Mexico City event looks at legal underpinnings of New Urban Agenda

Urban Thinkers Campus participants advocated for periodic reviews and even sanctions if nations don’t comply with obligations stemming from Habitat III.

Legal and planning experts take part in a recent Habitat III stakeholder forum focused on legal frameworks, Mexico City, 17 November. (Emilio Godoy)

MEXICO CITY — Civil society is stepping up pressure to create a legally binding international treaty on housing, urbanism and public space during next year’s Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador.

“The challenge is how to make cities more sustainable, to create urban ecosystems. If we don’t care for the place we live in, current problems will become insurmountable,” said Arturo Mejía, a consultant from Ecuador, on the sidelines of a recent Urban Thinkers Campus (UTC) held here.

[See here for all of Citiscope’s coverage on the Urban Thinkers Campuses]

U. N. participants at the four-day event likewise saw Habitat III, the once-every-20-year summit on urbanization, as an important starting point to standardizing new legal approaches to ensuring sustainable urban development.

“We have to see how we engage with the urban agenda in order to build a new paradigm based on new laws and rights,” said Ricardo Jordán, the head of the Human Settlements Unit at the U. N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). “The sustainable city is built upon a sound legal foundation. We have to see how we guarantee the right to a sustainable city.”

The Mexico City event, held 17-20 November, was one of more than two dozen such thematic campuses being held around the world to gather stakeholder input for the drafting of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III. The UTCs are an initiative of UN-Habitat’s World Urban Campaign.

The Mexico UTC was organized by the Mexican Senate, UN-Habitat, the National College of Urban Jurisprudence (CNJUR) and Mexico’s Arquitects Federation. At the event, NGOs expressed their hope that Habitat III will develop an agenda that addresses both ongoing and newly emerging issues, including urban poverty, illegal housing, pollution and sustainability.

The event also saw the launch of a new urban national campaign for Mexico, under the banner “My city, my choice”. Over coming months, the campaign will aim to define what kind of cities Mexican citizens want to live in.

The core of the campus, however, focused on the legal framework around Habitat III, at both the national and global levels. The event brought together legal and urban-planning experts from Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador and Peru to write recommendations on the juridical aspects of the New Urban Agenda. (For the full recommendations, see below.) Participants at the UTC advocated for mechanisms of control, periodic reviews and even sanctions if nations don’t comply.

[See: Shouldn’t the New Urban Agenda be a binding agreement?]

“It is necessary to advocate for rights to be technically and legally guaranteed in public policy,” said Jordán. “It’s vital to accrue and build social capital in and from the public space.”

Existing models

In general, of course, states are reluctant to sign legally binding instruments. Perhaps they don’t want to feel obligated to undertake certain actions, or perhaps they want to avoid international scrutiny.

“The sustainable city is built upon a sound legal foundation. We have to see how we guarantee the right to a sustainable city.”

Ricardo Jordán
Human Settlements Unit, U. N. ECLAC

A core part of such a process, after all is “naming and shaming” states that are not acting in accordance with their obligations, as happens with treaties on human rights, the environmental or children’s issues. A legally binding New Urban Agenda, then, could be a difficult sell for governments in Latin America and the Caribbean, which experts say are lagging behind in urban reforms — at least as a region.

At the same time, certain countries in the region are already seen as offering strong legal models for national urban development. Brazil and Colombia are among the most advanced cases, with laws and statutes designed to enhance their cities.

[See: In Ecuador’s highlands, learning from Latin American cities’ ups and downs]

In 2010, Uruguay’s parliament approved Law 18,308, on zoning and sustainable development, a statute that was enhanced two years later with the passage of new national zoning guidelines. Currently, Ecuador’s Congress is debating a law on habitat management, land and housing, while Mexico’s Senate is looking at a draft of a law on human settlements.

Regardless of whether it becomes legally binding, said Mejía, Habitat III should lay the foundation from which the principles of future sustainable urban development can stem. “It’s a new type of legal framework,” he said.

Part of that new legal framework needs to focus on public spaces, several UTC participants urged. In particular, this new approach will need to involve communities in the construction of public spaces, said Luis Zamorano, with Embarq Mexico.

“How can citizens participate in a plural manner to plan and manage the public space?” Zamorano said. “As communities themselves make use of more and more that space, the better it will be used and maintained.”

For that matter, Habitat III will need to clearly define the public space, Zamorano said. He suggested establishing instruments that link public space and sustainable urban mobility as a fundamental approach in debating and applying the outcomes of Habitat III.

[See: Public space: Integrating urban ‘living rooms’ into global development]

Looking forward, Mexico City and Mexico state will continue to play a key role in the Habitat III process, holding preparatory meetings in March and April. The latter of these will be the regional meeting for Latin America and the Caribbean, which will define a comprehensive regional stance ahead of the October summit.

And next month, ECLAC is slated to publish its regional report for Habitat III. That document will review the region’s cities around social, economic and environmental considerations and offer recommendations. Montevideo, in Uruguay, already published an economic assessment along these lines, and Mexico City is currently undertaking a similar project around urban economic value.

UTC Mexico recommendations

Propose and sign legally binding agreements for nations that develop the thematic content of the Conference.

Therefore, federal, state, and municipal regulations can derive from Habitat III, as well as the institutional framework for sustainable urban development.

It is necessary that the right to the city is expressly recognized in the catalogue of human rights.

Habitat III must have content to solve problems beyond the domestic law in signing nations. This means containing bases for the signing of binding international instruments that grant legal attention to problems between nations with international urbanization, urban and environmental border problems, or multinational urban regions.

Habitat III must give way to the litigation of contending issues, jurisdiction of courts and international courts in the urban area relative to concerning two or more countries members of metropolitan areas or international mega-regions with common problems, services, equipment, natural resources, climate change, feeding, migration, population flows, security, health, housing, among other subjects.

Every country must have a domestic law of zoning of the territory, the city, or soil, that regulates the fundamental principles, and not just the procedures or formalities of urbanization or building.

Specific codes for the territory.

Transversal sector laws.

The new planning law must address the rethinking of the political system of territorial administration, whereas the natural existence of megalopolis, national and international metropolitan areas, by defining a new set of constitutional and legislative powers based on the territory (a holistic approach).

They must clearly defined a new system of legal powers over the territory, through the issuance of comprehensive framework laws (urban, environmental and climate change, risks, cultural, rural agrarian) outlining clearly the powers of the levels of government over the territory.

It is required to legally establish the metropolitan order of development as a certified body of government between metropolitan municipalities, considered mandatory and coercible above the town councils of the participating municipalities.

Approval of laws, codes, plans and programmes with the following verbs:

a) Guarantee and respect human rights

b) Develop regulations for the protection of human rights.

c) Establish principles and regulations for the weighting of human rights in the event of a conflict between them, between types of qualitative competing rights (economic, social, cultural, civil, environmental and political) or quantitative (individual and collective).

d) Define new methodologies for the formulation of planning instruments that develop human rights on the territory as well as the weighting between these rights to mediate in conflicts.

We propose the creation of new laws, regulations, decrees and urban development programs that contain precise regulations to recognize, develop and guarantee the human rights in cities and urban and rural centers. Likewise, to establish clearly how they will exercise and develop those rights, the rules to prevent their violation by acts or omissions of the authority, measures to repair and compensate for any damage or injury caused to human rights and regulations to determine the compatibility and weighting between human rights in granting licenses and administrative acts in exercising legislation, regulation and urban programs.

The right to adequate or decent housing should address the defense of the owner before speculative buyers, who benefit with the registered titles and which becomes acute in the contexts of real estate fraud.

Should be considered the possibility of recognizing the right to repay mortgage debt acquired for the buying of a house (at least the primary residence homes) or first home, with the delivery of the mentioned concept of payment in housing, or with the amount obtained by the foreclosed housing.

The creation of a new methodology for the elaboration of comprehensive programmes, including urban, environmental, rural, regulations of civil protection and cultural heritage, with a focus on the social, political, economic, civil and cultural rights affecting the territory.

A new urban design with legal approaches to the normative development of human rights in specific spaces and normative development of spatial design on urban, environmental, civil protection and risk, rural, soil.

We propose the development of quantitative and qualitative legal mechanisms to assess the effectiveness of the laws, regulations and programmes under the human rights approach, with new systems of indicators and of international rapporteurs that document the rights respect in every country.

Legal approval of citizen participation in deciding urban local development programs, changes in land use, concession of urban licenses that imply a change of the urban, cultural and environmental landscape, and location and building of public or private works, public spaces and collective mobility networks.

Guarantee to the urban fundamental right to decide, by establishing mechanisms for the sanction, repair, remediation and compensation, when said right is violated by authorities of any kind.

The fundamental right to transparency and access to public information should be recognized and guaranteed specifically in detail, without having to prove any interest, which includes, as a minimum, to request, access, receive, investigate and disseminate information regarding programs, plans, designs and licenses of public works.

The new urban instruments should become innovative instruments that include community participation, free will of communities, and regulations based on respect to rights.

The creation of unique licensing at federal, state and municipal level with an approach of simplification, unity and legal certainty.

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Emilio Godoy

Emilio Godoy is a Mexico-based journalist who covers the environment, human rights and sustainable development. He has been a journalist since 1996 and has written for various media outlets in Mexico, Central America, Spain and Belgium. In 2012, he won the Journalistic Prize on Green Economy and Sustainable Development.