Explainer

What’s the history of the Habitat process?

An official "trade dollar" from Habitat I, in Vancouver. Image courtesy Lindsay Brown, whose Illustrated history "Habitat '76" will be released in September by Black Dog Publishing.

Were there Habitats I and II?

While they weren’t referred to by those names at the time, Habitat III is indeed the third in a series of U. N. conferences on human settlements. These are events that the United Nations General Assembly has authorized at 20-year intervals.

The first of these summits, then called the U. N. Conference on Human Settlements, took place in Vancouver, in 1976. The second took place in Istanbul, in 1996. The third will now take place in Quito, in 2016.

Meanwhile, the focus and scope of these summits — and interest in the events — have evolved significantly over the years.

How did this process begin?

During the 1960s and early 1970s, the world was seeing surging urban populations. This was brought about largely by migration to cities drawn by strengthened economic prospects on the one hand and the extreme poverty in rural areas on the other. This demographic trend was coupled with the introduction of modern medicine in developing nations, allowing for lower infant mortality and longer lives.

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In turn, governments were increasingly taking notice of the negative effects of rapid and unplanned urbanization. These problems included the growth of urban slums and squatter settlements alongside broader concerns regarding chaotic development and declining quality of life.

Such problems were becoming especially urgent in the developing world, where so-called “illegal settlements” were subject to frequent forced evictions. At the same time, many cities in the Global North were suffering from inner-city slums and losing their middle class to sprawling suburbs.

Faced with these mounting concerns, many officials began to look around for approaches to reinstate some greater order on their urbanization processes. Yet in those early years the search for such solutions had yet to become mainstream, and there was scant common terminology available with which to discuss these concerns. Thus, many urban authorities were forced to look at their new problems from a local and disconnected rather than collective perspective.

Weren’t lessons available at the international level?

At that time, even the basic problems being experienced in many cities had yet to be formally registered at the level of international discussion. This was especially the case with regard to the rapid urbanization taking place in developing countries.

Views on international development were still driven predominantly by Western countries, focused on economic growth as the answer to poverty and rural development as a means of “arresting” urbanization. The problems of unplanned urbanization were not yet recognized as significant — as potential drivers of poverty and inequity in themselves.

Eventually, however, this strengthening experience and rising demand spurred the U. N. General Assembly to action. A major global summit was announced to discuss the issue and, in 1976, that conference took place in Vancouver.

The first U. N. Conference on Human Settlements brought together government representatives bearing experiences from around the world. It also fostered a major gathering of civil society, colouring the event with a unique combination of official and counter-cultural energies.

Following days of discussion, Habitat I resulted in some 64 recommendations for national-level actions, encompassed in a document known as the Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements. The Vancouver conference also led to the creation, the following year, of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements, the precursor agency to UN-Habitat.

How did Habitat I affect the international understanding of urbanization?

As indicated by the name of the new U. N. agency created in 1977, in the years following the Habitat I conference the fresh international momentum on this issue revolved around what was collectively referred to as human settlements. For the most part this meant a focus on housing supply, often at a very technical level.

The priority during the Habitat I summit, as well as the subsequent two decades, rested on work to be undertaken by national governments. Local-level authorities, meanwhile, were largely left out of this discussion, with a role limited instead to implementing nationally set goals and programs.

For the most part, civil society groups were also left out of this formal process. This despite the fact that local-level advocates advocates often had arguably the most substantive day-to-day understanding of the impacts of, and problems with, national housing policies — and broader urbanization processes.

Was this limited formal participation recognized as a problem?

Absolutely. By the early 1990s, there was increasingly broad recognition that the Habitat process was missing important input in its pursuit of what were otherwise widely held goals. In response, by the time the Habitat II conference came about, in 1996 in Istanbul, organizers were actively seeking ways to expand the dialogue and search for answers.

The 1996 conference was commonly referred to as the City Summit. Importantly, U. N. recognition for participation at Istanbul was extended to local government authorities as well as to academics and other key civil society players. The non-state participants were organized into a committee that was able to engage as a distinct civil society group in dialogue with the representatives of nation states.

This was a landmark decision, and supporters are hoping this broadened participation gets extended to the Habitat III process.

Important documents from Habitat II include the Rules of Procedure, the Rules of Procedure regarding participation of local authorities and the full Habitat II report. Also of interest is the World Assembly of Cities and Local Authorities (WACLA)’s declaration on Habitat II. Full archival coverage of the Habitat II conference and related negotiations is being hosted by the International Institute for Sustinable Development, available here.

What else happened at Habitat II?

The Istanbul conference also drew important energy and direction from a landmark U. N. event held a few years earlier, the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It was in Rio that new focus on sustainable development was most forcefully interjected into the international agenda, the ramifications of which are still being felt today. In turn, it was in Istanbul that this new priority on sustainability was integrated into UN-Habitat’s purview, including a goal of working towards sustainable urbanization.

The Habitat II discussions resulted in two major negotiated agreements — the Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements and a corresponding vision document known as the Habitat Agenda. The latter in particular encompassed a global goal of providing adequate housing for everyone.

Drawing on the energy around the Earth Summit, the Habitat II documents likewise solidified a growing recognition that the sustainability of villages, towns and cities was an inherent requirement to ensuring the attainment of a broad spectrum of development goals.

These two documents have since received accolades for directly confronting the problems of both poverty and inequality. Still, there has also been concern and criticism that the Habitat II process failed to set out clear targets and binding means of attacking the concerns it had recognized.

What has happened since Habitat II?

Since Habitat II, the notion of sustainability driving development has taken hold throughout much of the international system. In 2001 the United Nations adopted the Millennium Development Goals, which included, for instance, a goal on the reduction of percentages of slum-dwellers.

That goal was actually achieved by 2010, by virtue of rapid advances — by the hundreds of millions — in China. But despite that advance, some 800 million people were still living in slums worldwide that year, nearly all of them in developing countries. Further, their absolute numbers seemed to be growing, especially in parts of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. From multiple perspectives — equity, sustainability, planning — the ongoing pervasiveness of slums presents a deep global crisis.

Even as urban issues moved increasingly to the centre of international development agendas, many of the problems associated with large human settlements have mounted. As the global economy has expanded, urban populations have continued to climb and middle classes in almost every country have continued to swell.

The combined effects of globalization and urbanization are resulting in ever-increasing urban growth, urban sprawl and urban inequality. Further, poverty and deprivation in cities are, for the first time, being recognized as distinct from rural poverty and a social determinant of poor health, disease, malnutrition and declining environmental health.

By around 2009, U. N. population analysts believe, the world’s urban population outnumbered its rural population for the first time in history. This spike in the number of people living in towns and cities has been marked by growing strain on global resources of both space and energy, resulting in increases in unplanned development, pollution and inequality.

How have these trends influenced planning for Habitat III?

A short answer: fundamentally. Start with the change of the upcoming conference’s official name. Moving beyond the first and second U. N. Conferences on Human Settlements, Habitat III is now known as the U. N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development.

Unlike previous Habitat conferences, the October 2016 event is expected to place equity and sustainability — economic, social and environmental — at the very heart of the discussions. In turn, this prioritization will be able to build directly on the momentum created throughout 2015 in final negotiations towards the new U. N. Sustainable Development Goals as well as an expected international climate accord.

The upcoming conference will seek to ensure broad input into the creation of what’s being referred to as the New Urban Agenda. As yet, this is a concept that remains to be clearly defined. Nonetheless, the timing for such a broad goal seems tied to historic levels in popular interest worldwide fused with prospects of strong participation from throughout the rest of the U. N. and broader multilateral systems.

Further, according to principles that supporters hope to see embodied in the New Urban Agenda, the results will empower both civil society and government authorities at all levels.

So Habitat III is an assured success?

It’s important to remember that the conference will, technically, be one solely of nation states. It is the national governments of the 193 U. N. member states that will ultimately decide on the contours and details of the New Urban Agenda, as well as any other formal results from the Habitat III process.

A natural caveat, then, is that broad terms such as empowerment, sustainability and even equity can differ widely in definition and desirability from government to government.

That suggests that the ultimate strength of the Habitat III process and its outcomes will continue to rest on the levels of interest and participation that can be drummed up from a full, global array of stakeholders in the world urban future. Any long-term impact will, in turn, depend to a large degree on the political will brought to the negotiating table in Quito.

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