What have we learned from the Habitat III policy units? (Part I)

Last week, technical groups presented thematic findings around housing and sustainable urbanization to national governments at the U.N. Here’s a summary of the first five papers and discussions.

Experts brief U.N. delegates on issues of municipal finance ahead of negotiations on the New Urban Agenda, 29 April. (Francis Dejon/IISD/www.iisd.ca/habitat/3/oeicm/29apr.html)

UNITED NATIONS — Last week for the first time, the United Nations turned its full attention to the preparations for this year’s Habitat III conference on housing and sustainable urbanization. Particular motivation is coming from the looming start of negotiations between national governments on the details of the New Urban Agenda — the two-decade strategy on urban development that will be finalized in October in Quito.

Ahead of the formal negotiations, last week’s sessions focused on formally presenting to the national delegations the Habitat III process’s core technical work: the focused research and synthesis that has been done by some 200 global experts and urbanists appointed for this purpose by the U. N.

These experts were divided into 10 thematic “policy units” covering issues such as housing, rights, finance and more. Each unit released a full report in February; last week’s sessions at U. N. Headquarters went through each of these reports one by one, including their recommendations for the drafting and implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Habitat III expert groups deliver final technical reports]

Citiscope was at U. N. Headquarters and published several reports on the political dynamics that characterized these sessions (see here, here and here).

But what about the technical discussions themselves? Here we have distilled a few of the highlights from these rich conversations.

What follows are summaries of discussions on the first five reports from the policy units; we’ll follow up with summaries on the rest next week. Each of these summaries presents the concept behind the policy unit, the case that the unit’s paper made, and some of the comments that came out during the following discussion and debate.

[See: Tension points emerging on details of the New Urban Agenda]

Of course, all of this is taking place just as the first draft of the New Urban Agenda is slated to be made public — something that is widely expected for 6 May. Once that happens, some of these issues will inevitably fall by the wayside while others will surge to the forefront in the ensuing political negotiations. As we follow the process toward Habitat III, Citiscope will return to these issues and dig deeper into the thorniest debates.

1. Right to the City and Cities for All

The concept: While there is no legally recognized “right to the city” in international human rights law, a group of advocates are pushing for this idea to underpin the New Urban Agenda. Coined by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre in 1968, the right to the city caught on during the 1990s with social movements in Latin America. In a heavily urbanized region, many in Latin America view the city as a place of opportunity for the poor and marginalized, but one whose opportunities must be guaranteed by progressive governments in the face of land speculation, gentrification, forced eviction of squatters and police brutality.

The case: Codify in law the “social function of property” — the idea that land use must benefit the community, not just individual or corporate interests — in order to make land speculation illegal; enact policies to protect squatters and tenants from forced evictions; legalize alternatives to “freehold” ownership such as collective title and community land trusts; and support the solidarity economy, including cooperatives, fair trade and alternative currencies. To sum this idea up in a catchphrase, they demand cities for people, not for profit.

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

The comment: The aspirations of this policy unit call for dignified living conditions and decent work for all — ideals that are neither new nor confined to urban dwellers. For some, framing this concept as the right to the “city” thus implies that the city is the only setting where such basic rights can be obtained.

As Colombia’s Isabel Cavelier noted last week: “It would be difficult to explain to our residents in the countryside that because they don’t live in cities, they have fewer opportunities. It would be difficult to guarantee to all citizens that today live in rural areas that they have the ‘right’ to live in the city, or that they should move to cities to take full advantage of their rights and benefit from sustainable development and prosperity.”

She continued: “It concerns us that the city and urbanization are seen as the only form of development and guarantee of human rights. Alternatively, should we also have a right to the rural?”

2. Socio-Cultural Urban Frameworks

The concept: Cities should not be cookie-cutter affairs assembled out of a pre-fab toolkit. They all have their own unique culture, a reflection of history, geography and the backgrounds of the people that live in them. As UNESCO’s Francesco Bandarin said, “There is no city that is not multicultural.” And to the extent that people, not just old buildings, make up a city’s culture, the most precarious among them — like minorities and migrants — must be welcomed.

Thus, the New Urban Agenda should protect a city’s culture from profit-driven developers erecting luxury condominiums that are making wealthy cities such as London, New York and Vancouver look somewhat interchangeable. It should also hedge against public-sector mass-produced housing that builds an old-fashioned “tower in the park” with no reference to local building styles, as in many rapidly growing cities in China.

The case: Cultural heritage assets should be mapped and inventoried, both tangible (buildings) and intangible (traditions and art forms); legislation should prevent the tearing down of historic buildings and protect cultural practices from being lost from one generation to the next; cities should set aside a minimum amount of the municipal budget to support arts and culture; and laws should welcome and integrate migrants and refugees by encouraging policies such as the U. S.“safe havens”, where city governments instruct their police departments not to inquire about immigration status.

[See: Historic cities already embody sustainability principles]

The comment: This policy unit was folded into the discussion on “Right to the City and Cities for All”, which occupied the lion’s share of the debate. However, the overall thrust of this unit’s thinking supports the main tenets of the right-to-the-city movement by encouraging socially just and inclusive cities. It does, so, however, without speaking in “rights” language, which made it considerably less controversial.

UNESCO’s Bandarin argued, “We should consider diversity as a value for the policymaking process, because heritage traditions are not only resource for society but also an engine of value.” Echoing a popular argument in urban-planning circles, he said, “The creative economy is the economy of the future.” Few, it seemed, disagree.

3. National Urban Policies

The concept: If cities are the engines of economic growth, then managing them should be a national priority. Since Habitat III is a U. N. conference and thus an agreement among countries, the New Urban Agenda should encourage each U. N. member state to adopt a national urban policy. At minimum, all countries should create some kind of legislation that sets out priorities and financing tools while clarifying responsibilities between the national and local in order to encourage economic growth and social equity in all cities.

The case: There is no “one size fits all” national urban policy, but the very exercise of developing such a policy — whatever it may end up being for a given country — is a healthy one. It can change the perception of urbanization from problem to opportunity, force disparate institutions to begin collaborating rather than working in separate silos, and invigorate a dialogue between citizens and government about the future of their communities.

[See: Ahead of New Urban Agenda draft, national reports offers country-specific lens]

The comment: There was some degree of preaching to the choir here, as the countries who spoke up on this subject during last week’s sessions were generally in favour of the idea.

“From our experience of rapid urbanization and economic growth, inclusive, sustainable and resilient urban growth cannot be achieved by city-level policy and strategic planning alone. Rather, it also requires national and regional-level planning,” said Japan’s Masaaki Nakagawa. “For example, in order to cope with the challenges of rapid urbanization caused by influxes of domestic migration from rural to urban areas, countries need national urban policies which include both national and regional level strategies.”

South Africa dove deeper, noting that an effective national urban policy must promote land-use planning, resolve land-tenure issues, provide for long-term infrastructure maintenance costs, and differentiate between primary and secondary cities. Above all, said the country’s Monika Glinzler, “A key objective of a national urban policy must be to achieve some sort of coherence in government’s approach in urban areas.”

4. Urban Governance, Capacity and Institutional Development

The concept: How cities govern themselves varies widely across the world. Legacy capitals such as Paris and Buenos Aires have strong institutions and ample resources — the mayor is such a powerful position that it can often be a springboard to the presidency. By contrast, efficient urban management of some megacities in the developing world has collapsed under the weight of rapid urbanization and rampant informality. And some secondary cities lack basics such as urban-planning departments and building-code-enforcement agencies. One of the New Urban Agenda’s legacies could be improved international standards for what constitutes effective local government.

The case: A new paradigm for urban governance should involve more decentralization of responsibilities and resources from the national to the local in order to empower cities. Metropolitan areas, which cross municipal boundaries, are now an economic and social fact of life, so national governments should allow for governance structures that reflect the new metropolitan reality. Further, the participatory governance wave is here to stay and should be encouraged — from neighbourhood-led decisions on budget allocations, to citizen representation on councils and committees, to two-way dialogue between everyday residents and city hall via cutting-edge technology and traditional channels.

[See: In Montréal, Habitat III forum hails rise of ‘cities planning’]

The comment: It’s hard to disagree with the need for good governance at any level, but the particulars generated some debate last week — and at least a few notes of caution.

A “robust multilevel governance system will take years if not decades,” said Martin Grisel, director of the European Urban Knowledge Network. Nancy Stetson, head of the U. S. delegation, offered a stark reminder of the stakes, stating that “Poorly managed cities are breeding grounds for crime, poor governance, corruption, violent extremism and inequality.”

To that end, the European Union’s Isabelle Delattre called for an enhanced role for city leaders. She said, “Local authorities should be involved and consulted at all stages of the policy cycle, from planning to implementation.” But that doesn’t mean local leaders are off the hook. As Norway’s delegate commented, “Local governments need to be accountable to their citizens and explain their choices for priorities and services.”

[See: Corruption: The New Urban Agenda’s elephant in the room]

Such watchdogging can in turn prevent the worst excesses of bad governance. “The New Urban Agenda should not hide or dismiss the importance of transparency,” said Colombia’s Isabel Cavelier. “Barriers like corruption, which exists in every country, affect good governance, efficiency and effectiveness across the board.”

5. Municipal Finance

The concept: With infrastructure needs in the coming decades estimated in the trillions of dollars, one of Habitat III’s central questions has been, in the words of conference Secretary-General Joan Clos, “Who pays for what?” Most cities rely on transfers from the national government — up to half of municipal budgets on average in most parts of the world —  even though cities and metropolitan areas generate most of national gross domestic product. In some parts of the world, limited ability to impose taxes, collect fees or otherwise generate revenue leaves local governments hostage to the national treasury. The New Urban Agenda could encourage countries to rethink how they allow municipal governments and projects to be financed.

The case: Economists speak of the “rules of the game”, or the laws that establish how to collect funds and how they can be transferred. These rules should be rewritten to give local governments more robust power to raise revenue through user fees, property taxes, sales taxes and municipal borrowing. Cities should have unfettered access to global capital markets in order to float bonds that can be used for public investments and receive assistance to reach creditworthiness if they are not already. They should be allowed to enter into public-private partnerships in order to harness the resources of the private sector. Government transfers should be redesigned to promote efficiency and support local objectives. Cities, in turn, must undergo responsible, transparent and accountable multiyear budgeting.

[See: New solutions to close the gap on municipal finance]

The comment: Financing is where policy meets reality for Habitat III. It’s the “operational fulcrum” of the New Urban Agenda, said Raquel Cecilia Kismer de Olmos, director of the Institute of Administration, Government and Economics at UNTREF in Argentina.

Yet that idea generated significant debate. South Africa’s Glinzler had a pointed critique, arguing that the municipal-finance policy unit “fails to sufficiently address matters related to the management of government’s property and land portfolio as a finance and resource issue.”

She explained: “We must take a long-term view in the management of our entire land and property portfolio, and not fall to the temptation of selling off well-located land which could be developed for affordable housing in order to cover operational funding shortfalls or to finance the acquisition of land in less well-located areas with fewer ‘not in my backyard’ pressures.”

[See: The New Urban Agenda will pay for itself]

To the central argument over decentralization, Emilia Saiz of the global cities network United Cities and Local Governments said, “Not everything is about fiscal decentralization but ensuring fiscal decentralization is essential for well-functioning local authorities.” She called for at least 20 percent of national resources to be transferred to the local level.

But Zambia was suspicious of putting more money in the hands of local governments. “Citizens have lost confidence in local authorities,” its delegate said.

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