habitat I” suggests sequels, and sequels always invite comparisons to the original. So let’s look at a few common perceptions of Habitat I and how Habitat III, which takes place next week, might learn from it.

I was a child volunteer at Habitat, helping to build the site of the alternative Habitat Forum at Vancouver’s Jericho Beach. Habitat was a thrilling and formative experience for me, but when I set out to write its history a few years ago, I had doubts that its participants would view it as mythically as I did. I was prepared to believe it was my own private Jericho.

To my surprise, Habitat I’s adult participants did not dismiss it. In fact, the conference seemed to be the defining event of many lives, and virtually everyone I spoke to agreed that it had been on the right track. “If only we had been able to implement its ideas,” many said.

Habitat ‘76 was unique. Its genesis was the U. N. Conference on the Environment in 1972 in Stockholm; Habitat was its human counterpart. Although the term was not yet coined, Habitat was one of the earliest such events to focus on the idea of sustainable development, which included the fundamental realization that ecological issues cannot be solved without first addressing inequality and poverty.

The conference’s principles were laid out in the ambitious Vancouver Declaration. Although some of the declaration’s terminology is dated — its excellent theme book, for instance, is unfortunately titled “The Home of Man” — many of its ideas are as sound today as they were in 1976. The declaration was prescient in its advocacy for public control of land, housing rights and the “right to the city”, including the latter’s emphatic anti-speculation principles and proposals.

[See: Historic consensus reached on ‘right to the city’ in New Urban Agenda]

At the time, Habitat also was the largest U. N. conference ever held. Thousands of government delegates and civil society participants descended on Vancouver, an ensemble cast of major figures related to all aspects of human settlements. Best-known among these are Margaret Mead and R. Buckminster Fuller, who were part of Habitat’s informal advisory group headed by economist Barbara Ward, also the author of the theme book. The list of eminent names is far too long to list here. Hassan Fathy!

People’s conference

The official conference was held downtown, where the Vancouver Declaration was vigorously debated in meeting rooms in hotels surrounding the main venue, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Meanwhile, across the water, civil society groups and activists gathered at Jericho Beach, the site of Habitat Forum, the parallel people’s conference.

The forum’s site was constructed around five vintage moderne-style seaplane hangars on a disused military base, on land the federal government had recently handed over to the city and province of British Columbia. To the city’s chagrin, the design and construction were carried out by a crew of hippies, artists and misfits with the help of thousands of volunteers.

The forum crew was led by a former broadcaster, public gadfly and counterculture events organizer named Al Clapp. He and his artisans and recent architecture school graduates converted the hangars into a beautiful DIY village, with seating structures made from beachcombed logs that were milled by hand on site, and handmade banners from salvaged fabrics. It was an early feat of reuse and recycling.

Participants at the Habitat Forum seen in front of a mural by First Nations artist Bill Reid. (Mark Osburn)

Key Greenpeace figures Bob Hunter, Paul Spong and Rex Weyler helped build an outdoor barbecue hut from found materials. The centrepiece of the forum was a massive mural custom-designed by now-renowned First Nations artist Bill Reid.

[See: In Habitat’s birthplace, new Vancouver Declaration emerges on gender and indigenous rights]

Al Clapp and his crew had a genius for designing informal public spaces that induced people to meet each other. The physical design of the forum also transmitted the message that formalities could be dispensed with; in fact, almost anything was permitted. And Clapp had insisted the site be free and open to the public, so serious discussion ended up cohabiting with a festival atmosphere.

Over the course of the 15-day forum, activists, squatter organizers, housing activists and policymakers from around the world stood in the handmade spaces and talked about a range of issues — land claims, housing rights, water, land title in informal settlements and community participation in government.

A few of Habitat I’s official delegates told me that they often escaped the downtown conference and headed to Jericho. Some of the most fruitful discussions they had at Habitat were not in windowless Vancouver hotel conference rooms, they said, but in the drafty but beautiful old hangars.

Crucible of ideas

I have heard Habitat I criticized on a few points. One is a lack of two-way flow between civil society and governments during the conference. It’s a fair criticism. It is also something of an arbitrary distinction, because Habitat I was almost entirely organized from outside the U. N. system and was heavily influenced by the work of civil society organizations in both the developing and developed worlds.

Whether Habitat III’s current interactions with civil society organizations is more ideal is a topic for debate. Next week’s conference in Quito has more officially involved its civil society partners in the preparatory process, but this does not necessarily ensure that their input is reflected in its declaration, the New Urban Agenda. It is already clear that the rights language of the Vancouver Declaration, which was preserved in the Istanbul Declaration of 1996 (adopted at the Habitat II conference), is now somewhat sparser.

Further, Habitat Forum 1976 had a sense of freedom, creativity and ferment that later conferences, despite a lowered barrier between the two sides, seemed not to have. The lack of a Habitat ‘76-style crucible of ideas may be a sign of the times, but in many ways 2016 is not unlike 1976: In many respects, we finally seem to be talking about Habitat I’s issues all over again.

[See: The challenges of land and inclusion for the New Urban Agenda]

But if there is anything that urbanists and organizers of a conference on cities should know, it’s that design communicates and dictates, and maybe this is where we should start. In the days leading up to the forum, Al Clapp was asked by journalists about what they deemed an incomplete and imperfect site. He responded: “The site is finished. If it’s not as comfortable as some of the delegates are accustomed to, maybe it will make the conditions they are discussing a little more real to them.”

Vancouver of 2016

Another frequently raised criticism of Habitat is that it placed too much focus on the national level. Its Vancouver Action Plan, after all, had the alternate title “64 Recommendations for National Action”. As we know, Habitat III’s New Urban Agenda is emphasizing the need for a decentralization of powers.

In fact, the Habitat I conference was forced on an unenthusiastic City of Vancouver by the federal government of Pierre Trudeau. Ultimately, Habitat Forum, one of the city’s more famous examples of citizen initiative and participation, was made possible only because the federal government ran interference. While this example may be a one-off, it demonstrates that decentralization from the national level to the local may not always produce the best results.

Academic Mona Harb’s recent article in Citiscope warns that decentralization in the developing world, especially in countries dealing with dictatorship and corruption, could result in greater centralization if new local powers are co-opted by powerful interests. Under those circumstances, designing political structures to ensure democratic local participation might prove impossible or insufficient.

[See: A cautionary note for Habitat III: Decentralization can lead to centralization]

I would go one step further and argue that this problem also exists in the developed world. In Canada, for instance, jurisdiction over cities has always been held by the provinces, not the federal government. Although Canada did have a Ministry of Urban Affairs during the 1970s — which led the Habitat conference preparations — the provinces eventually asserted their jurisdiction and forced the federal government to shut it down. Soon after, federal involvement in social housing and other civic projects dwindled.

The Habitat Forum hangars seen during the launch of the Greenpeace boat. (Erol Baykal, from the collection of Al Clapp)

Today, the very city that hosted Habitat I has the distinction of being the second most unaffordable city in the world and is suffering a full-blown housing crisis. There has been little federal assistance in the limited areas of its jurisdiction. Meanwhile, our ruling political parties at both the civic and provincial levels of government receive astronomical donations from local real estate developers, most of whom have marketing offices abroad.

[See: Habitat III must rethink the role of housing in sustainable urbanization]

Of course, property speculation and the financialization of real estate are not unique to Vancouver. At this point, more than ever, we need from Quito a strong statement on rights to adequate and affordable housing, the right not to be displaced, the right to the city, and implementable actions against real estate speculation and monopolization of land.

Coincidentally, 1976 was also the year that sociologist Harvey Molotch published his famous article “The City as a Growth Machine”. Molotch demonstrated that cities are not merely sites where competing interests vie for space on a relatively level playing field. By their nature, he wrote, they are “the areal expression of the interests of the local land elite”.

Aims of 1976

Vancouver may be an extreme case, but it must be a cautionary tale for Quito. The 1976 declaration named after Vancouver effectively warned us about the city’s current crisis. Is the New Urban Agenda really poised to address this fundamental phenomenon of civic life, especially with so much cash sloshing around the global economy looking for places to go?

Even locales not targeted by global capital feel the pressure of land monopolization. As Barbara Ward warned the gathered delegations on Habitat I’s opening day, you cannot rely on “a speculative land market to do your city building for you. If it could give us good cities we’d have them now. And we haven’t.”

[See: Habitat III must institutionalize participatory urban development]

I worry that the current emphasis on public space and placemaking in the New Urban Agenda is a tacit admission that the private sector has won and that all we can do is steal a little space from the growth machine. The majority of Vancouverites, not merely a small pocket of the political left, are now asking such questions, and they also must be asked in Quito.

R. Buckminster Fuller speaks on an informal stage between the Habitat Forum hangars. “We’re living on our energy savings, not income!” he admonished the crowd in a speech remembered by thousands. (Mark Osburn)

Before he died this year, I asked Habitat I’s commissioner-general, Jim MacNeill, whether he thought the Vancouver Declaration seemed as daring at the time as it did to me in 2016. He said that even by the standards of its own time, it felt radical. He added that if it had been heeded, we would not be seeing the current housing crisis in Canadian urban centres. “It’s indecent what’s happening in Canadian cities now,” he said.

The healthy, neighbourly polis we dreamed of in 1976 feels further from us now than it did then. I hope we heed the example of the Vancouver of 1976, not the Vancouver of 2016.

If you’re in Quito for Habitat III, Lindsay Brown is leading a panel discussion on Habitat I on 20 October at 4 pm in the conference’s Urban Library.

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Lindsay Brown

Lindsay Brown is a Vancouver writer, civic activist and designer. Her book on Vancouver’s Habitat Forum conference of 1976, the world’s first global meeting on human settlements, will be available soon from Black Dog Publishing.