Commentary

Since Habitat II, a ‘transformative’ 20 years

Lee Leblanc/Flickr/cc

As we move forward with the Habitat III process, it’s important to take note of what has changed since the last Habitat conference, in 1996. Over the past two decades, major evolutions have taken place in both policy and ideology regarding cities and their futures.

At the time of Habitat II, which took place in Istanbul, the world had 2.6 billion people living in urban areas. It’s estimated that, by the time the the global community meets next year in Quito for Habitat III, that number will have risen to 4 billion.

There are two important points to be made about that number. Of this increase of 1.4 billion people, 95 percent will be in the developing world. Further, Asia will constitute some 60 percent — around 900 million people — of this growth. Thus, in 2016 Asia will represent 30 percent of the global urban population. Africa, meanwhile, will make up just 8 percent of this population and other regions much less — Europe, for example, will be just 3 percent.

Likewise, at the time of Habitat II there were 269 cities of 1 million or more people. By Habitat III there will be 428, nearly 160 more cities. Again, almost all will be in the developing world, with just eight in the developed world. And again, Asia alone will include 170 cities of these cities of 1 million or more.

So how do we interpret these changes? During Habitat II we were saying the world was “urbanizing”. Now we say the world is urban. Further, urbanization in 1996 was not, in most documents, perceived as a positive thing. But today, the world and UN-Habitat see urbanization as bringing about incredible, constructive power. Through world history, no nation has succeeded significantly without urbanizing.

Similarly, the 1996 Habitat Agenda saw urban migration from rural areas as bad for urbanization. Yet the New Urban Agenda — the planned outcome from Habitat III — promotes migration and the inclusion of migrants as a human rights approach. You cannot condemn people to remain in rural areas when migration may be their first step out of poverty; you cannot discourage someone from moving to a more dynamic area. But currently, many governments are very reluctant to accept this idea.

Space and equality

The most important document to result from Habitat II was the Habitat Agenda, which included 200 recommendations broken down by sector. It is interesting to compare that document with what may come out of the Habitat III conference next year.

The most important difference is likely to be a new focus on the power and role of cities, to move from sectoral to more citywide approaches. In the Habitat II agenda, housing, transport and community development were compartmentalized in different sectors, and policies too were analyzed by sector. There was no intention in any part of the document to integrate these concerns.

“During Habitat II we were saying the world was “urbanizing”. Now we say the world is urban. Further, urbanization in 1996 was not, in most documents, perceived as a positive thing.”

Today’s understanding is quite different. Today we start not by sector but by the city. This is a very important change.

Twenty years ago, the documents and approaches were in general “spaceless” — they considered space to be nothing more than a platform from which actions could take place. Place was just where you located your policies.

Today, place is considered a vector, a central element that sets the stage for good — or bad — development. This has been a transformative change.

When you talk about poverty in cities, space is a key element. Where there are concentrations of the poor, space will generate more poverty. If inequality is concentrated in a space, that space will generate more inequality. We’ve seen that policies can reduce labour or economic inequality, but space inequalities will continue to persist in cities.

At the same time, this whole discussion around inequality — which now constitutes a central focus of the Habitat process — is new. If you look at the Habitat Agenda and search for the term “inequality”, it appeared just a single time, yet poverty was mentioned hundreds of times. Four years later, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), were similarly a poverty agenda.

This oversight was due to the incorrect idea at the time that poverty and inequality were almost synonymous. But today we know that poverty and inequality are very different phenomena. Many cities make significant strides in reducing poverty, even by up to 50 percent, while at the same time inequality increases. For this reason, over the past 20 years, the world has started to recognize the need to integrate inequality policies into the development agenda.

This is not to say that this transition is easy. First, this is a shift that many governments, and the United Nations in general, are not easily accepting. Second, moving from a focus on poverty to inequality requires a change in the statistics that are gathered, to focus at the level of the city rather than at the level of the nation state.

In an urbanized poverty agenda, governments and nations had the key role in fostering development. But today, when you talk about inequality, you understand the key role that local authorities must assume.


Q&A: Resolving the tensions of decentralization

Eduardo López Moreno, the head of research and capacity development at UN-Habitat, speaks with Citiscope.

Citiscope: What are your thoughts on the relationship between the nation state and local governments?

Moreno: The need here is to reconfigure the national government mechanism. Instead of dictating, national governments will have to play a partnership role with local governments. This will involve higher levels of democracy and decentralization policies — running against the idea of security at the national level, with capitals in control of natural resources, with national governments becoming ever stronger. This is a very significant tension that needs to be addressed.

Take the governments of the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa. These states are currently reinforcing the role of national governments on the assumption that security and risk is the driving agenda of development. But this is perhaps the wrong notion. The real course of a nation’s progress is in developing an agenda that can deal with inequality and social inclusion. And to respond to that, you need the strong participation of local governments.

We at UN-Habitat recently did studies of 320 Latin American cities on how they were reducing inequalities, to focus on what was working. We found that multilateral organizations and many national governments continue to believe that national social and economic policies are determinative.

But the field evidence suggests this may not be true. Looking at our sample of these 320 cities, we found that inequality within cities in the same country can be as high as 50 percent different from inequality at the national level. That means that national policies are not covering the entire territory in a way that can secure homogenous responses. The reality is that local history, culture and institutions all play fundamental roles in the inequality agenda.

What about these same differences at the metropolitan level?

We should be talking about this more and more. When we say “the local”, we should acknowledge that policies don’t work very well at the municipal level alone. Today very few cities anywhere are made up of just one municipality or government. More than 95 percent of cities of 100,000 or more population have two, five, 20, maybe 30 municipalities.

Then the question becomes how to address the main issues facing cities and urban agglomerations — crime, pollution, transport, inequality. At the municipal level, this doesn’t work well. Rather, we need to move to the intermediate levels of government, which is the metropolitan level.

Is that a difficult prospect?

In analysis of the best practices of metropolitan governance around the world, it’s difficult to find successful models. Why? Because metropolitan governance in cities, especially large ones, requires a shift in political powers.

“The real course of a nation’s progress is in developing an agenda that can deal with inequality and social inclusion. And to respond to that, you need the strong participation of local governments.”

In many places, the capital region constitutes 25 to 30 percent of the population of the entire country. Thus, it is far stronger than any city. Further, most constitutions and political practices do not allow effective urban governance to occur. Many municipal governments are today very inefficient — they aren’t given the right functions.

For instance, with few exceptions around the world, municipalities do not have the capacity to transfer resources to other municipalities, even in the same urban region. In most places, that’s constitutionally impossible. Yet you need another level of government at which decisions can be made to take money and reallocate it, and that is the metropolitan level.

It is becoming clearer that cities work, they prosper, because their regions also prosper. Yet the simple addition of multiple municipalities does not create a region. Rather, a region is a notion that goes beyond the space of the municipality and integrates the hinterland.

Will this be a major issue at Habitat III?

I would like to think it could be, but perhaps in a different way — perhaps around the fact that national governments are required to come up with national urban policies. Currently, many governments don’t have such policies. But when you don’t integrate the national territory in a system of cities, and then analyze the roles that small, medium and large cities can play in the development of your territories, you are not maximizing the benefits of urbanization at the national level.

There are many centrifugal forces that try to destroy the notion of cities, including the misallocation of resources. But when you adopt national urban policies, you integrate your national systems, and when you do that you can see what role each city should play in national development.


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Eduardo López Moreno

Editor’s note: Eduardo López Moreno is UN-Habitat’s lead urban policy analyst, monitoring cities’ trends and challenges and interpreting the results for broad audiences. As his Citiscope commentary illustrates, he offers strong analysis of how Habitat III’s challenges — and opportunities — will differ from those of Habitat II, in 1996. He is the principal author of the State of the World’s Cities Report for 2006/7, 2008/9 and 2010/11, one of the UN-Habitat flagship studies. His full bio is here.