Alternative forums to offer urban visions outside of Habitat III

Even as governments adopt the New Urban Agenda next week, multiple groups plan protests and contrary discussions.

A large crowd gathers at the Urban Social Forum in Rio de Janeiro, which took place as an alternative to the World Urban Forum in March 2010. More such events are expected at next week's Habitat III conference in Quito. (Forum Nacional de Reforma Urbana)

QUITO, Ecuador — Some 50,000 people are heading here to take part in next week’s United Nations conference on housing and urban development, commonly known as Habitat III. But the summit is not the only venue for debate on the topic.

From a mock trial of the perpetrators of forced evictions to academic conferences with leading urban scholars, Quito also will host multiple alternative and parallel forums looking at these issues. The events, which are not sanctioned by the United Nations, are within walking distance of the Casa de la Cultura Benjamín Carrión conference venue, where Habitat III will be taking place. But they generally strike a political stance starkly different from the rhetoric emanating from the official gathering.

What will be discussed at these alternative events? Some will hear from ideological opponents who criticize the perceived neoliberal stance of the New Urban Agenda, the document that over 140 national delegations are expected to adopt next week. Others will offer a platform for  Ecuadorian activists — for instance, those eager to hold domestic officials accountable. Some leading universities also are hoping simply to offer an academic rather than diplomatic space for debate.

Take the People’s Social Forum Resistance to Habitat III, which is mobilizing activists Friday and Saturday in the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil. Thereafter, the initiative will be bringing its critical perspective to the Universidad Central del Ecuador in parallel with the four official days of the conference next week, culminating in a mass demonstration in the streets of Quito on Thursday. The forum will result in a New Inhabitants Agenda, an alternative manifesto to the New Urban Agenda.

According to Soha Ben Slama, a Tunisian housing activist with the International Alliance of Inhabitants, their opposition to Habitat III stems from the belief that the U. N. has strayed from its core values — including UN-Habitat, the lead U. N. agency on urban issues.

UN-Habitat has gradually abandoned its focus on human rights, which … should be the fundamental reason for the existence of a U. N. structure,” she said. The forum’s organizers reject the New Urban Agenda, Ben Slama said, “because it is grounded on the principles of developmentalist neoliberal ideology, pushing for ‘only cities’ to be the ‘only future for humanity’ at the expense of nature and human rights.”

On Monday, the forum will conduct a public mock trial of market forces — multinational corporations and public sector enablers alike — that they say allow for the forced eviction of some 70 million people. Ben Slama calls this topic “a theme taboo at Habitat III.”

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

Other activities include a participatory reconstruction exercise following April’s earthquake in Ecuador, strategies to defend against natural-resource-extraction projects, protests over Quito Mayor Mauricio Rodas’s controversial plan to erect a new highway, discussions of the social control of real estate and financial markets, and the “right to the city”.

That last concept, which generated considerable controversy in the Habitat III negotiations, is the thread that ties together the alternative forums. Both activists and academics alike have used the right to the city as a rallying cry; more than anything else, they hope  their events will deepen the debate on an idea that received only bare mention in the New Urban Agenda.

Academic alternative

If the People’s Social Forum will be the main venue for hard-line political stances through street activism, those on the academic left will find themselves at home at the local branch of FLACSO, Latin America’s leading graduate-level social-science university.

During the four days of the official conference, the campus will host Hacia Un Habitat 3 Alternativo (Toward an Alternative Habitat 3). The seminar will gather an international roster of sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists and other scholars working on urban issues but who prefer a neutral space to critically reflect on the New Urban Agenda. Leading sociologists Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassen are among the confirmed speakers.

[See: Bridging the GAP: What are researchers, academics bringing to the New Urban Agenda?]

The FLACSO seminar is the brainchild of former Quito mayor Augusto Barrera, who conceived the idea to host Habitat III in Quito. However, he was voted out of office in 2014, after which he became the coordinator of a research institute at FLACSO — the Center for Territorial Public Policy Research, known by its Spanish acronym CITE. For him, the university partnership is a vital legacy of the conference.

“We are articulating a network of universities that are working to construct an urban academic agenda, something which has basically never been done before,” Barrera said. “On the one hand, the legacy [of Habitat III] is the declaration, without a doubt. But on the other hand, the second is just as important as the first, and that’s the construction of a large global network.”

A third and final alternative to Habitat III also will take place at a university. Within sight of the Casa de la Cultura Benjamín Carrión stands a gray high-rise building, draped on one side with a five-story banner that reads “PUCE HIII”. That’s a reference to the Catholic University of Ecuador (PUCE in Spanish), with its confab, “Global Agenda, Local Actions.”

Hosted by the university’s school of architecture and urbanism, the event promises to create a “living campus” during the four days of Habitat III covering the full spectrum of hot urban topics — refugees, climate change, public space, urban design, right to the city and the informal economy.

Broken commitments

Why are there so many alternatives to Habitat III, which itself is a massive conference spanning hundreds of events that has explicitly billed itself as the most participatory event in U. N. history? To some, their opposition stems from a disagreement with the Habitat III stance on what participation means in the context of urban development, such as consulting with stakeholders ahead of an infrastructure project.

“In the U. N. concept of participation, there are technical staff that know the topic and the population doesn’t, so we have to respect the technical analysis of the project,” argued Lina Magalhães, a Brazilian researcher based in Quito and one of the people behind the Observatório Habitat III, an online platform.

“Yes of course you need technical staff — but revert the order,” she said. “First the citizens come up with the idea, then the technical people respond.”

To old-school advocates who remember the previous Habitat conferences in Istanbul (1996) and Vancouver (1976), this year’s edition of the every-20-year conference is problematic because of the big-tent approach that folds civil society under the U. N.’s umbrella.

[See: What can Habitat III learn from Habitat I?]

“The Habitat III conference does not provide for a common forum, as was the case in Vancouver and Istanbul. That fact limits the prospects of convergence at the time of the official conference,” Joseph Schechla of Habitat International Coalition, an NGO that watchdogs the implementation of the 1996 Habitat Agenda, said in an email.

“The World Urban Forum-like arrangement of parallel activities and side events mixes government and nongovernment actors in a presumed common space,” he continued. “However, in that configuration, the parties are not equal, and U. N. protocols colour the dynamic, rendering nongovernmental actors as subordinate parties in a sideshow at an essentially government-dominated spectacle.”

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

To that extent, the progression over four decades is a loss rather than a step forward. “The ideological predisposition of the organizers … has ‘offered’ — some would say ‘imposed’ — a perspective that is altogether alien to the spirit of Vancouver and the commitments of Istanbul,” Schechla said. “This is a design flaw that has plagued the conference and the neoliberal and neo-‘urbanist’ agenda from the beginning.”

Schlecha admits that some activists are predisposed to reject an official U. N. venue, regardless of the content of the document or the efficacy of the process. “Their rejectionism is largely the consequence of long and disappointing experience with politicians, especially in central government and international spheres,” he said. “Because the behavior and discourse of diplomats and state delegations fail to address their interests and concerns, the lack of faith has become standard. This is not new.”

However, he believes that the specifics of the Habitat III process has accelerated some of this discontent. “This rejectionism is fueled this time also by the consistent failure of UN-Habitat to uphold even the memory of the Habitat II commitments,” Schechla said. “ The U. N. agency and its leadership generally have lost credibility among many constituents”

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