Commentary

Fractured continuity: Moving from Habitat II to Habitat III

Wading through the knowledge products of the current Habitat process highlights a failure to account for previous pledges.

An African delegate to the Habitat II City Conference, in 1996, walks in front of Istanbul's Lutfi Kirdar Conference Centre, flanked with Turkish and U.N. flags. With preparations now underway for Habitat III, some are worried that pledges made at the Istanbul summit are being forgotten. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

The substantive debate toward next year’s Habitat III conference is now warming up. In part, this has been jumpstarted by the publication, in late May, of a series of “issue papers” written by U. N. and other multilateral agencies to offer a current snapshot of concerns to be covered in the Habitat III process. A public e-discussion on the papers concluded at the end of July.

While it would be impossible for the 22 issue papers to cover all relevant issues, they have succeeded in identifying many. They have also catalyzed debate around these issues as well as others that were left out of the studies. Yet the issue papers have almost completely omitted any evaluation of — or, often, even reference to — commitments that were made at the last Habitat summit, held in 1996 in Istanbul. Indeed, this is a trend that can be seen in the broader Habitat III messaging, as well.

The papers do reflect both a global and thematic perspective, and are clearly the result of a tremendous amount of effort. Habitat International Coalition (HIC), a civic initiative that sprang out of Habitat I, which took place in 1976, sees the issue papers as essential reading. But the papers offer this perspective largely without mentioning what has come before.

“The Habitat III issue papers have almost completely omitted any evaluation of — or, often, even reference to — commitments that were made at the last Habitat summit, held in 1996 in Istanbul.”

The agreement signed by member states in Istanbul in 1996, known as the Habitat Agenda (or Habitat II Agenda), technically remains in force. How have national authorities and international institutions done on the pledges that made up that agenda in the intervening two decades? Anything short of a full review of those commitments would render the Habitat III process in doubt. But as yet, that review has not happened.

Further, governments are currently in the process of submitting national reports as a key requirement under the Habitat III process. These would seem to provide a natural forum for inquiry into the local context of the Habitat Agenda commitments. But again, the criteria for drawing up these national reports disregard the 1996 pledges.

Amnesiac approach

Let’s look at some examples of this amnesiac approach from the issue papers themselves.

A first concern involves an apparent narrowing of the Habitat process to a solely urban agenda. The principles and issues laid out in the issue papers actually make a strong conceptual case for continuing the inclusivity of the Habitat Agenda. In this, the core Habitat II promise of “balanced rural and urban development” should be remembered.

True, the issue papers do include a study on urban-rural linkages. However, even that paper makes no mention of the corresponding Habitat II commitments or of their implementation status today.

Second, the issue papers suggest an abandonment of the human rights approach of previous Habitat policies. The two quintessential contributions of Habitat II were its committed approach to both human rights and good governance. While the Habitat II outcome cited the human right to adequate housing 61 times, none of the new issue papers addresses the significant development in this line of thought that has taken place since 1996.

Third, the states and other stakeholders at Habitat II pledged that democratic local authorities would be “our closest partners” in implementing the Habitat Agenda. Yet this year, HIC and United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), the global network, were forced to remind readers of the “Urban Governance” issue paper of that established principle.

True, this paper does cite the Habitat II reference to “local democratic rule”. But it does not elaborate on either the specificity offered in the Habitat Agenda or the exponential development of the theory and practice of related movements such as The Right to the City that has taken place ever since.

“[N]o solution, however technically sound and well-financed, will be sustainable if it does not have the support and ownership of the communities in which it is implemented,” UCLG argues. “In order to foster and strengthen local democracy, the Habitat III Agenda should recognize local governments as the key agents in constructing democratic legitimacy at local level.”

Fourth, the issue papers often fail to grapple with underlying causes. Issue paper No. 22, “Informal Settlements”, for instance, was led by UN-Habitat, the agency that is also leading the Habitat III process. Again, the paper fails to make sufficient reference to the related Habitat II commitments, nor has it kept up with the times.

Importantly, the paper also avoids the policy-related genesis of slums, deferring instead to secondary, often circumstantial factors in the formation of informal communities. A hint of causality does arise from the paper’s admission that governments have been disengaging from the provision of affordable housing. But the impacts of privatization, real-estate speculation and financialization remain completely unacknowledged.

Without even attempting to identify these factors, “Informal Settlements” picks up the story in the middle. The paper notes, for instance, that slums “affect prosperity of cities and their sustainability”, as if informal settlements are extraneous to cities.

A corrective view has been offered by Laila Iskander, Egypt’s minister of urban renewal and informal settlements. “Cairo is two-thirds informal neighbourhoods,” she said in a media interview last year. “So if we’re going to talk about the formal part of the city or the informal part, it’s one city.”

Macroeconomic policies, meanwhile, are not mentioned at all throughout the issue papers. That’s despite Habitat II’s commitment to take this factor decisively into consideration in all related policies, including around housing affordability, finance, land tenure and more.

Reinventing the wheel

Finally, global concerns on some issues have strengthened since Habitat II took place. Yet worryingly, the issue papers seem to view some of these trends as irreversible, except perhaps for perhaps their direst consequences. Examples include the predicted three-fold growth of urbanization by 2030, the burgeoning population boom and the continued destruction of the Earth’s atmosphere.

While the papers do identify these looming problems and note current and needed innovations to ameliorate them, the studies do not cover structural obstacles. Indeed, the 22 issue papers could do well with an additional standalone report on population trends and related global and state-level policies.

Still, such a recommendation would not preclude simply learning from what is already underway. The apparent ease with which some of the visionary Habitat II commitments are being abandoned weakens the otherwise valuable content of the issue papers and the Habitat III discourse in general.

That omission, meanwhile, is creating the need to reinvent the wheel. Today’s debate remains faced with questions that began to be answered during Habitat II: What caused this? Shouldn’t there be a law? What are the consequences for the people? Who is responsible for the remedy?

Get the Toward Habitat III newsletter.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Innovation Feature

Comments Policy

Citiscope is a place for the world’s urban leaders — mayors, councils, business, civic, neighborhood and independent observers — to exchange ideas and learn from each other. Comments are most welcome. Participants must first sign in to Disqus. (Not registered? It’s easy: Sign up here or connect with a social media account.) We ask that you use your real first and last names and say what city you’re from. Comments that do not follow Citiscope’s comments policy will be removed.

Joseph Schechla

Since 2000, Joseph Schechla has coordinated the Cairo-based global and Middle East/North Africa programmes of the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) of Habitat International Coalition.

The coalition was founded at Habitat I, in 1976 in Vancouver, as the civic movement supporting the conference’s outcome. HLRN’s purpose is to build the capacity of civil society organizations to specialize in economic, social and cultural rights, particularly the human rights to adequate housing, water and land, and apply human rights methodology in research, programming and advocacy, including in cooperation with U. N. mechanisms and forums.

Schechla’s previous positions have been with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in Palestine and Tunisia, and with the Law Department at American University in Cairo.