Habitat III prompts hope for more inclusive view toward informal settlements

‘It’s impossible to think the next 20 years could be like the last 20 years,’ said the U.N. official tasked with monitoring the right to adequate housing, as countries adopt the New Urban Agenda.

A mother and child walk through an informal settlement along a train line in Dhaka, March 2015. (Andrew V. Marcus/Shutterstock)

QUITO, Ecuador — Around the world, there are an estimated 1 billion people living in informal settlements, many of them facing tenuous living conditions and scraping by without access to basic services. That’s a quarter of the current urban population, according to the U. N.

Any attempt to harness the forces of urbanization for good, then, will need to account for this vast number of people living in slums. That’s one key priority for the New Urban Agenda, the strategy document that is being adopted this week by U. N. member states at the Habitat III conference here in Quito. The result of two years’ of input and negotiation, the agenda offers guidance on how to plan and build sustainable and equitable cities over the next 20 years.

“We cannot be silent on the issue of addressing slums. In fact, it needs to be in everything we are talking about,” South Africa’s minister for human settlements, Lindiwe Sisulu, said at a Habitat III discussion Monday. “We cannot talk about the New Urban Agenda until we talk about this situation.”

[See: How Design Museum Dharavi hopes to change the narrative about Mumbai’s biggest informal settlement]

Of course, dealing with an issue as wide-ranging and complex as informal settlements is a challenge that involves forging understanding between a huge variety of stakeholders, including national and local governments, as well as the community organizations that operate within informal settlements.

The New Urban Agenda is a 24-page document finalized in September that is being formally adopted by 193 countries this week. After four months of political negotiation, the final product does indeed pay close attention to informal settlements, offering a slew of commitments and recommendations.

In the main, the agenda asks member states to commit to people-centred development that allows those living in informal settlements to live “decent, dignified, and rewarding” lives. It calls for countries to commit to promoting housing policies at all levels of government that support the “progressive realization of the right to adequate housing for all as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living.”

[See: South Africa has been key to putting informal settlements on the Habitat III agenda]

It points authorities to prioritize slum upgrading, which involves supplying services such as water and electricity to informal settlements. This is based on language contained in the Pretoria Declaration, a document that came out of a Habitat III preparatory meeting focused on informal settlements in South Africa in April. Member states are tasked with paying particular attention to the energy and transport needs of those in informal settlements.

Some of this could be transformative, experts here say. “It’s impossible to think the next 20 years could be like the last 20 years,” said Leilani Farha, the U. N.’s special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing.

Active participants

The New Urban Agenda’s key conceptual shift involves integrating informal settlements into the “social, economic, cultural, and political dimensions of cities”. The fact that people living in informal settlements are included in the new strategy as active participants in shaping an urban future is something advocates see as transformative — albeit with a healthy dose of scepticism.

“It’s positive that informal settlements are recognized, not just as a problem of urbanization but as a consequence of inequality and segregation,” says Luis Bonilla, chief operating officer for TECHO International, a non-profit organization working with informal settlements in Latin America and the Caribbean. At points, the document recognizes those living in informal settlements as actors that can participate in upgrading their situation, he says.

[See: Habitat III must institutionalize participatory urban development]

According to Bonilla, this marks a big change from the language of the Habitat Agenda — the document adopted in 1996 following Habitat II, the last time the world gathered to discuss cities and urbanization.

But already there are concerns about how — and whether — authorities will seek to translate the New Urban Agenda’s vision into realities on the ground. The document does not go so far as to offer a concrete, measurable goal for overcoming the informal settlement situation worldwide. And without that, said Bonilla, the document could amount to little more than “nice words”.

Still, the agenda does make clear that good urban governance will require strong coordination and partnerships between national, sub-national and local governments, as well as with relevant stakeholders. Civil society groups say they are hopeful that they now will see strengthened relationships between governments and those living and organizing in informal settlements.

“As communities, we don’t want to participate in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. We want to be partners,” said Rose Molokoane, coordinator of Shack/Slum Dwellers International’s South African Alliance. “We want a practical, implementable, inclusive partnership.”

[See: How a generation of young leaders is emerging from India’s slums]

Molokoane, who also was elected this week to co-lead the World Urban Campaign, said she would like to see a stronger focus on these types of partnerships. She suggested an integrated approach to working on informal settlements whereby national, provincial and local government, and communities from informal settlements come together two or four times a year to discuss global progress on informal settlements.

Pre-existing governance

Others support this kind of thinking, noting that many informal settlements operate under their own governance structures.

There is no “one size fits all” approach for working with informal settlements, but policymakers need to account for the informal governance structures that exist in settlements, said Paul Jones, programme director of urban and regional planning at the University of Sydney, who focuses on informal settlements in the Asia-Pacific region.

“At the end of the day, [informal settlements] are still being looked at through a formal set of eyes and a formal planning framework,” he said.

[See: Developing countries face a catastrophic lack of urban planning capacity]

That shift in mindset is ultimately the key goal for many who have gathered here for this week’s summit — and the impact they’re hoping will come out of the adoption of the New Urban Agenda.

“We need to shift our view, our understanding of informal settlements and the people who reside there. We can no longer look at people who reside in informal settlements as encroachers, occupiers, criminals,” said Farha, the U.N expert. “We have to start understanding that where they live is symptomatic of decisions taken by all levels of government and by unregulated market forces. They are victims of the failure to implement the right to life and the right to housing.”

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Brendon Bosworth

Brendon Bosworth is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Cape Town and is the editor of UrbanAfrica.Net, a project of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town.