Dámaso Luna Corona: Guaranteeing urban rights requires a ‘comprehensive approach’

How do the Habitat III talks look to the negotiations’ co-facilitators?

Corona takes part in U.N. talks in 2012. (IISD/http://www.iisd.ca/uncsd/iinzod3/1jun.html)

Dámaso Luna Corona is the adjunct director general for sustainable development in Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In June, he and a colleague from the Philippines were appointed to co-lead political negotiations on the New Urban Agenda, the global vision intended to guide sustainable urbanization over the next 20 years.

Those talks had begun the previous month, which meant that both of the new “co-facilitators” were forced to hit the ground running. And their time frame is short: In October, the entire membership of the United Nations is slated to gather in Quito, Ecuador, to finalize the document at a summit known as Habitat III.

[See: Habitat III impasse resolved with Mexico, Philippines to lead talks]

So, how did the Habitat III negotiations look after leading the talks for a month? Ahead of recent key sessions in Surabaya, Indonesia, Corona spoke with Citiscope about the Habitat III process and the opportunities of the New Urban Agenda; see here for an interview with Corona’s counterpart, Lourdes O. Yparraguirre. Both interviews have been edited slightly for content and length.

Citiscope: Why is Habitat III a priority for Mexico?

Dámaso Luna Corona: It’s been 20 years since [the Habitat II conference in] Istanbul, and many things have changed regarding urban development, particularly in the percentage of the population living in cities. Therefore, Habitat III is an opportunity to change the paradigm towards ensuring that cities and human settlements are places for social inclusion, prosperity and better quality of life, and the protection of the environment.

How do you measure success for the New Urban Agenda?

Perhaps the most accurate way to assess the success for the New Urban Agenda is to look at the vision outlined in the document. The draft of the vision shows some lines of what we are expecting to see as outcomes. For instance, the broad concept of sustainable development is guiding the vision. For Mexico, the recognition of the right to the city is of paramount importance. Moreover, we would like to see a commitment to … cities and human settlements that are inclusive, safe, resilient, accessible, competitive and sustainable.

We [want] to see a New Urban Agenda that outlines an action plan towards compact, connected and vibrant cities — where all inhabitants can benefit from urbanization and access to the opportunities, goods, services and activities that are required for their well-being, and which improve quality of life of all.

[See: Mexico seeks to place rights at the centre of the Habitat III negotiations]

Since the realities of the countries are different, it is evident that implementation is linked to the national priorities. In this regard, for Mexico there are seven priorities, namely: regional and territorial planning, metropolitan coordination and governance, control of urban sprawl and consolidation of the inner city, sustainable land management, public space and sustainable urban mobility, alternative housing schemes and adaptation and mitigation to climate change in the cities. All of these are outlined in our national urban development policy.

Other topics that we consider key elements of the New Urban Agenda are related to inclusion. We would like to see a commitment towards age and gender-responsiveness in policies. We also would like to see participatory spaces where national governments work together with local governments, legislators, civil society, academia and in general with the inhabitants to design, implement, evaluate and manage sustainable urban planning.

[See: What Mexico City learned by devoting an office to designing public spaces]

The right to the city has been repeatedly challenged by several member states. How have you handled these criticisms in the negotiations?

We understand that including the word “right” can be complicated. For us, it doesn’t mean the recognition of a new right at all: It is an “umbrella right”, a concept that implies that all of the existing rights should be recognized and that people should be able to exercise their rights in cities and human settlements.

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

The existence of this umbrella right allows that already-existing rights can be more executable and enforceable, since their implementation would be a holistic vision ensured by the right to the city. It is not only a statement of inclusion but also a reassurance that there is a commitment through urban and territorial planning to guarantee the fulfilment of the human rights and the enjoyment of the city for all. It has a threefold approach, including: gender perspective, environmental sustainability, and civil engagement in design and implementation.

If you say this is not a new right, how do you answer the criticism that it’s redundant?

For Mexico the recognition of the right to the city implies that territorial and urban policies [allow for] the exercise of existing rights in a comprehensive, holistic and interdependent manner. For instance, if you can guarantee the right to housing, education or work but in an unconnected manner within the territory, accessibility will not be equal for all, thus hindering social and economical development. If in order to access education, great distance, cost or safety concerns need to be overcome, then a kid might not be able to fully exercise her or his right, even if there is a school in the city which he or she could attend.

[See: Homelessness is not just about housing — it’s a human rights failure]

The same is true for all the other rights. If all the rights are unlinked, then what you end up with is a situation in which you have the rights but it’s very complicated to exercise them, or you don’t have access to them, or it is far away or expensive. Thus, exercising these rights is easier if a comprehensive approach is taken into consideration when implementing the New Urban Agenda.

So the whole is greater than the sum of its parts?

Precisely — guaranteeing each right is important, but it is more important to guarantee access for all, and that requires a comprehensive approach.

The conference secretary-general has said publicly that Quito will be more a celebration than a negotiation. Do you share that view?

We would like to see the Quito Declaration be adopted in the first session of Habitat III, so the participation of top-level officials can be oriented towards a debate on what initial steps should be put in place for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. Celebration is part of the political momentum to launch an ambitious outcome document that is universal and must be implemented by all countries.

What are a couple of concrete accomplishments within the U. N. system that you believe the New Urban Agenda will achieve?

If I may point out just one very useful thing, I think it would be more participatory planning. I think that would be a real eye-opener that we’re doing something good. Stakeholders are very engaged; they have good organization, and they’re willing to add to the discussions. So [they need] more platforms where authorities and stakeholders can exchange their views and can propose things.

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