Assessing the New Urban Agenda’s ‘new concept’: Integrating the city and countryside

The Habitat III strategy could see key political traction in helping governments better integrate urban and rural policy.

Quito's Mercado de San Roque has a little bit of everything. (Gregory Scruggs)

QUITO, Ecuador — From furniture to fresh-squeezed orange juice, guavas to guinea pigs, the Mercado de San Roque has a little bit of everything. The colossal building on the edge of Quito’s historic district houses produce vendors hawking peeled corn, butchers chopping up carcasses and dry-goods merchants with mountains of local staples such as dried plantains. Outside, row after row of stalls envelope the structure, a veritable outdoor souk that can draw up to 10,000 people on weekends.

Behind a table piled high with onions, peppers, limes, cucumbers and tomatoes, a woman who gives her name only as María described how the market works. Distributors arrive before dawn to sell wholesale to vendors like herself, who then retail the produce to customers who come from all over Quito to the Mercado de San Roque.

Last month, the daily experience of María and the thousands of others distributors, vendors, traders and prepared food sellers who throng the Mercado de San Roque was central to a global conversation taking place just a short distance away at the United Nations’ Habitat III conference on urbanization. The summit, which drew 30,000 people to Quito, adopted a 20-year urbanization strategy known as the New Urban Agenda, a document that some see as surprisingly strong on new strategies for tying urban and rural policy more closely together.

The Mercado de San Roque distributors, meanwhile, fan out across rural Ecuador to buy directly from farmers. That’s where María hails from — the Chimborazo province some 250 kilometres from the capital. Thirty years ago, she began splitting her time between the village where she grew up and the big city. “There’s no water there, so nothing supports us,” she said.

In Chimborazo, like many parts of Ecuador, the indigenous Quechua language is widely spoken. Unlike the rest of Quito, where Spanish dominates, it’s the lingua franca of the Mercado de San Roque, starting with the signage out front. María chats with her fellow vendors in the language, as well, making the market hall feel like an extension of an Ecuadorian village.

[See: The New Urban Agenda’s rural-urban conundrum]

Not that the market business is particularly lucrative these days. “We’re not earning right now —  just making enough to eat,” María said of the roughly USD 8 she pulls in weekly, minus the rent she pays to the vendors’ association that covers the costs of electricity, water, security and cleaning.

Still, on the whole, she doesn’t mind life in Quito, where she lives about an hour’s bus ride from the market. “Here or there, we like to live in both places,” she said. Her neighbours in the market, also from Chimborazo, nod in agreement with a Quechua “ari” or yes.

Redefining linkages

Last month’s Habitat III conference was undeniably focused on the future of cities. Yet the top U. N. official on cities, former Barcelona mayor Joan Clos, argued that rural areas are integral to that conversation.

“You can’t say that the countryside and the city belong to two different worlds. Because for the countryside, the city represents something fundamental: a market for its goods,” Clos, who grew up on a farm, said as Habitat III kicked off. Noting that 80 percent of Latin America’s population already lives in cities, he added, “They eat every day.”

[See: The missing link in the New Urban Agenda: Food systems]

As a result, he said, the New Urban Agenda enshrined a “new concept”, that of “an interrelated system between the city and the countryside.” Indeed, for a document purportedly about cities, the agenda’s final text mentions the word “rural” 20 times, often in the context of a key concept: “urban-rural linkages”.

This unwieldy term reflect an important evolution in the relationship between cities and their hinterlands according to Maruxa Cardama, executive director of the Communitas Coalition, which advocated for such phrasing during the New Urban Agenda negotiations. “We’re trying to go past the dichotomy,” she explained, whereby urban and rural are treated as antagonists — a notion that played out in the recent U. S. presidential election.

For example, urban areas are sometimes seen as swallowing up rural land, which forces displaced peasants into the big city, something that Clos acknowledged. “Uncontrolled urbanization is invading highly productive agricultural land,” he said. “As such, there’s competition for land between urban and agrarian usage.”

[See: In major shift, cities increasingly seen as key to strong food systems]

When cities — which often have more capital at their disposal than rural areas — win out, the results can lead to slumlike conditions in urban areas. “That leads to negative rural-to-urban migration, driven by desperation,” Cardama said.

Territorial development

So how can governments balance the needs of booming cities and underdeveloped rural areas? By engaging not just in urban planning but in ‘territorial planning” — another term that crops up repeatedly in the New Urban Agenda.

In a territorial planning approach, acting as markets for rural agricultural producers is not the sole function of a city. “That’s too much of a reduction. Food can be one driver, but it shouldn’t be the only one,” Cardama cautioned, noting that rural areas are also the source of an urban area’s water and energy.

In developed countries, robust rail systems and telecommuting can even make the rural or small town lifestyle a viable option for people who work in the information economy, whereby they have to commute to a big-city office only a few days each week.

[See: The new urban imperative for secondary cities]

The latter is increasingly a trend in Germany, which championed the idea of urban-rural linkages and territorial development in the Habitat III process. In part that choice was a reflection of the country’s own landscape, whereby no one mega-city dominates. Rather, the population is dispersed among a series of big cities, intermediate cities and smaller towns — nearly all of which are connected by rail. A sophisticated metropolitan governance structure undergirds the German system, such that an urban core and nearby rural area can make decisions in concert.

In Colombia, the other major supporter of a more holistic urban-rural vision in the New Urban Agenda, territorial development takes on a different character. “There it means a post-FARC era where the rural world is no longer dependent on the livelihood of guerrillas and where you can integrate those former guerrillas,” Cardama said, referring to the rebel group that recently entered into a peace deal with the national government.

Africa, meanwhile, has a different viewpoint entirely. “There is no urban-rural divide — they see each as completely interdependent on the other,” Cardama said.

[See: Finding a truly common vision for African cities]

With such a wide range of meanings depending on the country context, territorial development could be seen as vague and nonspecific. But Cardama believes that the idea has “reinvigorated political momentum” because of its connections with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global framework that came into effect this year and will guide global anti-poverty efforts over the next decade and a half.

Specifically, the 17 SDGs include a target directing governments to “Support positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning.”

[See: Inextricably interlinked: The urban SDG and the new development agenda]

Consequently, this topic is one area where the New Urban Agenda is poised to have political traction as it enters the implementation phase. The run-up to Habitat III generated a wealth of research and reports on the topic from the likes of Communitas, UN-Habitat and the OECD. Going forward, a range of agencies is engaging with the issue, including UNITAR, FAO and IFAD. The results will push countries to adopt policies that embrace the urban-rural linkage concept and report back to the U. N. on their progress.

The zero-sum attitude that pits cities against rural areas is changing. As Cardama concluded, “There’s no way you can plan for sound cities in the 21st century if you don’t plan for sound urban-rural linkages.”

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