Historic consensus reached on ‘right to the city’ in New Urban Agenda

Advocates say they’re ready to accept the compromise, which would see the term included for the first time in an internationally negotiated document.

The idea of the right to the city has been one of the most contentious parts of the New Urban Agenda negotiations. (SergeyIT/Shutterstock)

UNITED NATIONS — A major hurdle has been cleared in the final negotiations on the New Urban Agenda, the U. N.’s new 20-year urbanization strategy, with governments tentatively reaching a deal on a controversial concept known as the “right to the city”.

The agenda, which seeks to offer a vision of sustainable cities, is set to be adopted next month at the Habitat III conference in Quito. This week, diplomats are scrambling to wrap up agreement on the document before an expected 30,000 people descend on the Ecuadorian capital for the weeklong gathering.

For months, a major sticking point has been on this issue of the right to the city, a concept that has gained widespread support, particularly in Latin America, but has not been enshrined in international law. In part, that tension point is what prompted this week’s unscheduled round of talks.

Now, a compromise agreement would preserve the contentious term in the draft New Urban Agenda — a historic achievement, say many observers. However, it would do so by diluting its definition in comparison to what was initially proposed. Nonetheless, supporters say they’re ready to accept the compromise as a victory.

Several delegations told Citiscope on Thursday that the agreement — which was reached in a closed-door session Wednesday afternoon, the same day that talks began — set a positive tone as diplomats dive into more-complex issues in order to resolve remaining disagreements.

[See: For the New Urban Agenda, it’s now or never]

“Yesterday a very good consensus was already reached on one of the very complex issues, and we all hope that the same can be reached with the rest of the points,” Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos told the 60-odd delegations assembled at U. N. Headquarters on Thursday. “The final outcome is always a compromise, and we encourage all of you in reaching this very positive and favorable outcome.”

Synthesis of rights

The “right to the city” emerged early in the Habitat III process as a demand from civil society groups active in urban social-justice campaigns around issues such as gentrification, forced evictions, foreclosures, refugees, the privatization of public space and the criminalization of homelessness.

“Considering the circumstances today, where member states are less and less committed to rights, it’s a victory.”

Nelson Saule
Global Platform on the Right to the City

Under the slogan “Cities for people, not for profit”, such groups have called for the New Urban Agenda to encourage national and local governments to care for their most vulnerable inhabitants rather than cater to private-sector interests as the planet continues to urbanize at a rapid pace.

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

The movement, which coalesced in the Habitat III process under an advocacy platform called the Global Platform for the Right to the City, builds on an idea coined in 1968 by French intellectual Henri Lefebvre. More recently, the academic community has refined the concept, especially in the field of urban studies, where geographer David Harvey has been one of its leading proponents in books and articles.

Several international civil society forums, such as the World Social Forum, sought a common understanding of the idea in the early 2000s. Their efforts resulted in the 2004 World Charter on the Right to the City. “Right to the City” was later the theme of the 2010 U. N. World Urban Forum in Rio de Janeiro.

In the political arena, the right to the city has been adopted by several municipalities in Mexico and Europe, which have signed onto the Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City and the European Charter for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in the City, respectively.

The right to the city also is enshrined in law at the national level in Brazil and Ecuador, the two countries that championed the concept’s inclusion in the Habitat III process.

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

However, the term is relatively unknown in the human rights world. Indeed, “right to the city” is not currently recognized under international human rights law, an argument that several governments raised to counter any such mention in the New Urban Agenda. Activists respond by arguing that the right to the city is a synthesis of existing human rights, not a new right per se.

“In some countries and cities, the recognition of the right to the city and/or the adoption of right to the city charters seem to have positively improved the interaction between authorities and inhabitants and led to concrete results,” Bahram Ghazi, with the Office of the U. N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told Citiscope in a written statement.

“If the use of the concept of the ‘right to the city’ can encourage and mobilise governments to comply with their binding international human rights obligations, and ensure that they pay due attention to the essential indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights in their legislations, policies and practices,” Ghazi continued, “it can prove to be a valuable contribution to the New Urban Agenda and to the realization of human rights worldwide.”

Watered-down but historic

The term was included in the first draft of the New Urban Agenda, released in early May. That language read, “We commit to the realization of the concept of cities for all, which in some countries is defined as the Right to the City and compiles the shared systemization of existing rights, seeking to ensure that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, are able to inhabit, use, and produce just, inclusive, and sustainable cities, which exist as a common good essential to a high quality of life.”

However, this section was quickly flagged as controversial by governments across the political spectrum, including Canada, the European Union, India, Japan, the Russian Federation and the United States. At the same time, Brazil and Ecuador gained allies in Chile, El Salvador, Paraguay and Uruguay, although it never received formal endorsement from the Latin American and Caribbean bloc, known as GRULAC.

[See: Mexico seeks to place rights at the centre of the Habitat III negotiations]

The right to the city ultimately became the subject of several closed-door negotiating sessions, including Wednesday’s breakthrough meeting, where the Netherlands and Uruguay were tasked with co-chairing a drafting committee that could come up with mutually agreeable phrasing.

As yet, the language has not been finalized. However, multiple sources from national delegations have confirmed that they succeeded, with the likely final version reading:

We share a vision of cities for all, referring to the equal use and enjoyment of cities, and human settlements, seeking to promote inclusivity and ensure that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, without discrimination of any kind, are able to inhabit and produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, resilient, and sustainable cities and human settlements, to foster prosperity and quality of life for all. We note the efforts of some national and local governments to enshrine this vision, referred to as right to the city, in their legislation, political declarations and charters.

Although the term survived through each of the four iterations of the New Urban Agenda, its phrasing was increasingly watered down, a trend seen again in this latest version. “We commit” became “we anchor” and finally “we share.” For the countries that already embrace the concept, it was “defined as”, then “understood as”, then “recognized as” and finally “referred to as the right to the city”. (This final version also makes the term lower case, in line with how other human rights, such as the right to adequate housing and the right to development, are treated in the document.)

[See: Dámaso Luna Corona: Guaranteeing urban rights requires a ‘comprehensive approach’]

Nelson Saule has represented the Global Platform on the Right to the City throughout the Habitat III negotiations and says he is prepared to accept the compromise. “Considering the circumstances today, where member states are less and less committed to rights, it’s a victory,” he said Thursday. However, he expressed disappointment that in the final version, cities are no longer referred to as a “common good”, which he called a “central point” in his group’s formulation of the right to the city.

However, according to Habitat III Secretariat Coordinator Ana Moreno, such objections should not overshadow the historic nature of the term’s inclusion in an international agreement. “Member states approved it conscious of what they were adopting,” she told a group of civil society representatives Thursday.

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