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Home is where we practice citizenship, Habitat III stakeholders say

An Urban Thinkers Campus in Barcelona focused on ensuring adequate housing as a core part of the New Urban Agenda.

A. and I. Kruk/Shutterstock

BARCELONA — The home and the neighbourhood are where individuals and communities around the world practice their full citizenship, participants noted at a recent Habitat III stakeholder conference held here. With every house and group of homes built, after all, people bring new focus to a spectrum of concerns to their localities.

“Habitat — housing, neighborhoods and settlements — is the locus of practicing full citizenship, bringing together inhabitants and other stakeholders’ social, civic and environmental rights and responsibilities,” the participants stated in formal recommendations.

This is a simple extension of a very old idea. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “The human right to adequate housing is more than just four walls and a roof. It is the right of every woman, man, youth and child to gain and sustain a safe and secure home and community in which to live in peace and dignity.”

For three days last week, 100 international experts and practitioners — architects, urban planners, sociologists, politicians — gathered here to discuss the future of cities, how to face changes in population growth and how fill the gap in emergency housing. A key focus of the discussions focused on ensuring adequate housing for all in the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of next year’s Habitat III conference on cities.

“The most important issue in housing is the location,” said Ana Sugranyes, a specialist in international development cooperation and social housing policies. “There is an immense need to avoid slums and ghettos, caused by wrong social policies.”

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

The Barcelona event was an Urban Thinkers Campus (UTC), an initiative of UN-Habitat’s World Urban Campaign, one of more than two-dozen such global events meant to gather input ahead of Habitat III.

The conclusions of the three days of workshops advocate an approach to housing policies that takes into account multiple perspectives and contexts. This would offer a strategy for the planning, production and governance of human settlements for all, without discrimination, aiming to leave no one behind and reach the most vulnerable first. See here for a full list of the UTC’s recommendations.

“Housing is a fundamental right which fails systematically.”

Josep Maria Montaner
Barcelona housing department

The discussions on planning put a significant priority on land and the need to avoid pockets of poverty encouraged by the precariousness of social housing. Many cities “have built massive social housing blocks on the outskirts of cities, far from the centres, and that, have generated more poverty,” said Lorena Zarate, an urban planner and president of the Habitat International Coalition.

In some Latin American cities, Zarate said, these blocks “have become ‘ghost buildings’ because, ultimately, the residents have been unable to front the debts of an apartment property.”

[See: In Latin America, housing advocates set their sights on Habitat III]

One of the conclusions of the Barcelona campus is committing to the idea of “social rent” options, ensuring that the poor can access housing. Today, many participants warned, most governments are unable to make such assurances.

“Housing is a fundamental right which fails systematically,” said Josep Maria Montaner, with Barcelona’s housing department. “Housing cannot be ‘big business’ anymore, in that state and local governments have to take charge and not let them — the banks, the investors or the constructors — have empty flats. Because it is not business while there are homeless people.”

Barcelona, Montaner said, has emphasized social rent, prioritizing “more housing at more affordable prices”.

The UTC also pledged to renew a commitment to combating homelessness, an issue seen as central to broader efforts to combat high levels of inequality. “The European standard of quality of life has deteriorated due to the growth of social inequality,” said Jordi San José, with the Barcelona Metropolitan Institute for Land Development and Asset Management.

[See: Connecting housing with sustainable urbanization in the New Urban Agenda]

Thus, the campus focused on the need for adequate housing as a fundamental right. We need to “consider constituent human rights in the context of the recognition of the right to the city,” said Sugranyes, “including the human rights to land, energy, transport, urban planning and the social function of property as a social claim in the process of an emerging right.”

The UTC also set several goals for the New Urban Agenda, underscoring the urgent need for states to intervene in land markets and mitigate speculation, to implement human rights norms and protect the tenure of vulnerable groups, and to ensure the affordability of adequate housing. The recommendations end by contextualizing Habitat III as an important opportunity to fill in gaps in the new global development framework agreed to in September at the United Nations.

“Habitat III has a key role in filling the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda gaps in specifying habitat indicators, including the respect, protection and fulfillment of tenure security for adequate housing,” the recommendations state, “paying particular attention to priority contexts such as colonial and foreign occupation.”


Citiscope sat down with two participants at the Barcelona Urban Thinkers Campus to discuss urban planning and future urban development in Australia and Europe. These interviews have been edited slightly.

Sonia Kirby is an urban and environmental planner in Australia and a lecturer at Griffith University.

Susana Alcaide: What kind of urban politics do you have in Australia?

Sonia Kirby: In Australia we have three levels of government, and all of them have some responsibility in terms of the provision of housing in our cities. Most recently, we have had a federal government who has announced a minister for cities and infrastructure. His responsibility will be to give guidance to the states and local authorities about how they should be planning for our cities and ensuring adequate housing — ensuring that housing is affordable. Then, local governments are the primary planning authorities, so it’s their responsibility to implement plans and strategies in terms of where houses should be located, what form that housing should be, where there should be social housing, and giving guidance and approval. The private development is in terms of the construction of some of that housing.

Is there adequate citizen participation in these urban decisions?

Australia is very inclusive. We actually include our communities and public in terms of the decisions for housing and planning, so there’s a lot of laws and regulations in terms of when the community has the opportunity to offer comments and feedback in plans for decisions. They have the ability to contribute to policy — we have that legislated within various pieces of legislation, that the community must have a say. However, sometimes that can be too regulated, and there is still room for improvement in terms of how the public can be involved. I think we also have the responsibility as planners to assist in ensuring that the public is informed about the opportunities and choices they have in terms of how planning is undertaken. We also need to ensure that they have the level of understanding for them to provide quality feedback and quality comments on decisions at the strategic level before it gets down to the level of the development application.

Is there still space for rethinking the cities?

Absolutely, I think Australia does a lot of things very well, but I also think we have got a lot to learn from other cultures and from other planning systems around the world. Some of it is related to our government structures — at times the three levels of government are still trying to determine what their respective roles are in planning, in particularly in new cities. We still have problems with homelessness and we still have problems with affordability; we still have problems with providing infrastructure in an efficient manner. These challenges are only going to increase, given that we have one of the most urbanized countries in the world, where more than 80 percent of the population lives within an urban area.

How do local communities accept urban planning?

There are a lot of opportunities in Australia for the community to get more involved and to have more grass-roots and local knowledge coming into the planning process. I think sometimes you may rely too much on government to provide for us and to plan for us, and I think there’s a space for the community to step forward and say what type of cities they want to have in the future. I have faith that in the future we, as the planning profession, can help our community open the doors, be involved in the discussions and find a way to bring them into really contributing to the future of the city.

Are these Urban Thinkers Campuses and similar conferences worthwhile?

These types of discussions are essential in order to share ideas and knowledge, but also to gain perspective and to realize that a lot of the cities have the same problems — it’s just the magnitude of the problems that are different. So we do have a lot of lessons to learn, to hear the stories from Sao Paolo or Barcelona. It’s not about transporting the solutions from one city directly to the next but rather about considering how those cities solve these problems and how those solutions can be applied in my community. We need to learn from both the positive and the negative in order to contribute.


Joris Scheers is a spatial planner, sociologist, project manager for the Flanders government and president of the European Council of Spatial Planners.

Susana Alcaide: Is there opportunity today for rethinking the city?

Joris Scheers: There is a lot of room to do so, because on the one hand, of course you need to valorise what’s has been constructed for many centuries, but at the same time you must each time reinvent the city. If the city doesn’t reinvent itself, it’s going to die, and there are examples of cities that didn’t reinvent themselves and today they no longer exist. So, yes, I think on every level it’s necessary to do so, on top of what are today a few planetary challenges in Asia and upcoming in Africa. There, new forms of organizations, new forms of city growth need to be undertaken.

Do politicians tend to go about this differently than citizens?

It depends. I think sometimes citizens do so in different ways, and it may be easy to say that politicians like this and citizens like that. But I think the key is to sit around the table and talk, to make space for negotiation. The world has become more complex, and urban problems are very complex, that’s true. But a good politician knows how to do so and how to put forward a vision. A good citizen will also participate and a good entrepreneur will try to put ideas on the table — and take some responsibility as well.

How does population growth and immigration affect a city’s identity?

For many regions and many cities, growth is enormous and difficult to manage. In Europe, this isn’t such a problem. I think Europe will be able to deal with the growth, as long as the long-term vision of the structure of the cities, in the way they should developed, is there. The Asian and African context requires more actions and more political power to deal with their growing cities, but there too I think it’s possible to deal with it.

At the same time, I think it’s an illusion to think that the identity of a city or region stays the same. We know that the Barcelona, the Catalan, the Spanish identity is in constant evolution; their identity 30 years ago was different from now, and it will be different again in another 30 years. I do valorise identity and it is important, but at the same time you must be open to change and accept that identity is changing — and be open to talk about what kind of identity we want in the future. That’s the point of discussion each time, because new people are coming in and you have to talk with them and show that it’s important for you.

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