Mexico seeks to place rights at the centre of the Habitat III negotiations

In a new announcement, the country will now co-lead the debate on the New Urban Agenda.

Flags festoon the entrance of a church in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. (Leonardo Gonzalez/Shutterstock)

UPDATE: On Tuesday evening the Mexican government agreed to take a key role in the Habitat III process by offering one of its diplomats to act as one of two “co-facilitators” to lead the negotiations toward a New Urban Agenda. That role will now be filled by Dámaso Luna Corona, adjunct director general for sustainable development in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Read background on this announcement here.

This report is part of an ongoing series looking at the issues and actions that characterize select countries’ engagement in the Habitat III process; read more in this series here. See also Citiscope’s explainer “Who are the Habitat III major players?

MEXICO CITY — In recent weeks, Mexico City has declared and subsequently lifted emergency measures to try to tamp down on extraordinarily high levels of air pollution, mainly from transport and industrial activities.

Monitoring the quality of the capital’s air is routine in the city, a result of urban legislation that has been in place for decades. These approaches will now be subject to review during the upcoming United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), which takes place in October in Ecuador.

In Ecuador’s capital, delegates of national governments will spend nearly a week hashing out final details on what’s being called the New Urban Agenda, a global 20-year strategy around sustainable urbanization. While this strategy will be applicable to all countries, how each country chooses to negotiate the details of the new agenda — what they choose to focus on as important or as unacceptable — will naturally be grounded in each country’s urbanization experience and political priorities.

For Mexico as for many others, then, the coming months will see an unusually rigorous process of examining past measures around housing, sustainability and urbanization. More importantly, these discussions will also focus on potential future policies to address emerging phenomena — fast-growing urban settlements, climate change, the need for sustainable mobility, as well as the many new technological advances contained under the umbrella of the “smart city”.

The extent to which national governments are engaging in the Habitat III process varies tremendously. Yet Mexico stands out as one of the most active, having hosted multiple formal and semi-formal events during the past several months.

[See: 5 big ideas from the Habitat III meeting on financing urban development]

In the official track, the country has hosted events on the critical issue of financing the New Urban Agenda as well as a regional event for Latin America and the Caribbean — particularly notable given that the region will ultimately be hosting the conference in October. Indeed, the only other country that will have hosted two official Habitat III events is Ecuador itself.

Mexico has a long history with the Habitat process, extending back to the first such conference in 1976. At the recent regional meeting, held in April in Toluca on the outskirts of Mexico City, the conference’s secretary-general, Joan Clos, said that Mexico has distinguished itself by being “the most in tune with the U. N. conferences” on housing and urbanization.

[See: Habitat III host region takes stock of its urbanization process — warts and all]

Mexico “promulgated an urbanization law in 1975 ahead of Habitat I and revised it in 1996 ahead of Habitat II,” Clos said, speaking in Spanish. Now, the Mexican government is moving to put in place another such piece of legislation ahead of Habitat III, he noted: “A great law about urbanism on the road to Habitat III. This cements the immense synergy between Mexico and the most innovative and dynamic ideas around urbanization.”

Rights-centred approach

So what will be Mexico’s contribution to Habitat III? And what will it hope to get from the process?

“They are putting the right to the city at the centre of the debate. It’s possible to lay the foundations so that construction can continue, can advance on the gender equality, within an inclusive, liveable, planned city.”

Magdalena García
Member, Mexico’s national preparatory committee for Habitat III

“Mexico can bring much, despite how we are at the moment. When the crisis intensified, the windows of opportunity are also larger,” Magdalena García, a member of the country’s national preparatory committee for Habitat III, told Citiscope. “Generally, it has been a country at the forefront in the international level — it has a very progressive position on the scope of the treaties.”

The Habitat III guidelines urge countries to create national committees to focus their preparations for the conference and to submit a report on urbanization trends and responses by June 2014 — a deadline that Mexico beat. (See here for the country’s Habitat III report in English and in Spanish.) Among several relatively typical priorities — demographics, urban planning, financing and governance — the report suggests that a key guiding criterion of urban development is a concept known as the right to the city.

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

The right to the city can be defined as the simultaneous exercise of the rights of a city’s inhabitants. This includes, for instance, the rights to food and housing, to leisure or migration, to health and education. This also covers the right to public space, to the environment, as well as the right to information and to political participation.

“Social inclusion of those who are different from us is fundamental to guarantee the right to the city,” Rosario Robles, the government official who oversees the urban-development portfolio, said in at the Habitat III regional meeting in Toluca.

The right to the city has particular roots in Latin America, and especially in Mexico. In 2010, the government of Mexico City launched a “Letter for the Right to the City”, endorsing such a vision in the metropolis.

Many here say that the New Urban Agenda and the right to the city should go hand in hand, as the new agenda could be a vehicle by which to guarantee those rights. Indeed, Mexico’s contribution to Habitat III will likely centre on a human rights approach, García said, with a particular emphasis on the right to the city as a mechanism to combat inequality.

[See: What Mexico City learned by devoting an office to designing public spaces]

This process could be going even further at the national level. Today, there is an ongoing process to elect the members of a Constituent Assembly, who will write a new constitution for the city — which will explicitly recognize the right to the city as the law of the land. This would certainly give the government something to boast about at the Quito conference — and an issue that would clearly motivate its negotiating delegation.

The New Urban Agenda’s first draft was released in early May, marking the start of the political negotiations that will define its final details. Initial response from the Mexican delegation is that the draft is too long and not clear enough, particularly in establishing lines of responsibility for its various guidelines. The Mexican delegation suggested that its focus in the coming negotiations will be on, for instance, placing land policy at the core of the agenda, aiming to capture urban land values for the benefit of the entire city.

[See: Four storylilnes to watch in the Habitat III negotiations]

Mexico is also looking forward to see how to build some level of accountability into the New Urban Agenda, which will not be binding on national governments. The country is urging the design and adoption of homogenous indicators among cities, for instance, to measure the agenda’s implementaiton.

Tall order

Mexico’s focus on inclusion in the Habitat III process is notable, and is rooted in complexities at home. Almost 64 million people — nearly 57 percent of the total population — live in 59 metropolitan areas in Mexico, the country’s Habitat III report notes. Of that, 17 percent live in “precarious” housing while 21 percent lack access to basic housing services. Overall, Mexico is facing a shortage of around 5 million homes.

“Social inclusion of those who are different from us is fundamental to guarantee the right to the city.”

Rosario Robles
Oversees urban development, Mexican government

Mexico’s largest cities are already beset by major concerns. They are polluted and threatened by urban poverty; they also lack transport connectivity and are increasingly exposed to the risks of climate change.

As with many countries, Mexico is also seeing increasing migration from rural areas to urban locations. Indeed, perhaps the most significant concern may be that the country’s medium-size cities are heading in a similar direction as the largest urban centres, albeit with some improvements. The population is expected to reach 137 million by 2030, at which point 83 percent are expected to live in Mexico’s cities.

The country’s Habitat III report offers several proposals on how to deal with this looming situation — housing that is well connected with jobs, accessible transport, moving from a strategy that focuses on housing to one that focuses on land and territorial planning. Urban areas’ connections with their surrounding rural landscapes also receive priority, with an emphasis on ensuring that suitable, well-located and affordable land is available for agriculture.

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

The report also highlights the role of “social housing” and proposes comprehensive reforms of the regulatory framework. This means ensuring that either government or nonprofit entities provide housing for the poorest parts of society. In comments on the technical reports released in February by the Habitat III “policy units”, Mexico proposed “financial instruments for urban consolidation, including financing social housing in the inner city”.

But academics and civil society groups differ on the extent to which human rights constitutes the real basis of these proposals.

“We have realized that Mexico’s new urban agenda will focus on topics that are not necessarily … aligned with a focus on human rights. They’re not used as reference,” said Paulina Garza, national social director at the Mexican office of Techo, a Chilean think tank. “The proposal on the right to the city should be much more crosscutting.”

In her view, informal settlements and the “social production” of housing — meaning housing that is self-constructed, not for profit — do not receive adequate mention in Mexico’s report. “They should be at the forefront in the urban agenda,” she said.

Of particular concern is the proliferation of informal settlements. The Ministry of Social Development has calculated that 1.35 million homes in Mexico have no property titles. Academics have estimated that between 7 million and 12 million homes should also be considered irregular or informal.

[See: Achieving inclusiveness: The challenge and potential of informal settlements]

Such numbers frustrate some who have observed Mexico’s longstanding engagement with the Habitat process. For Jeronimo Díaz, adviser to the Latin American office of the Habitat International Coalition, what’s missing is a “serious evaluation” of the commitments Mexico made at the last Habitat summit — Habitat II, held in 1996 in Istanbul — and the country’s current situation.

“The social production of habitat is not mentioned, as it should be the priority of public policy, as a trigger for the local economy, among other aspects. To address the challenges listed, we should put these issues at the heart of housing policies,” he said.

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

Meanwhile, prosperity in Mexico’s cities is fairly anaemic. According to data presented in March by UN-Habitat Mexico and the National Fund for Workers’ Housing Institute, 36 Mexican municipalities reported moderately weak prosperity. The study looked at issues such as productivity, urban infrastructure, quality of life, equity and social inclusion, environmental sustainability, and governance and urban legislation.

A host of problems related to urban management “limit the possibilities”, said Roberto Eibenschutz, a professor at Metropolitan Autonomous University (UAM). He lists poor, overly rigid and incomplete development plans; inadequate training of authorities; incomplete legal frameworks that include loopholes; local decisions that deviate from urban plans and more. “That generates less-liveable, less-sustainable cities and builds up increasingly serious problems,” he said.

René Coulomb, another UAM professor, agrees that the current model will not allow for the building of cities in the model that the Mexican Habitat III report lays out. “The population’s access to urban services demonstrates the lack of sustainability,” he said. “An undesirable model of peripheral non-sustainable urbanization has imposed itself. The current forms of settlement and mobility pose a very conflictive future between the environment, health and quality of life.”

Opportunity and local challenge

Habitat III is an opportunity to begin to set medium-term strategy on a host of issues around coming urbanization trends at the global level. In Mexico, many are looking forward to using the process to lay important groundwork, including around rights. But the crux of this discussion remains how these strategies will be implemented at the national and local levels.

“They are putting the right to the city at the centre of the debate,” said García, the member of Mexico’s national preparatory committee for Habitat III. “It’s possible to lay the foundations so that construction can continue, can advance on the gender equality, within an inclusive, liveable, planned city.”

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

Others are looking forward to the opportunities in the Habitat III process to strengthen processes of decentralization — shifting substantive powers, backed by financial authorities, to local governments.

“To rethink the construction of our own cities — if Mexico adopts a progressive agenda, it helps us ensure that rights are respected from different organs of government,” said Paulina Garza. “Habitat III may be a mechanism to transfer responsibilities to local authorities … and that will help to have a much broader, pioneering perspective regarding the right to the city, to the integration of other practices.”

But the Mexican map contains obstacles in this regard. The country is dealing with a serious austerity push and has implemented deep budget cuts that have resulted in internal restructuring. Now, a variety of key urban concerns — housing, public space, urban-rural development programmes — are all subsumed under the infrastructure budget, with some USD 516 million to invest overall.

Yet last year a process began to reactivate the country’s national network of local urban observatories, which have been on hold since 2012. Composed of academics, local officials and NGOs, these bodies’ are tasked with evaluating and measuring urban issues to improve and design policies; their absence has meant a lack of analysis of what works and what doesn’t. The intention now is to have these bodies fully operative for in time for Habitat III.

Greg Scruggs contributed to this report.

Stay up to date on all Habitat III news! Sign up here for Citiscope’s weekly newsletter. Citiscope is a member of the Habitat III Journalism Project; read more here.

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary

Emilio Godoy

Emilio Godoy is a Mexico-based journalist who covers the environment, human rights and sustainable development. He has been a journalist since 1996 and has written for various media outlets in Mexico, Central America, Spain and Belgium. In 2012, he won the Journalistic Prize on Green Economy and Sustainable Development.