A Needed Cornerstone for Habitat III: The Right to the City

For our right to the city

The logo of the Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City.

By Isabel Pascual, communications officer of the Habitat International Coalition (HIC) General Secretariat

The Quito conference will offer a major opportunity to reformulate life in human settlements, and the Right to the City can help ensure that all can live with dignity in sustainable, democratic and just territories. Already, important such models exist.

Cities are territories with massive economic, environmental, political and cultural wealth and diversity, both actual and potential. But the development models implemented in most countries today tend to concentrate income and power, resulting in poverty, exclusion and environmental degradation in urban areas, among other problems.

Further, public policies often tend to contribute to these problems by ignoring the contributions of local communities to the construction of the city, as well as the citizenship of those communities’ inhabitants. Such policies, too, are detrimental to urban society and urban life.

These concerns are at the heart of the preamble of the World Charter for the Right to the City, a document that came to life almost a decade and a half ago. The charter aims to specify the responsibilities of local and national governments, civil society and international organizations in ensuring that all people can live with dignity in urban areas.

The Right to the City broadens the traditional focus on improving quality of life based on housing and the neighbourhood to encompass quality of life at the scale of the city and its rural surroundings. This is a collective right that confers legitimacy upon people’s actions and organizations based on their uses and customs, with the aim of achieving the full exercise of the right to an adequate standard of living.

Like all human rights, the Right to the City is interdependent with other internationally recognized human rights — civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights. To this mix, the Right to the City brings the dimensions of territoriality and, of course, urban life.

[See: Pope Francis invokes Right to the City amid focus on migration]

This is not a new approach. Many of these ideas have been part of the debates, proposals and experiences of social movements, civil society organizations and academic institutions across the globe for at least the past half-century.

Two decades ago, many of these groups also incorporated the Right to the City into their preparations for the last Habitat conference, which took place in Istanbul in 1996. Nonetheless, the Right to the City was not explicitly included in that event’s outcome strategy, the Habitat Agenda. Further, in the intervening 20 years, the Right to the City still has not been recognized as a codified right by the United Nations.

[See: Human rights and the New Urban Agenda]

Meanwhile, preparations are now well underway toward the next Habitat conference — Habitat III, to be held in Quito, Ecuador, in October. As such, we must now recognize that many of the elements of the Right to the City are core parts of the discussions and debates that will lead to Habitat III and the global strategy that will be agreed upon in Quito.

Expectations and concerns

The Global Platform for the Right to the City, an open forum for stakeholders that work on these issues, was created to advance debates on the definition and implementation of the Right to the City. Yet today, although members of the Global Platform look on the Habitat process with high expectations, they also have major concerns.

“Many of the elements of the Right to the City are core parts of the discussions and debates that will lead to Habitat III and the global strategy that will be agreed upon in Quito.”

At the top of this list of concerns is the lack of evaluation of the implementation of the agenda adopted at Habitat II, including the fulfilment of related commitments. In fact, the situation in human settlements across the globe has dramatically deteriorated over the past two decades, despite the promises made in Istanbul in 1996.

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

Members of the Global Platform are also concerned over the apparent reduction of the Habitat Agenda to a solely urban focus. If this translates into a “New Urban Agenda”, as the 20-year strategy to come out of Habitat III is being called, it would fail to give adequate priority to the continuity — indeed, the symbiosis — between rural and urban areas.

A key promise of the Habitat Agenda of 1996, after all, was to anchor human rights in governance with “a regional and cross-sectoral approach to human settlements planning, which places emphasis on rural/urban linkages and treats villages and cities as two ends of a human settlements continuum in a common ecosystem”.

[See: The New Urban Agenda’s rural-urban conundrum]

Likewise, it appears that the discussions toward the proposed new agenda are abandoning previous commitments to a human-rights approach. In December, the Habitat III expert “policy unit” focused on the Right to the City released a draft “framework” paper outlining its initial thinking on this issue.

This group’s recommendations will be key for the drafting of the new agenda, yet its paper, “The Right to the City and Cities for All”, would benefit from the more-ordered expression of the Right to the City as reflected in the related literature and the Global Charter. It should also recognize the Habitat Agenda commitments that already support its Right to the City claims and operational principles. These include the democratic management of the city, the implementation of the human right to adequate housing, and the interdependence of urban and rural development.

Finally, the members of the Global Platform are concerned with the lack of meaningful participation by civil society in the Habitat III process thus far. It is critical that this process not ignore the fact that people must be at the centre of any strategy that comes out of Habitat III — not only through their presence but by being key actors in defining the substance and implementation of the new agenda.

[See: Stakeholders concerned over access to Habitat III negotiations]

Given these concerns, a fundamental role to be played by civil society in the Habitat III process needs to be underscoring the commitments that have already been made by governments and other Habitat Agenda partners at the two previous Habitat conferences. In this, stakeholder groups will need both to evaluate any related progress made and to highlight any lack of forward movement or important gaps left in the Habitat Agenda.

Second, civil society groups will need to amplify their experiences and proposals within the context of the Habitat process, at both the national and international levels. To date, the few national-level Habitat committees and reports that exist have been put together with little involvement from local communities and stakeholder organizations.

Solutions and models

The members of the Global Platform strongly believe that the process of developing a new Habitat agenda must follow a human-rights approach, with the Right to the City as its cornerstone. Concrete measures must be taken to overcome inequality, discrimination, segregation and lack of opportunities in order to ensure liveable conditions in both urban and rural areas.

[See: U. N. special rapporteur on housing calls for an ‘urban rights agenda’]

For instance, any new agenda will need to implement and enforce existing instruments for participatory planning and budgeting. It will also need to institutionalize support for the social production and management of habitat, and democratize land management. And this new strategy will need to recognize and respect the social function of property, land and the city — indeed, the human habitat as a whole. In this, ‘social function’ refers to the use or application of these elements to the benefit of the greater society, prioritizing those with the greatest need.

Each of these elements is explained and developed within the Right to the City framework. To see more on implementing the Right to the City, please see here.

As an initiative of the U. N. General Assembly, Habitat III is designed to convene global actors to discuss and chart new pathways toward meeting the challenges of ensuring equitable and sustainable human settlements, with equal opportunities, democracy and social justice. In Quito, member states will agree on a new agenda with the aim of addressing the present and future challenges of urbanization and life in cities.

In this sense, it is crucial to recognize the achievements and innovations of civil society and local authorities based on the Right to the City and other human rights for all. And indeed, there is already a host of important models around the world showing innovative approaches to implementing parts or all of this framework.

In Brazil, for instance, the Right to the City has been incorporated in the country’s unique City Statute since 2001. This law offers instruments to fulfil the social function of urban property and ensure its democratic management. That includes participatory budgeting, enabling citizens to influence and make decisions related to public budgets, with the goal of establishing investment priorities in their region.

[See: Present and future: Habitat III must acknowledge young people’s role in shaping our cities]

The Right to the City perspective is also being applied through new ways of thinking about land tenure and urban land use. In a spectrum of countries — Australia, Belgium, Canada, Kenya, New Zealand, Uganda, the United Kingdom and the United States, for example — community land trusts have been created to guarantee democratic ownership and administration of local land and estates. This model could do much to rescue the idea of collective land and housing rights.

South Africa, meanwhile, is seeing an emerging practice of participatory informal settlement upgrading. This approach again promotes the recognition of the social function of land and harnesses the capabilities of urban communities in identifying and formulating alternatives to current development interventions.

Finally, Colombia was one of the first countries to adopt “innovative instruments that capture gains in land value and recover public investments,” as pledged in the Habitat Agenda. There, implementation of legislation passed in 1997 has been capturing and redistributing “socially created” land value for nearly two decades.

These are exciting models that offer significant opportunity for expansion. Now, the lessons learned from applying these Habitat Agenda commitments are essential to grounding future steps and innovations in Habitat III.