The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Since 2009, The Global Urbanist has been the forum for writers seeking to progress the agenda for international cooperation on our cities. Now we set the agenda for the Third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development to be held in June 2016.


What the Habitat III Agenda fails to consider

In June 2016, the United Nations will convene Habitat III, which will set the agenda for international cooperation on urban issues for the next 20 years. In the first of two articles addressing this agenda, we argue that the agenda currently on the table comprises several serious omissions, including any acknowledgement that conflict routinely arises in urban areas and must be addressed in an equally routine manner.

Cities: London

Topics: City politics, Poverty and inequality, Social conflict, The global urban agenda, The road to Habitat III

Recent protests in Turkish and Brazilian cities should be enough to remind any national government that conflicts always arise over the direction our cities should take, and that the Habitat III Agenda should promote mechanisms to resolve such conflict in a routine manner for the benefit of all urban constituencies. Photo: Eser Karadağ (CC BY-ND 2.0)
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The Habitat III conference to be held in 2016 will set the agenda for international cooperation on urban issues for the next 20 years. At the behest of UN-Habitat, national governments around the world have established National Habitat Committees, which are currently formulating their visions for this "New Urban Agenda", and reporting on the progress made on urban issues in their countries in the 20 years since the Habitat II Agenda was set in 1996.

National Habitat Committees have been advised to draft their contributions according to guidelines set out in a document entitled Guidelines and Format for the Preparation of National Reports (hereafter the Guidelines). While these Guidelines aim to be comprehensive, with responses requested on thirty issues across six key topics, it is important that guidelines presented in this way do not cause National Habitat Committees to lapse into tick-a-box thinking, especially with each of the thirty items allotted equal weighting. A sufficient or indeed a "new" urban agenda will not arise simply by responding on each item at face value and leaving it at that. Committees need to read between the lines of the thirty items and discern for themselves what important issues relevant to their own national contexts may be missing. We urge committees to develop their own individual visions for the future of their cities above and beyond the items expressed in the Guidelines, and impress this vision upon the texture of their own National Habitat Reports, speaking out where the Guidelines have been silent.

The Global Urbanist has produced this briefing to assist National Habitat Committees to do just that, which we are publishing in these two articles and as a single PDF linked into the byline at the bottom of this page. This briefing also draws attention to priority areas which might otherwise be overlooked by this process, whether because the organisations involved do not have the mandates necessary to address these areas, because of lack of awareness in particular circles, or for any other reason.

Its central message is that while we might wish that urban development efforts are always "win-win" for all affected constituencies, this is rarely true in reality. The New Urban Agenda has a responsibility to acknowledge those who frequently "lose out" during such efforts by providing mechanisms at the local, national and international levels to make the protection and enforcement of their rights and entitlements a routine matter, for the betterment of development outcomes for all constituencies affected by such efforts. Should National Habitat Committees find this briefing of such value, they are invited to consider including some or all of this briefing, as presented here or in modified form, within the body of their National Habitat Reports or as attached additional material, and we will be able to help with this if desired. To this end we are publishing this briefing under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence, on condition that appropriate credit is given to The Global Urbanist and that our intellectual contribution is not misrepresented.

Gaps in the agenda

The extent to which important issues might be missing from the agenda implied by the Guidelines may be seen if one considers the type of approach they embody. It should be fairly clear that the Guidelines embody a technocratic approach to urban development, in which progress is sought largely through the application of technical expertise. It invites committees to consider a plethora of issues in the areas of planning, environment, transport, housing, etc., but without explicit attention paid to the interactions between these sectors. This is typical of an approach seen throughout local governments and the international development industry in which urban areas are considered no greater than the sum of their parts, and development efforts within urban areas reduced to a smattering of individual interventions enacted from within sectoral "silos". The problem with this approach is the frequent failure to acknowledge that within urban areas the contributions made by each technical sector must be planned, developed and deployed simultaneously and in close cooperation to succeed in the long term, just as they are for new projects in the world's most developed cities.

When sectoral interventions in cities proceed in isolation, they often come undone in the face of the conflicts and tensions that arise between them. This is partly because the technocratic approach fails to recognise the nature of cities as political spaces. Here we mean political in its broadest sense — the acknowledgement that cities above all comprise differences of opinion, the conflicting priorities of diverse stakeholders, and the potential for misalignments between their interests. In contrast to the technocratic approach which attempts to overlook or discount these conflicts, the political approach to urban development issues seeks achievement precisely through the democratic and participatory resolution of these different concerns. The technocratic approach remains a very necessary component of urban development efforts, and the issues raised within the Guidelines are still of great importance to the success of cities. But they do neglect another entire sphere of action within which development efforts must be applied to fulfil any urban agenda, namely the political sphere.

Cities are the sites of perennial social and political debate, of tensions between the needs and interests of the different stakeholders and constituencies they comprise. Some of these arise at the most primordial levels of political discourse, for example the recognition of different constituencies' civil and civic rights, the equitable distribution of public assets and public investment, the management of natural resources, and the preservation of different communities' identities. Thankfully this only occasionally erupts into violent conflict, which this briefing is not particularly concerned with. Nevertheless it is important to understand that conflicts of some form are always inherent to urban areas, and that addressing these is a permanent component of urban development efforts. Policy mechanisms must exist at the local, national and international levels to make resolving such conflicts sustainably and equitably a routine matter, so as to improve development outcomes for all constituencies affected by such efforts. And we are concerned that this urgent necessity is not reflected at all in the Guidelines offered to national governments.

It is understood that international organisations such as UN-Habitat do not have the mandate to address matters of domestic politics, which such conflicts usually are. But we would also argue that it will prove impossible to construct any (new) urban agenda without addressing this political dimension of cities. This is because unresolved political conflicts in urban areas have massive detrimental impacts on the efficiency of other, more technocratic urban develoopment efforts, such as the effectiveness of spatial planning, the financing of investments in housing, infrastructure and services, and the growth and performance of urban economies. These conflicts and tensions may be found to arise in very similar manners in cities throughout the world, indicating that a strong global policy framework is needed to help all cities understand and deal with these realities successfully. It becomes imperative that the New Urban Agenda be one that acknowledges both technocratic and political challenges, and that each National Habitat Committee play a role in ensuring that it does, in ways that are appropriate to the political challenges arising in their own national contexts.

Winners and losers

Without sensationalising the notion of conflict in urban areas, it is essential that the Habitat III agenda acknowledge the reality that conflict arises frequently within cities, and we would encourage National Habitat Committees to examine their own cities through this lens. Only an approach that acknowledges the political dimension of cities avoids the idle assumption that development efforts are always "win-win" for all and identifies the concrete losses and gains that accrue to the various groups touched by such efforts. The conflicts arising in urban areas, even in the midst of urban development initiatives themselves, always produce at least a few "losers" amongst the "winners", and routinely very many more than a few. There will always be some segment of the population deprived, even if only "temporarily", of the benefits generated by any particular initiative. Any New Urban Agenda must therefore include mechanisms to systematically identify these segments and provide them with systematic means of support, protection and redress during their period of deprivation.

We might all like to believe in the "trickle-down" theory of development, the idea that improving development outcomes for higher- or middle-income constituencies will, in the fullness of time, improve development outcomes for poorer constituencies as well, or in other words that "a rising tide lifts all boats". Yet as we all know, the deprived segments of urban populations are rarely simply "temporarily" deprived — they are very often repeatedly, routinely, frequently, chronically, systematically deprived. Much deprivation of this nature becomes a trap: poorer constituencies find themselves deprived of basic needs, yet by the same token deprived of the resources necessary to satisfy these basic needs by themselves. There is growing evidence that this is a significant global problem, seen in the rising levels of inequality in many urban areas, in the long-term decline of real wages in cities such as those of North America, and in what economists dub the African "urbanisation without growth" phenomenon. The trickle-down effect seems to be trickling down onto a glass ceiling, below which are a growing number of urban citizens in a state of chronic deprivation, never experiencing the benefits of this "trickle".

Discriminatory cities

If the same poor constituencies are repeatedly deprived by processes of urbanisation and urban development, the result is that such cities have become discriminatory against those poor constituencies. This is the phenomenon that we believe has become commonplace today — the phenomenon of the discriminatory city.

This is very much a form of discrimination akin to discrimination against other vulnerable constituencies such as women or ethnic and religious minorities, and produced by very similar processes. In concrete terms, a discriminatory city arises whenever urban development decisions made by governments and other large stakeholders — about public and private investments, spatial planning, the management of resources, etc. — are systematically and persistently biased, consciously or unconsciously, in favour of the immediate needs and interests of higher and middle-income constituencies, and/or against the immediate needs and interests of lower-income constituencies.

We realise that authorities cannot address the interests of all constituencies all the time, but nor can it be acceptable to fail to address the interests of certain same constituencies every time. Especially when these lower-income constituencies make up a plurality or even the majority of a city's population, as they do within many lower- and middle-income countries' cities. To be clear, we are not trying to accuse any particular government or organisation of conscious discrimination against segments of their constituencies, though that accusation may occasionally be levied by various parties. Rather, the phenomenon of the discriminatory city emerges as an outcome of the persistent unresolved conflicts that we allude to above.

To illustrate something of the scale of the issues we are talking about, consider the World Bank, one of the most important organisations involved in supporting urban development efforts internationally. Given their extraordinary intellectual capacities, as well as their frequent implied support of the "trickle-down" theory of development, one might expect that they would be the first to ensure that there are only winners, and no losers, resulting from their efforts. Yet its own internal Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) has determined that even the World Bank's efforts (usually conducted in partnership with national and local governments) have resulted in depriving many vulnerable constituencies of adequate housing, services and livelihoods on a grand scale. As the IEG reported in 2010, "the scale of involuntary resettlement induced by World Bank projects is quite substantial … the resettlement induced each year by new projects affects an average of 166,500 additional persons. Since the resettlement process lasts several years, IEG estimates that at any given time involuntary resettlement affects over 1 million people, two-fifths of which are likely to be physically displaced and three-fifths economically affected by active Bank-financed projects."

Multiply these impacts produced by the World Bank by the activities of all other organisations and governments involved in urban development, and by the various other forms of deprivation that exist, and the number of deprived urban citizens that exist at any one point in time may be counted in the tens of millions, perhaps in the hundreds of millions. This is too significant a proportion of the world's urban population for any New Urban Agenda to ignore.

In the second part of this article we propose how these issues may now be addressed. 


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