So how do we implement the ‘right to the city’, anyway?

Many were surprised last month when negotiations on the New Urban Agenda kept the term in the final document. Now, efforts have been made at this week’s Habitat III conference to try to explain what this means on the ground.

Housing activists prepare to march in the streets of Quito on the last day of Habitat III, 20 October. (Gregory Scruggs)

QUITO, Ecuador — The “right to the city” has been a much-discussed term here this week, as Quito hosts the global Habitat III conference — the one time every two decades that world powers and tens of thousands of urbanists come together to discuss the world’s cities.

The four-day summit saw the adoption of a new global strategy on how to plan, build and manage sustainable cities — a document called the New Urban Agenda. With the right to the city enshrined in a negotiated document that is being formally adopted this week, many here are working to get their heads around the concept.

That includes many of the hundreds of mayors and other local officials that may be tasked with wrestling with what this term actually means — and how one goes about implementing it. Further complicating the issue is that the right to the city is a malleable term, which has been applied in different ways in different places.

This week’s conference included several side events on the issue. Many of these have offered specific examples of how cities that have adopted the right to the city as a guiding principle have implemented the nebulous idea, a broadly defined term that encompasses a basket of urban rights.

A key example is Quito itself. Ecuador incorporated the right to the city into its national constitution almost a decade ago. In response, the capital city has unveiled multiple polices: progressive taxation, decentralization of urban equipment, disincentives to use private cars, regulation of informal settlements, and the promotion of bicycles lanes.

[See: Historic consensus reached on ‘right to the city’ in New Urban Agenda]

Over the course of four months this summer, as national governments from 193 countries debated the text of the New Urban Agenda, one of the most contentious issues was whether the right to the city should be referenced in the document. The term saw significant support from Latin American social groups and some countries during the lead-up to Habitat III, but it unrecognized in international law, and many countries were keen not to allow the New Urban Agenda to set precedent in this way.

When countries finally agreed on the New Urban Agenda’s final text in September, then, close observers were surprised to find that a reference to the right to the city remained in the document’s 24 pages, albeit in somewhat watered-down form. A month later, many here are wondering what to make of its inclusion in the text.

Local examples

Enter host country Ecuador, which enshrined the right to the city in its national constitution in 2008. Former Quito mayor Augusto Barrera took office the following year, and held the position for five years.

He says it’s important to recognize that the right to the city is a long-term prospect. “It’s not a precept for two or four years,” he told Citiscope. “It’s a utopian horizon, in the good sense of the phrase.”

[See: Meet Augusto Barrera, the man who first thought to bring Habitat III to Quito]

Barrera spoke Tuesday to a packed room on the sidelines of the Habitat III conference. He was joined by Rosario Robles, former mayor of Mexico City, where lawmakers are currently weighing a draft city constitution that likewise includes a reference to the right to the city.

Article 11 of the draft constitution’s “Charter of Rights” proposes that the city recognizes the right to the city, based on ideals of social justice, democracy, equality and sustainability. It also lists some characteristics of an urban area that includes legal reference to the right to the city: Such a place is democratic, supportive, productive, inclusive, inhabitable, sustainable, safe and healthy.

Robles, too, suggested that the right to the city is more important as a guiding set of ideals than as a directly implementable policy. “It’s a process,” said Robles, who was Mexico City’s first female mayor, holding the position from 1999 to 2000.

“If people are not at the centre stage, it can’t be a right to the city,” she said, meaning that development planning should prioritize those who live in the city rather than corporate interests.

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

Still, Mexico City did also create specific policy in response to the mandate around the right to the city. Robles, now Mexico’s secretary of social development, pointed to a policy called La calle es de todos (‘Streets for all’) instituted during her tenure. “At that time, the right to the city wasn’t a strong concept,” she said. “It was about recovering the public space for all, for everybody.”

“Streets for all” means streets that guarantee safe walkability free of obstacles for people, bicycles, cars, public transport. The public response to the policy has been positive, and remains in place in certain parts of the city. While it hasn’t spread to the whole city, it has been particularly important in Mexico City’s historic district and other downtown areas, where certain streets have been closed to traffic.

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

The constitutional committee in charge of writing the final version of Mexico City’s highest law took over last September and will deliver the text’s final version in January. If successful, it will be the first Mexican city to formally adopt the right to the city. That would be a key victory for a movement that began in 2011, when researchers and activists came together to draw up Mexico City’s Charter for the Right to the City, a landmark document that has guided similar movements elsewhere around the world.

Meanwhile, there is related activity at the national level in Mexico, too. Ahead of Habitat III, the country’s lawmakers approved a new Law on Human Settlements, which includes the right to the city. That legislation requires, for instance, that the right to the city be respected during city planning, particularly emphasizing the importance of social participation in those processes.

Sharing knowledge

Although the right to the city is now included in the New Urban Agenda, significant questions remains how it will be implemented — for those countries that choose to do so.

Following contentious negotiations, national governments ended up with a compromise that refers to two issues. Parties to the accord state that they “share a vision of cities for all” while noting “the efforts of some national and local governments to enshrine this vision, referred to as right to the city, in their legislations, political declarations and charters.”

While this compromise was considered acceptable by some key figures guiding the push for inclusion of the right to the city in the New Urban Agenda, it also was seen as a watering down of the reference. Certainly it doesn’t commit national governments to the term’s implementation.

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

Yet for those countries and cities that do intend to look more closely at the issue — or for advocates within cities keen to learn from example — other cities’ experiences will be key.

Magali Fricaudet, coordinator of the United Cities and Local Governments Committee on Social Inclusion, mentions Bogotá, Montevideo and Paris. These cities have put in place policies in line with the right to the city, although they have not formally adopted the right itself.

“They are related to the provision of health services, leisure time and rights for women; housing cooperatives, based on collective property; and protection of land and urban planning, so that there wouldn’t be speculation,” Fricaudet told Citiscope.

Another example can be found in San Juan, Puerto Rico. There, eight neighbourhoods joined efforts to rescue the Caño Martin Peña, a tidal channel that flows through the city centre. In 2004, around 40,000 local residents instituted a community land trust of around 200 acres in these areas. Related rules permit people to own houses but not the land they’re on — thus barring the possibility that the land can be sold to developers. The project won the 2015 U. N. World Habitat Award.

“It’s a legal tool that has allowed the community to manage its own development. It’s a people-based model”, said Liliana Cotto, a sociologist who specializes in social movements.

[See: Alternative forums to offer urban visions outside of Habitat III]

Bringing these experiences and models together in a way that can make them useable is a core priority for many here in Quito this week. A coalition of more than 20 organizations and networks from the civil society, private sector, local governments, academia and multilaterals has built the Urban Housing Practitioners Hub, which compiles knowledge on social housing throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

“It’s a platform to establish synergies between the knowledge, practices and policies … for affordable housing along the implementation of the New Urban Agenda,” said Monica Ramirez, director of Housing and Human Settlements at Habitat for Humanity’s regional office for Latin America. “We want to be the Facebook of urban housing that connects everybody.”

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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.