Habitat III host region takes stock of its urbanization process — warts and all

The final regional meeting in the Habitat III process takes place this week in Mexico, six months before the conference convenes in Quito.

Street art in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Valparaiso, Chile, June 2013. Four out of every five Latin American inhabitants lives in a city. (Anky/Shutterstock)

TOLUCA, Mexico — When the city of Quito was awarded the privilege of hosting the U. N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), it was a coup not just for Ecuador — which has never before hosted a major U. N. summit — but for all of Latin America.

The region is lauded as the most urbanized region in the world, with four out of every five Latin American inhabitants living in cities. In turn, those urban areas are hotbeds of innovation — as well as disconcerting examples of what happens when urbanization goes awry.

The full spectrum of housing and urban development in the region is on display this week as delegates gather for the Habitat III regional meeting for Latin America and the Caribbean, the last of several regional meetings taking place in the run-up to to the conference, which takes place in October.

Just a month after Mexico City hosted a key meeting on financing the New Urban Agenda — the 20-year urbanization strategy expected to come out of Habitat III — the action returns to Mexico for a two-day event. This time, delegates are in the state capital Toluca, an industrial city of 800,000 on the outskirts of the Mexican megalopolis. Toluca is also the political home base of President Enrique Peña Nieto, who served as governor of Mexico State for six years before assuming the presidency.

Warts and all, urban experts in the region believe that the experience here can be instructive for vast urbanizing regions such as Africa and Asia.

[See: In Ecuador’s highlands, learning from Latin American cities’ ups and downs]

“For other countries, what appears to be a new urban agenda — because they are in the process of urbanization — for us it’s the old urban agenda,” Cities Alliance’s Anaclaudia Rossbach told Citiscope in Mexico City last month. “We are urbanized and we are struggling. Habitat III could be a catalyzing moment to redirect resources, including the attention of political actors and civil society, toward urban issues.”

A LAC snapshot

In truth, “Latin America” is an outdated term, at least when it comes to analysis by multilateral institutions. Instead, Latin America and the Caribbean, or LAC for short, is now the standard categorization in the U. N.’s geographic division of the world.

“We [in Latin America] are urbanized and we are struggling. Habitat III could be a catalyzing moment to redirect resources, including the attention of political actors and civil society, toward urban issues.”

Anaclaudia Rossbach
Cities Alliance

This grouping emphasizes a shared political history of formal and informal colonialism as well as subsequent socio-economic conditions, even if the region varies widely by language, religion, racial and ethnic background, and topography. Nevertheless, the concept note and position paper prepared ahead of the Habitat III meeting in Toluca hope to draw some broadly applicable conclusions.

[See: The Caribbean seeks to assert its identity in the New Urban Agenda]

Even the region’s much-touted urbanization figure is less uniform when studied at a more granular level. In 18 countries in the region, including much of Central America, nearly half of the population still lives in small towns and rural areas. By contrast, “Southern Cone” countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay are staggeringly urban at around 90 percent.

Statistics for the Caribbean, meanwhile, are notoriously unreliable, as formal definitions often encompass only narrowly defined city limits without reflecting urbanized land area. Trinidad and Tobago, for example, is considered 9.1 percent urban by official U. N. definitions, but it tops 80 percent in an alternative World Bank calculation.

[See: Ahead of Habitat III, the Caribbean makes case for a region of cities]

Like much of the developing world, LAC is young — over half of all residents are under 30 years old. Compared to the aging countries and shrinking cities of parts of the Global North, this is an opportunity but also a challenge. Without quality education, decent jobs and affordable housing, a burgeoning youth population can also be akin to a time bomb, whether fuelling internal unrest or mass migration — such as the Central American youths who have flooded across the U. S.-Mexico border in recent years.

Those young people were for the most part fleeing urban violence, an enduring condition that scars the region. According to the Citizens Council for Public Security and Penal Justice, a Mexican NGO, in 2015 nine of the top 10 cities worldwide with the highest homicide rates were in Latin America. Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico and Venezuela crowded the top 50, with Caracas taking the ignominious crown.

This trend is not new. Medellín was once the murder capital of the world, while activists claim that more people have died in Rio’s drug wars than in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet there are clear improvements — for instance, these two cities no longer appear in the Top 50 ranking.

Writing in the online U. N.-hosted Urban Dialogue ahead of the Toluca meeting, the Brazilian youth NGO Engajamundo noted, “While some of the Habitat III documents have cited inequality in urban development as the principle cause of violence, it’s important to emphasize as well the need to reduce state violence (the use of force) against citizens (which often happens via police violence); also to address gender-based violence, which often happens in the public realm.”

[See: Human rights and the New Urban Agenda]

Alice Junqueira, an independent consultant and youth expert from Brazil, added to the online discussion, “Afro-descended people are especially vulnerable; black people suffer more discrimination and violence because of the history of slavery and migration within Latin America, as a result the urban homicide indices in Brazil, for example, are extremely high among the black population.”

In 2013, the Brazilian Institute of Applied Economic Research reported that black Brazilians are twice as likely to be homicide victims as white Brazilians. Indeed, the history of the transatlantic slave trade and the prevalence of Afro-descended populations are one of the few demographic threads tying together much of Latin America and the Caribbean. Falling at the beginning of the U. N. International Decade for People of African Descent, observers say the Habitat III process thus far has not directly addressed this demographic’s urban reality.

Housing inequality

In addition to high rates of urbanization, LAC’s other enduring distinction is its status as the world’s most unequal region. While there have been improvements, as observed in a regional drop in inequality between 2002 and 2013, the region remains the most unequal in the world in terms of the gap between rich and poor.

“In 18 countries in the region, including much of Central America, nearly half of the population still lives in small towns and rural areas. By contrast, “Southern Cone” countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay are staggeringly urban at around 90 percent.”

The reality of this stratification plays out in cities. This is especially so in the contrast between wealthy gated communities and underserved informal settlements that have become the iconic image of cities in the region — think of Rio’s favelas versus chic Ipanema, or Kingston’s garrisons versus tony uptown. While poverty has decreased dramatically — from 48 percent to 28 percent of the region’s total population — in the last quarter century, the urban landscape has been slower to change.

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

Not that efforts have not been made. The region is a constellation of policies at the national and local levels to stimulate opportunities for the urban poor. Medellín’s philosophy of “social urbanism” has made Colombia’s second city world famous for interventions such as aerial gondolas, hillside escalators and an urban greenbelt. At the national level, Chile’s Quiero Mi Barrio (I Love My Neighborhood) and Mexico’s Habitat programmes have sought to implement urban change at a large scale.

There have been plenty of public policy-setbacks, as well. The current successor to Rio’s award-winning 1990s Favela-Bairro programme to integrate informal settlements into the formal city has stalled in the face of Olympic development priorities. Brazil’s Minha Casa Minha Vida (My House My Life), a massive social-housing effort, has been roundly criticized for placing low-income residents far from jobs and transit — and in the worst case, warehousing those forcibly evicted from their favela homes for new transit lines and mega-events such as the World Cup.

Following two decades of progressive policies and attitudes toward urban informality, there appears to be some backsliding in the region. The draft Toluca Declaration for Habitat III sets as a goal to “Reduce the absolute number of people located in settlements with high exposure to risk through the planned relocation of inhabitants that live in these conditions, and the prevention of new informal settlements.” (As with all such declarations, the final document will be considered formal input to the drafting of the New Urban Agenda.)

[See: Participatory approach key to informal settlements, Habitat III sessions urge]

This technocrat’s justification for removing people from their homes is at odds with the Pretoria Declaration on Informal Settlements. That document, which was finalized at a Habitat III meeting in South Africa this month, “Call[s] for the issue of evictions to be addressed in the new urban agenda in line with the international guidelines on resettlements.” It also “acknowledge[s] the prioritisation of in situ upgrading to respond to the scale of urban poverty and at the same time strengthen socio-economic and cultural dynamics for safe and sustainable neighbourhoods.”

Most national housing programmes in Latin America — including the aforementioned Brazilian policy as well as Colombia’s Vivienda 100% Subsidiada (100% Subsidized Housing), Mexico’s Infonavit and Uruguay’s Banco Hipotecario — emphasize homeownership. Between that incentive and self-built housing, the ownership rate in the region is a very high 64 percent.

While this tendency creates personal assets, it can also limit social mobility by fixing people to a certain geography — oftentimes one lacking opportunities. Chile hopes to buck this trend with its Chao Suegra programme, a first-of-its-kind rental housing voucher for young families that is quickly becoming a regional model.

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

Right to the city

The other key type of LAC urban policies encourages redevelopment. Buenos Aires used a public-private venture to turn an old port into a sleek business hub, Puerto Madero. São Paulo built entire office districts funded through Additional Construction Potential Certificates (known as CEPACs in Portuguese). Quito has financed improvements to the public realm through betterment contributions, another instrument of land-value capture.

[See: New solutions to close the gap on municipal finance]

Carlos Morales-Schechinger, a professor at the Institute for Human Settlements, says the region has fallen far short of its potential — and its promise. “There is an ample menu of instruments to do this and many of them exist in Latin America, but there has been little, very little, implementation,” he wrote in the Urban Dialogue.

In Habitat I, Latin America proposed a land value capture policy that was clearly established in the Vancouver Declaration,” he wrote. “40 years later, there are inspiring cases that have generated interested including in other parts of the world, but the advances continue on a very limited scale.”

That slow pace may be just fine for others in the LAC urban debate who believe that such policies can lead to runaway real-estate speculation. As the event’s position paper notes, “[E]ven countries with the most advanced legislations on the matter (like the Statute for the Cities of Brazil; or Ley 388 in Colombia), face challenges to effectively implement policies enforcing the social function of territory.”

This dilemma cuts to the core of the region’s push for Habitat III to embrace what known as the right to the city, a philosophy of socially inclusive urban areas that has became law in Brazil and parts of Colombia and Mexico. As the meeting’s concept note explains, “The Right to the City aims at ensuring that citizens are able to enjoy their cities appropriately, and governments enabled to meet the obligations necessary to create the conditions for the enforcement of this right.”

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

The right to the city is front and centre in the draft Toluca Declaration. The document’s second sentence states, “We assume this responsibility with a conviction that the consolidation of cities and human settlements where people can fully exercise the Right to the City is an indispensable condition to combat structural lags that harm our countries like poverty, inequality, insecurity and violence, and the vulnerability to the effects of climate change.”

That provision has been defended by voices from Pope Francis to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, the latter discussing the issue with journalists just last week. Still, it remains adamantly opposed by several influential voices such as the U. S. government.

As the final preparatory meeting before the first draft of the New Urban Agenda appears, Toluca may be the last best chance for advocates of the right to the city to keep this controversial idea moving on the road to Habitat III.

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