Critical perspectives on Habitat III

Six thinkers reflect on last month’s conference on urbanization from a social-justice perspective.

An aerial view of Quito, Ecuador, where the Habitat III conference on sustainable cities took place in mid-October. (Habitat III Secretariat)

BUENOS AIRES — More than 35,000 people gathered last month in Quito, Ecuador, to take part in discussions and debates at the U. N.’s Habitat III conference, the one time every two decades that national officials, local authorities, academics and civil society groups get together to discuss the world’s cities.

Yet while the formal conference ultimately adopted a single strategy document — known as the New Urban Agenda — the discussions and debates in Quito were far from homogenous. Indeed, multiple events, including an Alternative Habitat III Forum, took place in the Ecuadorean capital and elsewhere aimed at offering a critical counterpoint to the official sessions and the New Urban Agenda itself.

[See: Away from Habitat III, academics and activists offer alternative urban vision]

In the aftermath of those four days in Quito, then, where do these critical perspectives stand — and how are social movements in the region planning to move forward? Citiscope and the Observatorio Latino Americano (OLA) asked five Latin Americans and one Spaniard about their experiences at Habitat III, at both official and alternative events, from a social-justice perspective.

This is the first part of a two-article series; see the second part here. Both articles have been translated from Spanish and edited slightly.

The first question: What is your reaction to the multiple events, both official and unofficial, that you attended at Habitat III?

OLA, Citiscope editors

Marcelo Corti

Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Argentina

Most evident in those days in Quito was the greater interest raised by the Alternative Forum, compared to the official meeting of Habitat III. The official meetings I attended were characterized by the yielding of content to formalities and by the evident lack of questioning of those conventionalisms. I had the unusual experience of attending a high-level meeting on urban land where, with the exception of embarrassing questions from the public, basic concepts such as “land market” and “land policy” were completely absent.

On the contrary, it was evident that both the Alternative Forum and the “resistance” meetings to Habitat III assembled significant discussions on the important issues of urban development and human settlements in our time.

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

It is possible that for reasons of proximity there was a greater presence of experts and stakeholders in the Latin American urban question, which definitely helped focus debates and reflections. But what was especially remarkable was the commitment of these encounters with the local governments and their citizens rather than their allegiance to national and diplomatic bureaucracies. Hence the greater interest in these alternative events for those who sought in Quito convincing answers to the problems generated by urban development in our time and place.

Andrea Catenazzi

Universidad Nacional General Sarmiento, Buenos Aires province, Argentina

Among the intensity of the scheduled activities and the many casual encounters, a programme of resistance to the processes of inequality that cut through our territories emerged. Beyond the notable differences between the different actors and the issues discussed at the official, alternative and resistance Habitat III events, we are interested in reflecting about what they share — the convergences.

In the first place, because of the fact that national governments will likely pay little attention to the commitments in the New Urban Agenda, there was a shared belief that social movements together with local governments and universities in the streets are the ones who must ensure the fulfillment of those commitments. These days together gave us the shared experience of being part of a collective that has much to do and that is ready to work.

Second, these events shared the need to include in the New Urban Agenda a series of issues that were absent. In particular, we should mention the absence of critical debate about the shortcomings of the public management of urban land in the face of exclusionary land markets, as well as the weakness of the right to the city approach given the persistent sectoralization of new housing policies or titling and urban regularization.

[See: How do we ensure broad buy-in to the New Urban Agenda?]

In short, the impression is that it was worth it — not only in the sense of what was produced during that week but also the exchanges and documents made in relation to Habitat III. For instance, the evaluation of how Habitat II commitments had an impact on public policies … allowed for a truly Latin American platform of common dialogue.

Fernando Carrión

Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), Ecuador

During 17-20 October, Habitat III, organized by the U. N. in a closed space, was held in Quito. Before, during and after, parallel activities took place in many different places. Unlike the U. N.’s “walled city” — to enter, one needed identification (passport), permit (visa) and caching (customs) — there were “open city” venues.

In these other spaces, the most interesting discussions took place. First it was Bogotá, on 14-15 October, where mayors representing United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) met to discuss their role in the world summit. Next, there was a large group of women who gathered in Quito a day before the official event, to build an agreed set of positions.

[See: Mayors warn sustainable cities are impossible without their direct input]

Why did this happen? Because neither the municipalities nor the citizen has a place in the U. N.— and worse still, in its commitments. The U. N. is an organization of nations that follows a set methodology: international cooperation designs the policies, national governments commit to them, and municipalities are bound to respect them. That is to say, the production of thought is global, while the actions are local. This weakens municipal autonomy, while the international cooperation is safely uncommitted to anything.

With women, it’s a similar case. As civil society, they are not represented in UN-Habitat. This raises a paradox: To design an urban agenda without actors, without subjects, without social movements, without political parties, even though it is clear that a city without citizens does not exist.

[See: The United Nations risks stifling its own progress on sustainable urbanization]

On the same days of the United Nations meeting, there were two parallel areas of debate on the future of cities: one called “Habitat III Resistance”, which held a set of roundtables and a trial on evictions driven by the action of real estate capital and by public policies in cities.

The second, the Alternative Habitat III Forum, was conceived as a structured space for debate where local authorities, popular movements, academics, officials and specialists from 41 countries participated in seven seminars and 40 roundtables, leading to the production of the Quito Manifesto.

Attendance at this event was massive, and its impact on social networks was impressive, well above the official meeting. As a result, a group was organized and able to devise a plan toward the future.

Pedro Pírez

Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina

Forty years of Habitat — of diagnoses, commitments and declarations — have passed already, without planning that is able to ensure just and more-inclusive cities. Without emancipating the right to housing from wealth that guarantees profit, making it possible to access all tangible and intangible assets linked to urban diversity. Forty years of Habitat, and today we have another version (not new) of the international meeting convened by the U. N.

On the one hand, representatives of national governments (without cities, without civil society, without the actual builders of the city) gathered to approve a previously agreed document, where problems appear as natural events because they do not identify the social processes causing them, nor the social, economic and political actors hindering their transformation. Will it be possible to move toward another city without knowing what defines it and hinders its transformation?

[See: Fractured continuity: Moving from Habitat II to Habitat III]

On the other hand, there is the excluded city, built at the margins of profit relations with actors who transform it to meet their needs through agglomeration. The city of the popular sectors — women, youths, academics, migrants, militants, those who seek a just environment and democracy to live and to reproduce — made itself present at the same place and time as national governments repeated the official ritual that justifies the urban status quo.

Jordi Borja

Universidad Abierta de Cataluña, Barcelona, Spain

First impression: Skepticism, distrust, irritation, not being taken into account, rhetoric, evasion of the real problems of cities and territories, inane speeches, exclusion. We refer to participants, representatives of cities and their governments, social organizations, NGOs, committed professionals, young people with curiosity and desire to do something practical and fair for populations with few rights and multiple vulnerabilities. The official conference justified the previous discomfort.

Second impression: The influx of tens of thousands, mostly young people, interested people, activists, critics. The presence of local leaders linked to popular movements and their aspirations. Professionals disappointed by Habitat II and Habitat III who say, “We’ve had enough.” UN-Habitat has been degraded, and it is likely it will disappear or be reformed in the short term. Unfortunately, that won’t guarantee a change in favour of the social majorities because, if it is remotely controlled by the national governments, the change will not really intend anything to change.

[See: Proposal would kick Habitat III’s main sticking point to U. N. General Assembly]

Third impression: The virtue of Habitat III is to demonstrate that there exists a social, cultural, even political force calling for a change of course in territorial policies, in order for them to reduce spatial injustice and aspire to strong local governments that are close to the people. This force emerged on the peripheries of Habitat in a call for justice, for resistance to urbanism’s financial outbursts, for bringing together social movements, professional groups and local governments.

Jaime Erazo Espinosa

Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), Ecuador

In spite of the difficulties involved in understanding everything that happened in Habitat III, I have the impression that the city was prepared to stage the formal adoption of a document, which we call the New Urban Agenda — an important document that will affect most of the urban actions carried out within our cities for the next 20 years.

This official side of Habitat III has been described as “successful”, not because it included the discussions, criticisms and questions that were raised along its production (finished before being adopted in Ecuador), but because it is a new agreement that will maintain the status quo.

I also have the feeling that the objects of debate and the ways in which they were discussed at the official summit were very different from what was considered in the alternative events. In the official summit, companies and national governments dominated. A grim and inaccurate language was used, with little analysis of the concepts it put forth or their negative effects. For example, the model of global urbanization is progressing quickly and boundlessly.

[See: What can Habitat III learn from Habitat I?]

On the contrary, at the alternative venues, the axis of controversy were cities and local governments, with open and direct opinions, without rhetorical or generalist routines, and with deep criticisms against economic growth and positions of power.

Finally, in all the activities that took place in Quito, there were public appeals to political action against everything that prevents progress toward environmental sustainability and social justice — even though on the official side, these positions were clearly incompatible with the nature of the document adopted.

This article was produced through an agreement between Citiscope and the Observatory on Latin American (OLA) at The New School university in New York. You can subscribe to the biweekly OLA-Citiscope newsletter featuring articles in Spanish here.

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