The challenges of land and inclusion for the New Urban Agenda

For the critical issues of urban planning, land markets and public space, the Habitat III process must recognize the importance of participation by all.

Land development in Bangkok, September 2015. (Happy Poppy/Shutterstock)

Let’s be honest: The idea of cities as the centre of sustainable development has not yet provided a satisfying answer for much of the world’s population — particularly those who live in informal settlements, away from most development and with limited opportunities to be heard.

The social role of the city is not a new concept, having existed since the origins of the Greek polis. At the global level, cities have always been built by their people, not by government agendas.

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In this spirit, less than seven months ahead of the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), it is critical that we analyze this gap as discussions strengthen toward defining the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year global urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III.

As part of the formal run-up to the Habitat III conference, which will be held in Quito in October, 10 draft policy “framework” papers were released at the end of December, each focusing on a key issue in the Habitat III discussions. (The final versions of these papers were released earlier this month and are available here.) The papers provide key recommendations for the drafting and implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Habitat III expert groups deliver final technical reports]

Among these reports, one that stands out is “Urban Spatial Strategies: Land Market and Segregation”, which touches on the critical public policy challenges related to urban planning, public spaces and land markets.

City planning, land availability and public spaces are, after all, key priorities in determining the eventual impact of the New Urban Agenda. In this, identifying why land is becoming increasingly expensive for many remains a fundamental requirement. So too does understanding how the quality of urban planning can be used to promote equality and ensure access to public spaces for all citizens.

After analyzing the “Urban Spatial Strategies” document, we see three main opportunities to delve deeper and improve this important line of analysis.

Urban consensus

The first consideration is around urban planning in the context of urbanization as a global trend that will impact particularly on developing countries. It is important to conceive of this driver not only from an economics standpoint but also in terms of its social and cultural dimensions, in partnership with citizens.

“Ultimately, it will be difficult to move forward on any of these issues — urban planning, land markets and public spaces, as well as urban public policy more broadly — without the active involvement of all citizens.”

To make progress on this issue, a paradigm shift is needed at the level of civil society, in order to promote a cooperative movement and shared collective interests. The individualism that increasingly characterizes today’s societies cannot coexist with cities grounded in justice, democracy and equity. Thus, the first step toward sustainable urban planning is to understand the importance of social inclusion — not only in terms of result indicators but also in the design process.

The end goal needs to be consensus of all who live in the city. For any planning process, it is critical to acknowledge the spectrum of experiences that can inform the multiple contexts of public policy. In particular, any such process needs to respond to those who see their rights regularly violated due to poverty and who may have differing opinions on the New Urban Agenda.

In this context, then, which urban-planning practices are most important in the long term? And what is the citizen’s role in making public policies related to social inclusion? These are questions that the New Urban Agenda will need to help policymakers ask.

[See: How can we ensure Habitat III delivers on citizen priorities?]

The second issue is land markets. In order to effectively address the challenges in today’s land markets, we need start by understanding their structural causes. The new policy paper establishes several anticipated trends that would exacerbate inequality in land access in coming years. In particular, migration to cities will increase the number of those living in poverty and informal settlements while also going beyond the current capacity of cities to absorb this new volume.

Land is becoming increasingly expensive and inaccessible for a large part of the population living in informal settlements worldwide. In Latin America, more than 113 million people today live with limited or no access to basic services and housing, according to U. N. figures. Many are forced to reside on the outskirts of cities, in high-risk zones that are simply not habitable.

This is the situation, then, to which the New Urban Agenda will need to respond. What will this new urbanization strategy do about those living on low-quality urban land, who are forced to travel unfeasibly long distances to their jobs and pay irrational prices for access to water?

Today, with a land market controlled by a relatively small portion of the population — often with an outsized effect on public policies — we are far from solving these problems. Yet high-quality urban land would offer a real opportunity for those living in informal settlements.

[See: Habitat III must rethink the role of housing in sustainable urbanization]

Third, we must look at the issue of public space in urban areas, the benefits of which are recognized at the international level. The policy paper underscores the relevance of public space as a key element of a healthy environment for all citizens — but one that remains quite restricted for many, given the high price of entry to new spaces as well as maintenance costs.

“ At the global level, cities have always been built by their people, not by government agendas.”

In this, a central issue to be solved by the New Urban Agenda has to do with determining the responsibilities that local and national governments have in the creation and management of public space in a way that is sustainable and promotes dialogue with citizens. Again, this process will need to be sparked by creating awareness of the contributions of citizens in generating concrete actions for change and progress.

[See: Toward a global action plan for public space]

In the community of Gariche Prince in Haiti, for example, local residents fostered the reconstruction of a school through a participatory process, with the aim of improving the institution and its surroundings for over 100 children in the community. Many other such examples exist in communities around the world, offering important lessons that will be forming an understanding of progress made during the past 20 years.

Comprehensive sustainability

The example of Gariche Prince offers an important broader lesson, too. Ultimately, it will be difficult to move forward on any of these issues — urban planning, land markets and public spaces, as well as urban public policy more broadly — without the active involvement of all citizens.

As such, as we look to construct a New Urban Agenda this year, we must make sure to listen to the experiences coming from every corner of the world. Only then will we be able to build public and institutional frameworks that promote planning skills and participatory management — enabling us to fashion a comprehensive idea of sustainability that takes into account social, political, economic and cultural concerns, promoting rights and dignity for all.

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Juan Pablo Duhalde

Juan Pablo Duhalde is the director of the Center for Social Research at TECHO based in Chile, working in more than 600 informal settlements in Latin America. Juan Pablo is a sociologist from the Alberto Hurtado University in Chile, and he was part of El Salvador’s United Nations Development Programme team as an advising coordinator for the Building Social Capital to Reduce Violence Programme in El Salvador.