From frustration to action: Moving forward from Habitat III

Six thinkers chart a path toward inclusive urban development.

A poster for the Alternative Habitat III Forum, which took place on the sidelines of the U.N.'s urbanization summit in mid-October.

BUENOS AIRES — More than 35,000 people gathered last month in Quito, Ecuador, to take part in discussions and debates at the U. N.’s Habitat III conference, the one time every two decades that national officials, local authorities, academics and civil society groups get together to discuss the world’s cities.

Yet while the formal conference ultimately adopted a single strategy document — known as the New Urban Agenda — the discussions and debates in Quito were far from homogenous. Indeed, multiple events, including an Alternative Habitat III Forum, took place in the Ecuadorean capital and elsewhere aimed at offering a critical counterpoint to the official sessions and the New Urban Agenda itself.

[See: Away from Habitat III, academics and activists offer alternative urban vision]

In the aftermath of those four days in Quito, then, where do these critical perspectives stand — and how are social movements in the region planning to move forward? Citiscope and the Observatorio Latino Americano (OLA) asked five Latin Americans and one Spaniard about their experiences at Habitat III, at both official and alternative events, from a social-justice perspective.

This is the second part of a two-article series; see here for the first part. Both have been translated from Spanish and edited slightly.

The second question: After Habitat III, how do social movements and other alternative groups see a path toward inclusive urban development with an emphasis on social justice?

OLA, Citiscope editors

Marcelo Corti

Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Argentina

The New Urban Agenda fails in its universal appeal. What encourages us from the debate held at the Alternative Forum is the Latin American specificity of the discussions and demands. Not because our cities don’t share the same problems and opportunities with other cities around the world, but because there are structural particularities that differentiate this group.

For instance, UN-Habitat and the New Urban Agenda insist that we live in an era of increasing global urbanization. This is true for large Asian countries, particularly India and China (given the fact that both nations concentrate such a large percentage of the global population), and it’s also true as a world average. However, in our countries, urbanization is a process that was already complete by the late 20th century. Our problems are not so centred on giving order to the process of urbanization but in providing quality urban attributes to precarious or poor settlements, thus reducing the huge social gaps and their territorial expression in big cities.

[See: Habitat III host region takes stock of its urbanization process — warts and all]

We can take in the challenges and proposals described in the New Urban Agenda, but on the condition that they must be translated — giving them a suitable format that is relevant to our own agenda. That’s an agenda not yet written but one which we have the right and the obligation to put forward and follow through on.

In that sense, no agenda is possible without political leadership. Hence, we need to address the roots of our spatial injustice: the deregulation of the land market, the problems of financing urban development, the indifference to environmental issues, the demographic consequences of an extractive economy reliant on commodities, and the reproduction of social and economic injustices shaping the territory.

Andrea Catenazzi

Universidad Nacional General Sarmiento, Buenos Aires province, Argentina

Concern for the implementation and monitoring of the New Urban Agenda supplanted much of the discussions and the most productive proposals toward an action plan. Social organizations, local governments and universities have called for the territorialization of the New Urban Agenda because of the likelihood of these commitments being unmet.

The paths towards action require the construction and implementation of a set of common instruments of land management that can adapt to local differences. Monitoring their implementation should be both the result and also the starting point in strengthening local governments, participation of grass-roots organizations and the socio-political usefulness of the academic work produced at universities.

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

This is not an endeavour starting from scratch. On the contrary, we need to critically analyze what has been done in land-management policies, because in past decades these have regularly benefited large real estate operations dissociated from accessibility policies — thus triggering additional segregation and urban inequality.

It is evident that a sectoral and fragmented view of habitat-related problems and policies hampers any strong understanding of the effects of housing-market dynamics. As a result, the real estate market became the privileged refuge of financial income. Thus, the disproportionate increase in land prices makes it increasingly difficult to access decent housing.

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

Behind these reflections is a profound critique of a series of exclusionary categories that drive the debate and urban policies in our countries and in the region. These are the categories of urban order and disorder and of the formal and informal, which together prevents an understanding of the complex network of actors and processes that explains the persistence of urban inequality in our territories.

Fernando Carrión

Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), Ecuador

First, it must be said that when there is a conscious will, it is possible to give shape to a compelling and productive collective endeavor. The Alternative Habitat III Forum brought together 27 organizations and around 30 people who designed and promoted the project. While the Ecuadorian government gave USD 30 million to the official Habitat meeting (and it would be good to know how was this spent), the alternative project did so with only USD 15,000. All of these activities were possible thanks to the economic contributions of institutions and people who financed their presence in Quito. On the other hand, technology also was a great ally in the organization, dissemination and participation — unlike what happened 20 years ago in Istanbul [at Habitat II] and even at the official Habitat III venue in Quito.

Second, it was clear that Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda did not raise enough enthusiasm, even among its closest stakeholders. Participants saw the official meeting more as a space to showcase their projects and sell their visions, rather than to define a horizon of action for cities. In that sense, rather than a summit of cities convened to agree on their paths for development, Habitat III was much more of a trade fair. Because of this, the urban agenda remained secondary. Instead, in the activities of the Habitat III Alternative Forum, this goal was absent. Rather, it was conceived from the beginning as a collective space for debate on ideas about the city, aimed at building a joint proposal.

[See: After Habitat III, what’s next for the urban movement?]

Third, what was left after Habitat III was the feeling that somewhere along the way a “hidden agenda” was sneaked in, consisting of three components. First was the “urbanism of words”, an urbanism that emerges from isolating problems and defining them by their antithesis. If there is violence, the thing to do is “safe cities”; if exclusion is the norm, then “inclusive cities” appear; if the issue is high vulnerability, then we must talk about  “resilient cities”. And so were born the “historic cities” (certified by UNESCO), the “intelligent cities” (defined by IBM), the “compact city” (driving gentrification) and the “sustainable cities” (leading to evictions) — and to the other 32 such concepts found in the official Habitat documents.

Second, each of these buzz words is accompanied by variables and indicators allowing for the ranking of cities according to each of these concepts. This order makes competitiveness become the axis of urban policy. A competitive city is one that is at the top of the ladder. But behind many of these definitions are interests of major transnational corporations, international cooperation agencies and global centres of power.

Third, to highlight the benefits of their proposal, international cooperation and large global corporations generate a demonstrative effect on the basis of so-called success cases, which tend to be paradigms or models to reproduce.

This “urbanism of words” shatters the concept of the city. In practical terms, it produces only partial urban action.

Pedro Pírez

Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina

Proposals did come out of this process: the right to the city, but to a different city — one where needs prevail over commodities, where having property doesn’t guarantee making profit, and where urban goods such as land, housing, infrastructure and services are equally distributed. A city of inclusive centres built with social efforts and state resources, avoiding subordination to global financialization and private appropriation of the high values generated. A city that is the result of social struggles and organizational alternatives, which use non-market methods for their production and consumption, and different types of ownership beyond individual and private.

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

Cities built with the social wealth of men and women that see the market as a controlled area of exchange to enhance collective efforts. Cities built democratically, with local governments that face social needs and plan territories of inclusion rather areas of economic accumulation.

Alternatives based on past and current lived experiences, coming from action-struggles for local democracy. Urban goods that aim for social reproduction and sustaining environmental conditions for a healthy life, and experiences bringing together new social and technical forms. Cities and towns that can take up their responsibility to take care of urban areas without relying on the empty formulations of international organizations. Growing networks of people — grass-roots groups, non-governmental, academic or technical organizations, shared innovations and experiences contributing to the struggles for democracy and the full access to the city as a right.

Jordi Borja

Universidad Abierta de Cataluña, Barcelona, Spain

I limit myself to the Alternative Habitat III Forum, which was mainly held at the headquarters of FLACSO [an academic institution] and other institutions outside the official conference. In this forum and in other similar such events, the language heard was not the typical empty double-talk of government representatives and senior bureaucrats or hired experts saying nothing, lacking self-criticism, reluctant to commit to anything and without the slightest indication about the injustices committed nor those responsible for them.

In the first place, the massive participation was notable of very diverse groups of people, mostly youths but also social leaders and experts with long experience — about 5,000 people gathered for four days. The air was one of active consensus, craving for mobilization, for critique and for action. At the end, participants endorsed the Quito Manifesto.

Second, unlike in the official documents, here the causes of the problems — those who should be deemed accountable — were denounced. We heard about social and territorial exclusion, about poverty and about the large segments of the population that feel they have no political representation. People denounced government complicity with financial speculators, as well as developers’ desire for profit to the detriment of most of the citizenry.

[See: So how do we implement the ‘right to the city’, anyway?]

Third, the conditions have been created to promote observatories for monitoring and reporting, organizations that can articulate social organizations with local governments, the constitution of movements of “citizens without borders” promoting the right to the city. Despite official obstacles, the right to the city has been placed on the political agenda.

Jaime Erazo Espinosa

Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), Ecuador

I would argue that persistent ethnic, gender and justice claims are the most important [issues to receive attention in this process]. After Quito, I confirmed that there are many scenarios around these issues beyond those for convening and debating. There was also confrontation and denunciation — for instance, that expressed by the LGBTQIA communities against their removal as a “protected group” from a draft of the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Gay community sees New Urban Agenda as opportunity for historic acknowledgement]

Next up in terms of importance are demands related to the forms and sources of financing for subnational governments, along with disputes between them and the central government for the distribution of national or federal budgets.

Finally, the third most important issue, in my opinion, is discussion about the relationship between cities and their territories. And fourth, the debate on different models of citizen participation.

With regard to these latter two, it’s important to note that the presence of movements of peasants and disregarded citizens in the alternative Habitat events was very significant. These were spaces where reflection about urban policy and planning explicitly confronted the “ideal” vision for the future of our cities as advocated by the United Nations. Finally, I should mention that the proposals to create “other possible cities” were novel, and these gained traction in a number of actors and organizations around the globe.

In conclusion, we need to quickly overcome frustration with action and participation. On the one hand, we need to resist one-size-fits-all prescriptions. On the other hand, we need to take a critical stand with regard to a widely referenced issue in the New Urban Agenda: the fact that economic growth is a major objective of urban development.

This article was produced through an agreement between Citiscope and the Observatory on Latin American (OLA) at The New School university in New York. You can subscribe to the biweekly OLA-Citiscope newsletter featuring articles in Spanish here.

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary