Right to the City: A Tentative Victory at Habitat III

Right to the City: A Tentative Victory at Habitat III

By October 28, 2016 Alumni, Blog, Featured

The final draft of the New Urban Agenda (NUA), a 20-year roadmap to sustainable urban development agreed upon at the Habitat III conference in Quito last week, features the word “inclusive” no less than 36 times. But its “leave no one behind” policy, committed to the inclusion of the billions disenfranchised by poverty, conflict and disaster, was somehow at odds with ensuring their ‘right to the city’ – a critical phrase that just barely made it into the 24-page document.

robert-pugllaepa_via_guardianA protester from Resistencia Hábitat III stands in front of riot police during a rally in Quito. ©Robert Puglla/EPA via the Guardian

The Right to the City

Coined by philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre, The Right to the City (RTC) recognizes equal access to urban life as a basic human right for all — not just for legally-recognized citizens, but also for marginalized and vulnerable communities including migrants, slum dwellers and homeless. British geographer and CUNY professor David Harvey, one of the concept’s foremost advocates, has defined it as “the exercise of a collective power to reshape the process of urbanisation”, but argues that this “right” is mostly enjoyed by a small political and economic elite that shapes cities based on vested interests.

A heated debate

That the inclusion of this clause in the NUA was such a contentious issue among nations suggests evidence of Harvey’s claims. Canada, the European Union, India, Japan, the Russian Federation, the United States — even the Holy See — initially rejected its inclusion, mostly on the grounds that RTC lacks legal status as a human right, or that the management of migrants and refugees should remain within the purview of national governments. But these official positions deflect from their more plausible concerns. India, for instance, would be held accountable for denying shelter and services to its millions of slum dwellers living in unauthorized settlements, and immigrant-averse countries in the EU would have to answer to the million refugees currently flooding their borders.

It was thanks to the mounting pressure of Latin American countries like Brazil and Ecuador — both of which are existing models of RTC implementation — that some semblance of the controversial clause made its historic, if diluted debut as a codified right of the United Nations. Despite the already non-binding nature of the agreement, the final phrasing of RTC, which purposely avoided using words like “commit” or “defined as”, is decidedly non-committal. It reads: “We share a vision of cities for all… We note 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.” Any inference of commitment to that right on the part of signatory states is tangential, at best.

monica_salazar_interview_david_harveyRight: Former student Monica Salazar interviews David Harvey on Gentrification and Habitat III.

In the eyes of the beholder

In an interview (in Spanish) conducted by former student Monica Salazar and Marc Marti with David Harvey earlier this year for FLASCO, Harvey described Habitat III’s position as neoliberal. “We are increasingly concentrating our efforts on building cities for people to invest in, rather than for people to live in.”

He continues, “The term [right to the city] has been stripped of its meaning, and it depends on who fills it with meaning for the concept to gain importance. Developers could co-opt it to develop the way they want to. The rich in Manhattan also have the right to the city; they basically don’t want to see poor people in their areas. Others want to live in gated communities; they say it’s their right to live in safe and secure areas. These are the things we should be discussing in forums like Habitat III, looking at privileged areas to those being marginalized and impoverished by the current model of development. In this sense, we need to work towards a meaningful definition of the right to the city in order to improve the future of our cities and their inhabitants.”

Walking the talk

Harvey is just one of a number of high-profile urban thinkers that have criticized Habitat III at parallel alternative forums like Resistencia Habitat3 and Hacia Un Habitat 3 Alternativo (Toward an Alternative Habitat 3), where RTC was the central talking point. Both academics and activists expressed a lack of faith in the conference for having failed to deliver on its past promises, and called on world leaders for clear paths towards the implementation of the NUA’s so-called commitments. But most of all, they demanded an equal role for civil society in negotiations at Habitat III, a platform that Joseph Schechla of Habitat International Coalition told Citiscope was “essentially a government-dominated spectacle.”

francesca-perry_guardianFences protect the main Habitat 3 site. ©Francesca Perry via the Guardian

If the venue itself was any indication — billoards that read “Inclusive Cities” clung to a wire security fence that kept local residents and protesters at bay — activists like Schechla may have a point. One can only hope that the unfortunate irony doesn’t play out on the ground.

So is the NUA’s mention-in-passing of the Right to the City something to celebrate?

Shivani Chaudhry of the Housing and Land Rights Network in India says it’s not enough. Slamming Habitat III for its  failure to adopt a human rights approach, she says “this is not the time for states to dilute existing international legal and human rights obligations… The world cannot wait another twenty years (for Habitat IV) to get this right.”

Still, others are hopeful. Nelson Saule of the Global Platform on the Right to the City says it’s a step in the right direction. He told Citiscope: “Considering the circumstances today, where member states are less and less committed to rights, it’s a victory.”

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