The New Urban Agenda can strengthen land policies — with some caution

Implementing the Habitat III strategy will be complicated, but researchers can play a key role in formulating policy centred on people rather than profit.

Teenagers play soccer in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2010. (Arindambanerjee/Shutterstock)

Last month’s Habitat III conference on sustainable urbanization saw the claims of grass-roots groups and urban residents for “cities for people” come together with the visions of urban development put forward by private enterprises, international donors, and local and national government bodies.

That plurality of voices — both in and outside of the official conference in Quito, Ecuador — is reflected in the strategy document that national governments adopted at the summit, a 20-year vision known as the New Urban Agenda. As with any document that attempts to encompass so many voices, however, the New Urban Agenda is something of a catch-all, promising everything from “leaving no one behind” through to inclusive development, economic growth and environmental sustainability.

Importantly, the agenda is the first international policy document to recognize the “right to the city” of different groups — women, the poor, the LGBT community, indigenous peoples, those with disabilities and more. Collectively, these rights are defined as city dwellers’ rights to live in the city according to their interests and needs, and to participate in decisions around the planning and design of cities.

[See: Historic consensus reached on ‘right to the city’ in New Urban Agenda]

Also importantly, the New Urban Agenda highlights that inclusive urban development is closely linked to the particularly complex issue of land — the word itself is mentioned at least 50 times. But again, the document discusses land from very different perspectives, including in reference to housing and social interaction, and also in the context of economic profit.

Now the question is, how will the New Urban Agenda be impact on urban land policies in the next two decades? Will implementation focus on people or economic profit — or both? So far, guidelines and indicators for implementation are scarce. But some lessons can be drawn from land-use planning for urban indigenous peoples already underway in Bolivia and Ecuador.

The national governments in these two countries have already introduced legislation on inclusive urban development that resembles the core values of the New Urban Agenda. This legislation emphasizes, for instance, the right to the city of historically marginalized groups such as indigenous peoples whose interests need to be addressed through land-use management, territorial planning and other strategies.

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

In practice, however, gaps between inclusive rhetoric and exclusive practices remain in both countries, leaving many indigenous peoples behind. How can we now ensure that the New Urban Agenda does not suffer a similar fate?

Role for research

As the implementation process begins to go forward, there will be a growing need for nuanced understanding of the needs and experiences on the ground. Around an issue as politically explosive as land, this need will be even greater. Thus, research can play a crucial role in outlining potential challenges and opportunities for the local implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

“The New Urban Agenda highlights that inclusive urban development is closely linked to the particularly complex issue of land — the word itself is mentioned at least 50 times.”

Researchers undertaking work aimed at influencing land policy in the context of the New Urban Agenda would do well to keep three core principles in mind.

1. Put the interests and needs of marginalized residents first.

Promoting inclusive urban interventions requires listening carefully to the interests and needs of marginalized urban residents. My research in Bolivia and Ecuador, for example, highlights urban indigenous peoples as a particularly marginalized and heterogeneous group, composed of both rural-urban “migrants” and residents of indigenous communes whose ancestral territories are affected by urban expansion. Nonetheless, these groups also share core interests and needs.

[See: Bridging the GAP: What are researchers, academics bringing to the New Urban Agenda?]

Indigenous peoples generally define their interests and needs in relation to land. Land thereby represents both a vital resource to access individual rights associated with modern urban life (housing and services, for instance), as well as a means to preserve specific community traditions such as collective territorial management, political autonomy, cultural practices and festivals within cities.

It is true that claims for individual rights are increasingly recognized by local authorities. At the same time, urban policy and planning practices fail to address collective indigenous land claims.

2. Identify policy obstacles.

It is critical to identify obstacles to delivering policies that are shaped according to the specific interests and needs of marginalized groups such as indigenous peoples. Crucially, policy-delivery problems vary between countries and individual cities.

For instance, in La Paz, Bolivia, the majority of government officials remain guided by an understanding of indigenous peoples as essentially rural peasants rather than as modern city dwellers. As a consequence, local and national government authorities tend to promote individual rights to tenure, housing and services but also ignore specific collective indigenous territorial rights in urban areas.

[See: The indigenous demand for Habitat III? Territoriality]

By contrast, in Ecuadorian cities such as Quito, authorities fail to address specific indigenous interests and needs, prioritizing instead large-scale economic infrastructure projects on the territories of ancestral indigenous communes affected by urban expansion. In this context, economic profit was prioritized over collective indigenous rights to consultation on their territories.

3. Identify best practices at the local scale.

Because policy obstacles differ at the local level, rapid and scalable solutions for more people-centred inclusive urban land policies are unlikely. Instead, it is important to identify those practices already in place that work best in specific local contexts.

For example, in May 2016 Ecuador’s national government ratified a new law on land use planning and land-value capture that separates land ownership rights from building rights. The capital city Quito further elaborated how to implement this law in a recently ratified new municipal ordinance. This allows the municipality to charge for building permissions and to raise additional funds that can be used only for providing social housing to indigenous migrants and other marginalized groups.

In contrast, to reverse government officials’ anti-indigenous attitudes, the municipal government of La Paz recently set up an intercultural unit where staff members are tasked with mainstreaming indigenous affairs into other sector units. This unit currently is preparing a local ordinance that integrates individual tenure rights with collective territorial rights in peri-urban neighbourhoods with predominantly indigenous populations. At the implementation stage, this might help to simultaneously address the individual and collective rights-based claims of urban indigenous peoples.

[See: From frustration to action: Moving forward from Habitat III]

Still, attention needs to be paid to best practices not only by local authorities but also by civil society groups. In Quito, for instance, indigenous peoples are themselves key players of urban development.

This was made explicit during a workshop at one of the Habitat III resistance events at which indigenous authorities outlined how they — in collaboration with local and international researchers — started to map their ancestral territories. This information has since been digitized and is currently being used in political negotiations over territorial autonomy and urban co-governance schemes with local authorities in Quito.

People-centred development

The New Urban Agenda makes many and sometimes contradictory pledges. It puts land at the centre of urban development, and it promotes pathways to inclusion, diversity, the right to the city and people-centred urban policies.

“The New Urban Agenda makes many and sometimes contradictory pledges. It puts land at the centre of urban development … But equally, it advocates cities for economic profit.”

But equally, it advocates cities for economic profit. Here, the interests of developers, housing enterprises and businesses — and not necessarily the social housing and land needs of marginalized urban residents — are defined as core players in ensuring urban development. With this in mind, it remains unclear whether cities will opt to prioritize economic profit or address the specific interests of its residents.

[See: Critical perspectives on Habitat III]

In the coming two decades, emphasis will be placed on the New Urban Agenda’s implementation. Drawing on the three principles above, researchers can play a key role in emphasizing its people-centred — rather than profit-centred — elements.

This will require moving away from grand urban theory. Instead, debates in urban studies should focus once again on promoting more practice-relevant and participatory research. Such an approach puts particular attention on the voices of marginalized individuals and groups, which often remain excluded from public decision-making processes in cities.

Research should engage with these actors and generate methodologies that enable them to enter into dialogue with key public, private and civil society players involved in promoting urban development at the national, regional, global and — most importantly — local scales.

It is at the local level that marginalized urban residents express their interests and needs, and it is at the local level that conflicts around the planning of urban land occur. Research should therefore document these interests and needs as well as synthesize how different civil society, private and public urban interventions deepen or resolve social injustices in specific urban contexts. With this information in hand, new policy support tools can be developed and applied by local residents and authorities.

[See: Platform needed to provide scientific input on New Urban Agenda implementation, researchers say]

It remains to be seen how the New Urban Agenda will be implemented in urban land policies. In this uncertain process, research should make sure that people, not just economic profit, are at the forefront of local implementation practices. Only by doing so can we help to guarantee a world of cities in which no one — including urban indigenous peoples — is left behind.

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Philipp Horn

Philipp Horn is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Politics and International Studies, the Open University (U. K.). He was in Quito to attend Habitat III and is currently in La Paz, Bolivia, to undertake research on peri-urban land conflict in indigenous neighbourhoods.