Connecting housing with sustainable urbanization in the New Urban Agenda

Newly constructed residential flats built as a rehabilitation settlement to relocate slum dwellers in Nairobi, 2009. Some are worried that housing concerns aren't going to be fully integrated into the ongoing talks ahead of next year's Habitat III conference. (Julius Mwelu/UN-Habitat)

While the U. N.’s Habitat III conference is often referred to as a summit on cities, the formal name of the every-two-decades event is the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urbanization. During recent preparatory negotiations in Nairobi, “sustainable urbanization” received much of the attention in formal statements and speeches given by government representatives. Still, housing worked its way into the conversation as well.

“How do we put housing at the centre of the New Urban Agenda?” asked Raf Tuts, coordinator of the Housing and Slum Upgrading Branch at UN-Habitat, speaking during the Nairobi “PrepCom 2” talks at a 15 April side event on inclusive housing finance. The New Urban Agenda is the intended outcome document from next year’s Habitat III conference, aimed at providing a new global strategy on urbanization.

Admittedly, cities are more than agglomerations of houses, and the latest thinking in urban planning highlights the nexus between housing, jobs and transportation. But for housing advocates, there can be no sustainable urbanization without a roof over everyone’s head. And according to the latest numbers, this remains a significant obstacle worldwide.

“Every third family globally will experience a challenge to find adequate housing,” said Jan Mischke, a senior fellow at the McKinsey Global Institute and co-author of A Blueprint for Addressing the Global Affordable Housing Challenge.

This shocking finding squares with the advocacy work of Habitat for Humanity International. In Nairobi, the group’s director of international affairs and programmes, Jane Katz, emphasized that a “foundational” requirement in ensuring adequate housing would be a related consideration: land tenure.

The immediate urban context for the PrepCom 2 discussions offered a potent illustration of the opportunities and pitfalls around attempts to provide adequate housing and tenure reform. Jane Weru, the executive director of the Akiba Mashinani Trust and Kenya representative for Shack/Slum Dwellers International, an advocacy group, highlighted an affordability study conducted in a Nairobi informal settlement about to undergo an urban upgrading and titling programme.

According to the findings, “The land needs to be free to maintain affordability for low-income residents,” she warned. Such concerns underscore the need for a paradigm shift about urban land markets and development when confronted with extremely low-income populations.

Once housing is secure, however, it often has multiplier effects. “There’s an age-old saying that ‘Housing generates jobs,’” said Dayfeed Aubrey, director of UN-Habitat’s Arab regional office, during a 16 April housing side event.

Aubrey was joined by Joseph Schechla, coordinator of the Housing and Land Rights Network for Habitat International Coalition (HIC), a group that for decades has advocated a bottoms-up perspective within the sector. “We were founded out of Habitat I in 1976,” Schechla reminded the audience.

Indeed, the Habitat I conference in Vancouver yielded the formation of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, today better known as UN-Habitat. But it also resulted in an outside NGOHIC — aimed at keeping both member states and the U. N. system accountable to their housing commitments.

With that history lesson in mind, the momentum to keep housing firmly on the Habitat III agenda is thus returning to the roots of the global urban movement.

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