Tension points emerging on details of the New Urban Agenda

Responses by national governments to draft technical papers that will undergird the Habitat III strategy offer insights on coming debates.

Sworup Nhasiju

Diplomatic negotiations can be a high-stakes game of poker, with countries attempting to play their cards without giving away their hands. But for anyone following the preparation of the New Urban Agenda, the United Nations’ 20-year urbanization strategy, there are already clues as to the potential battle lines in the global debate over human settlements.

The New Urban Agenda will be adopted in October at the U. N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, or Habitat III, which will take place in Quito, Ecuador. Ahead of that summit, the U. N. has asked 200 experts in housing, urban planning, architecture, public policy and finance to tackle the big issues at the foundation of today’s urbanization debate.

[Para leer este artículo en español, haz click aquí]

On New Year’s Eve, these 10 “policy units”, as they are called, each delivered a framework of ideas that together constitute a likely rough outline for the New Urban Agenda, the first draft of which is expected in early May. Meanwhile, the policy units are currently working on final drafts of these papers, which are expected imminently.

[See: Key drafts of Habitat III policy papers open for public comment]

Last month, 16 countries submitted comments on these frameworks, which were published on the Habitat III website. Many of the comments were technical, with diplomats having to remind the authors — most of whom come from outside the U. N. system — that the New Urban Agenda will not exist in a vacuum. By custom, then, it must refer to its predecessor documents, a laundry list of international agreements over the past two decades on topics such as sustainable development, climate change, disaster risk reduction and road safety.

But other comments — which range from nitpicky requests for the insertion or deletion of a word to wholesale ideological disagreements — foreshadow tensions that could bubble up during the negotiations over the New Urban Agenda, which will take place this spring and summer before the final showdown in Quito.

With 193 U. N. member states, the published comments from these 16 also offer a sneak peak of which countries are most engaged in the outcome of the conference. Since countries, after all, will be the ones to decide on the final text of the New Urban Agenda, knowing who is paying attention and what they care about will be important strategically for the constellation of groups lobbying for certain issues to make their way into the document.

[See: Stakeholders concerned over access to Habitat III negotiations]

Rights or wrong

One of the clearest early divides has come up around a global “right to the city”. A group called the Global Platform for the Right to the City (GPR2C) hopes that this idea constitutes a core part of the New Urban Agenda, and many of them prepared a policy framework with precisely that theme. (GPR2C is funded in part by the Ford Foundation, as is Citiscope.) Called “Rights to the City and Cities for All”, the outline pointedly calls for this idea to be the centrepiece of the new strategy.

[See: A needed cornerstone: The Right to the City]

“Since countries will be the ones to decide on the New Urban Agenda, knowing who is paying attention and what they care about will be important for groups lobbying for certain issues to make their way into the document.”

There is no universally agreed definition of the right to the city. The concept generally refers to an inclusionary vision of cities that provide adequate shelter, employment and public services to all residents, including traditionally marginalized groups such as women, youths, minorities, immigrants and the homeless.

The idea is popular among leftist critics who see contemporary cities as beholden to financial interests and besot by privatization, resulting in places of increasing inequality where real-estate speculation trumps the “social” function of land. For example, a privately owned lot intentionally left vacant to appreciate in value would be better served by affordable housing or a community centre, advocates of a right to the city would say, and public policies should compel the more equitable outcome.

The 10 experts of the policy unit focusing on these issues appear to agree with much of this. As their draft policy paper states, “Contrary to the current urban model, [the right to the city] aims to build cities for people, not for profit.” Subsequently, these experts argue that Habitat III must be based on a human-rights framework, echoing the 1996 Habitat Agenda, which they note makes 26 mentions of human rights.

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

For the New Urban Agenda, the policy unit is urging that this approach be taken further, suggesting that leaders in Quito agree to inculcate a whole series of rights. These include rights to “habitat”, “public space as a component of the urban commons”, “a safe and secure living environment”, “participatory and inclusionary urban planning”, “mobility and accessibility”, “safety, security, and well-being”, “environmental protection”, and in order to “access the benefits of city life”, “access basic essential services and infrastructure” and “socially produce the habitat and the city”.

‘Not appropriate forum’

In response to the paper on the right to the city, some countries have applauded this approach based on their own legal frameworks.

Ecuador, the Habitat III host country, commented that its own constitution has already enshrined the right to the city. France likewise noted that the very phrase “right to the city” was coined by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre in 1968, and argued that its own conception of the right to the city emphasizes spatial strategies through urban planning and empowering local authorities.

Given that Ecuador and France are the co-chairs of the Habitat III Bureau, the committee of U. N. members that are guiding the New Urban Agenda through the drafting process, this endorsement gives the right to the city exceptional weight.

[See: The drafters: Meet the two women leading the Habitat III Bureau]

Brazil also endorsed this vision of the New Urban Agenda and even suggested adding “the right to adequate food.” Norway and Finland, too, joined the rights bandwagon, while the European Union as a whole was cautiously in favour, while requesting more precise definitions of this litany of rights.

The chief detractor, meanwhile, was the United States. The country’s extensive response  refuted every one of the proposed rights line by line, claiming that they are not recognized as such under any international human rights instrument.

“The Agenda is not the appropriate forum to declare or recognize any new rights as UN Habitat is not a human rights body,” the U. S. response stated, proposing “cities for all” as an alternate framework that would avoid rights-based language. Colombia also joined this stance.

Washington has historically had a kingmaker/spoiler role in Habitat negotiations, according to multiple close observers. That history sets up a potential showdown over rights language in the New Urban Agenda. Given that many NGOs are aggressively promoting this framework for Habitat III, there will probably be considerable noise on this topic inside and outside the negotiating rooms.

Not that the right to the city is the only such potential flashpoint. Elsewhere, in response to the housing policy framework, Russia requested the removal of “LGBT” from a list of protected groups. Using similar logic, the Russian response urged the removal of reference to alternative sexualities because “as a category [it] has not been universally recognized as a special needs group living in precarious conditions”.

Not in my backyard

As the policy-unit experts painted a picture of global urbanization, they described a scenario that didn’t always resonate with the experience of individual countries.

A common phrase in Norway’s comments was “we do not recognize the description.” In Norway, which has one of the lowest Gini coefficients in the world, phrases like “the current pattern of urban development based on competitive cities [… is] not able to create a sustainable model of social inclusion and [is] rather [an] exclusion-generator” simply did not ring true.

“Given that Ecuador and France are the co-chairs of the Habitat III Bureau, their endorsement gives the right to the city exceptional weight.”

Brazil similarly bristled at certain generalized characterizations of the current state of cities. The harsh accusations, found especially in the aforementioned policy paper on the right to the city, essentially prompted a reaction of “not in my backyard” — even if such criticisms may hold true in other parts of the world.

Elsewhere, Ecuador questioned what was meant by “shrinking cities”. As a developing economy whose urban populations are growing fast, its cities are anything but shrinking, a situation that holds true across much of the developing world.

But across the Pacific, that concern is paramount. Japan explicitly noted, “The New Urban Agenda is required to meet the needs of different circumstances around cities, namely developing cities, developed cities and shrinking cities.”

The Japanese claim that there will be more shrinking than rapidly growing cities in the near future — and also offer their expertise on the matter. “Japan, as a country facing rapid depopulation and aging, is ready to provide our knowledge and experiences on how to deal with shrinking cities,” its response stated.

Small, sharp differences

Drawing from nearly every country’s comments yields a potpourri of additional issues.

Myanmar expressed concern that national urban policies — Habitat III is likely to call for every country to develop and adopt such a law — are not well understood and hard to implement. The country also expressed concern that the proposed housing framework, one which does not rely on massive public-sector production but rather the creation of an “enabling environment” for social housing, “a major change for government ways of thinking.”

Senegal called for enhanced recognition of the importance of urban agriculture. Norway lamented the lack of any mention of public health and asked for more on climate change. Brazil warned that there is no single ideal model for compact urban development, which is the gold standard for the anti-sprawl sensibility among many key figures in the Habitat III process.

Argentina vigorously supported an increased role for local authorities. That constitutes a reversal of the country’s position in negotiations on Habitat III thus far — probably reflective of the new presidential administration, with former Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri now occupying the Pink House.

[See: U. N. General Assembly approves Habitat III rules, ending 8 months of limbo]

Such small but sharp differences are a reminder of the difficult task of crafting a universal agenda. It is an exercise that the shepherds of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the U. N.’s new 15-year strategy to end extreme poverty, undertook all last year.

In 2012, the U. N. agreed that the SDGs would apply to both developed and developing countries. The Millennium Development Goals — which the SDGs replaced — only applied to the developing world. Bridging the global socio-economic divide became the central challenge of forging the SDGs.

In coming months, the drafters of the New Urban Agenda will face a similar hurdle. In urbanization, no different than development, the planet hardly looks the same from every angle.

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