Away from Habitat III, academics and activists offer alternative urban vision

Coordinated events took place last week aimed at supplementing, or even countering, the New Urban Agenda, the global strategy on sustainable urbanization adopted by national governments.

The Resistance to Habitat III social forum attracted delegates from 100 organizations in 35 countries to dozens of events in Quito. (International Alliance of Inhabitants)

QUITO, Ecuador — “We are sent away to the hills, to the periphery, with Quito’s expansion. We don’t want to live in plain soil. Our rights are denied,” said Glenda Martinez, describing how slum dwellers are treated on the outskirts of Ecuador’s capital city.

Martinez leads the La Ferroviaria neighbourhood council, born when a rail company abandoned construction of a railway and people moved into a parcel of land without running water or electricity. Soon, the inhabitants began to organize themselves to request services from the city government.

“The inhabitants are responsible for asphalt and electricity. The government obliges us to pay for 50 percent of public works, but we end up paying more,” Martinez told Citiscope. “The problems we have haven’t been resolved. There are some areas that lack streetlights, because they are informal.”

This kind of frustration was one facet of the “Resistance to Habitat” social forum, which last week brought together NGOs and social movements at the Central University of Ecuador. The event, which attracted delegates from 100 organizations from 35 countries, took place on the sidelines of the Habitat III summit, the U. N.’s 20-year conference on urbanization that brought tens of thousands of government officials and others Quito.

The Resistance to Habitat forum, meanwhile, took place 14-20 October in Ecuador’s capital as well as the port city of Guayaquil. Organizers staged more than 100 activities, during which participants debated, organized and shared testimonies of their struggles. Networking was the key word.

[See: Alternative forums to offer urban visions outside of Habitat III]

For Luis Bonilla, general coordinator of TECHO International, a Chilean think tank, the objective was deepening the idea of just cities based in a common understanding of rights. That goal, he said, stands some distance apart from the 20-year strategy on sustainable cities adopted by world leaders at Habitat III, a document known as the New Urban Agenda.

Between the New Urban Agenda and the strategies being put forward by the social movements, Bonilla said, there is a “difference of visions”.

Focus on evictions

The resistance forum was not made up solely of discussion and agitation, however. One of its key events was the 5th session of the International Tribunal of Evictions, composed of experts from Argentina, Italy, Mexico and Zimbabwe.

“If we keep fighting and other organizations support us, we can keep pressing the governments to tackle [homelessness] in every country. This is an opportunity to share experiences and knowledge, and to make visible our issue.”

Horacio Avila
National Movement of Homeless People, Argentina

In Quito, the tribunal examined seven cases of eviction — from Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, France, Israel/Palestine, South Korea and the United States. One of these looked at evictions in Mount Sinai, a settlement in northwestern Guayaquil, where more than 400 families in 2013 were forced to leave their homes and relocate to elsewhere in the city. Thousands of families remain at risk today because they lack property rights, advocates said.

Another case came from the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte. There, more than 8,000 families in the neighbourhood of Izidora have faced eviction since 2014, under threat from real-estate companies that want to develop the land on which they live. So far, the expulsion process has remained on hold due to an appeal won by the inhabitants.

[See: After a painful eviction, Bangladesh slum dwellers start over with a 99-year lease]

The judges also issued a series of recommendations. They urged a complete moratorium on evictions, respect for the rights to housing and land, and a deepening of democracy regarding planning and the management of habitat. They also called on countries and the United Nations to “urgently and adequately” protect evicted people’ legal defenders, who they said have suffered harassment, prosecution and even execution.

Although the judges did not yet render a final verdict on the seven cases under examination, they are slated to do so soon. Thereafter, they will deliver their findings to local and national governments.

Others are already working on the ground, and they came to Quito to network and advocate. Horacio Avila travelled from Buenos Aires to Quito to raise awareness about the situation of homeless people — among the participants at the resistance forum, not those at Habitat III.

“It’s absolutely unfair what governments do to the poorest,” said Avila, a member of his country’s National Movement of Homeless People. “If we keep fighting and other organizations support us, we can keep pressing the governments to tackle the issue in every country. This is an opportunity to share experiences and knowledge, and to make visible our issue.”

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

On Thursday, the forum issued a final declaration. It calls for strengthening initiatives such as the International Tribunal of Evictions and other formal strategies for nurturing movements to defend land. It also emphasizes the need to defend human rights; the rights to water and housing, to the city and to the “non-city”; and the social function of property and the social production of habitat.

Finally, the document appears to target the New Urban Agenda, criticizing official agendas that promote only urbanization while forgetting about rural areas and their inhabitants.

‘Far from social realities’

Another parallel forum more explicitly focused on the official events that were taking place elsewhere in Quito last week. The “Towards an Alternative Habitat III” sessions united academics and social movements, including 140 speakers from 32 countries and 40 organizations. These groups converged mainly in the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Quito.

There, the debates focused on the right to the city, dialogues with local governments and social movements, housing and “spatial justice”. Participants said that many of these issues received scant attention at the official conference.

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

“The issues debated at Habitat III have social roots, and talking about them [could mean] getting into trouble. Maybe that’s why they avoid them,” said Pedro Pirez, from the University of Buenos Aires.

In a critical manifesto, the “Towards an Alternative Habitat III” participants warned that the official event failed to commit governments to any specific action. Participants also said they don’t feel represented by Habitat III.

The document’s 10-part text concludes that “the world is developed, the city scatters itself, citizenship atomises”. It points particularly to the city’s peripheries, “where develops the no-city, the urbanization without city”.

The manifesto warns that while the poorest need the city most, they typically lack spaces and interlocutors with whom they can negotiate. Its authors, a group of academics, characterize the urban economy as the main source of capital accumulation, which they link to speculation.

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

The text accuses international organizations, such as the United Nations, of concentrating on urban areas to the detriment of rural zones, of focusing on the construction of urban areas while forgetting what many cities actually become: disconnected, segregated areas in which rights can often be negated.

Although many participants at these events took part in the official summit preparations, they say they have felt excluded from the main decisions, including around the final details of the New Urban Agenda, a document ultimately negotiated and decided upon solely by national governments. Both forums criticized Habitat III as “closed”, “antidemocratic” and “far from the social realities”.

The Alternative Habitat III grouping has been framing its work for at least the past two years. It has now agreed to enlarge its five-member secretariat and to convene every two years to analyze the evolving situation of urbanization. It also plans to create an observatory to monitor the compliance of national governments with the commitments they made last week in Quito through the New Urban Agenda.

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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.