Quito, Habitat III

Quito, Habitat III


Dear IHP Cities Community

Greetings from Quito!

For the week of 15 – 20 October, 2016, Sonny Singh (NYC Launch Coordinator) and I attended the third United Nations Habitat Conference in Quito, Ecuador. Nearly 40 000 delegates from all over the world converged in Quito: urbanists, academics, activists, and representatives of the member states who ended the conference by signing the New Urban Agenda. In addition to the 1000 events scheduled in four days during the official program, there were at least two counter-events, organised at nearby universities with agenda items designed to critique the dominant discourse of the official Habitat III conference.

Sonny and I spent the week rushing between sessions at all of these, trying to absorb as much as we could, meet as many people working on areas near and dear the to IHP Cities program’s heart, and learn about this event and the process which will set the backdrop for urban policy making for at least the next two decades.

In this letter, I will share with you some of the main experiences we had this week – from learning from the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, to attending a lecture by David Harvey in the San Roque Mercado, to watching a discussion between Saskia Sassen, Ricky Burdett, Richard Sennet and Joan Clos, as they launched the Quito Papers, a contemporary answer to Le Corbusier’s Athens Charter – a document which they hope will respond to the urgent needs of cities today, and guide policy makers in how they attempt to address these.

The history of Habitat

The UN Habitat conference happens once every 20 years. The first of these events, held 40 years ago in 1976 in Vancouver (Habitat I), was convened in recognition of the need for collective, global strategies to ensure that rapid urbanisation resulted in cities of opportunity, access and health, as opposed to chaotic centres where urban citizens’ lives were truncated and opportunities stifled. The conference brought together great thinkers (for example Buckminster Fuller and Margaret Mead), heads of state, city leaders, NGOs, and activists from all over the world. The learning at this conference was simple: Cities all over the world faced comparable challenges, and especially in the developing world, were ill-equipped to deal with the rapid and compounding growth they were sure to face.

Habitat I resulted in the ratification of a document called the Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements. Reading this document today, one is struck by two things – first, how similar it is to the document which has just been ratified at Habitat III, the New Urban Agenda. A brief scan of the Vancouver Declaration quickly reveals just how old the ‘New’ Urban Agenda in fact is: It contains the same core tenets and commitments and the recognition that adequate shelter is a basic human right, which governments have an obligation to provide. The second thing that strikes one about the Vancouver Declaration is a clear sense of panic amongst the participants, as if they have only just realised how very ill-equipped they are to deal with the future of cities, a sense of foreboding conveyed by language intended to inspire confidence: “Mankind,” the writers assert, “must not be daunted by the scale of the task ahead.”

In 1996, the world reconvened to assess their progress on these issues, this time in Istanbul, for Habitat II. Here again, world leaders and thinkers recognised the crises of cities, especially in the developing world, and once again affirmed their commitment to the idea that housing is a human right. In a move symptomatic of the dominant economic thinking of the time, the solutions posed in the Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements rested heavily on the promise of public-private partnerships:

We reaffirm our commitment to the full and progressive realization of the right to adequate housing as provided for in international instruments. To that end, we shall seek the active participation of our public, private and non-governmental partners at all levels to ensure legal security of tenure, protection from discrimination and equal access to affordable, adequate housing for all persons and their families.”

Also present in this document, is a strong faith in the market as the mechanism which was best placed to deliver on the right to adequate housing:

“We shall work to expand the supply of affordable housing by enabling markets to perform efficiently and in a socially and environmentally responsible manner, enhancing access to land and credit and assisting those who are unable to participate in housing markets.”

It was the consequences of this faith in the free market as the instrument which would deliver housing and opportunity to all urban citizens, which were most present in the discussions at Habitat III in Quito, in 2016.

UN Habitat Human Settlements Officer, Fernanda Lonardoni, opened the special session on housing by describing the current situation: In all cities in the developing world, affordable housing is inadequate, and adequate housing is unaffordable; cities face ever increasing demand for housing, which they are incapable of supplying; informal settlements are increasing exponentially, far too rapidly for cities to provide services; the financial system excludes millions of people; and millions of people are evicted from their homes without consultation or compensation. The immediate impact of this is a crisis not just of housing, but also of human existence – the urban poor live between 15 and 20 years less than the urban rich.  Geoffrey Payne, a world-renowned housing expert, followed by saying that

Market forces have left governments at their mercy – they have no more power. We now live in a world of great inequality, dominated by markets, which are accountable to no one”.

#Maketheshift. Housing. It’s a human right!

Leilani Farha is the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, and was perhaps the most prominent voice at Habitat III on the need for a drastic paradigm shift in the way in which we understand housing. On the final day of the conference, she launched the campaign #Maketheshift, which calls for a globally coordinated platform to change the way the world thinks about housing: from thinking of it as a commodity to recognising it as a human right.

It is telling, that 40 years after the UN and member states officially ratified the Vancouver Declaration, which clearly asserts that adequate human shelter is a basic human right, the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing is launching a ‘new’ campaign with this simple message: Housing is a right and not a commodity. It is indicative of how powerful and pervasively common sensical the inverse of this statement has become in the decades since 1976.

pic2This story of how housing came to be commonly understood as a commodity, like any other commodity, and what that means for urban citizens, is a familiar one for IHP Cities students who begin grappling with this question in New York. During the launch, students are first exposed to questions of systemic exclusion, gentrification, and the failure of the real estate market to provide adequate housing for all. Here is a photograph of the board during the housing synthesis session in August this year:

Students follow this question throughout the three other cities, witnessing in all of them the phenomenon we heard described over and over again at Habitat III – property market speculation creating intense wealth for a small urban elite, and a growing social group of homeless or precariously homed people on the other end of the socio-economic spectrum.

We heard testimony from all corners of the world—stories of evictions, insecure tenure,  urban land grabs, the rapid privatisation of urban land, and concentrated accumulation of ownership of large proportions of cities by a very small group of individuals and corporations—where the property rights of an elite business class were consistently prioritised over the human rights of a growing underclass. It was gratifying to hear that this core discussion in the learning cycle about housing for the Cities program, has also been deemed by the UN Special Rapporteur to be the most critical issue facing cities today:

pic3“the most pressing issues in cities today are housing issues. We have to start seeing housing issues as human rights issues linked to the most profound of human rights like the right to life. I have seen in my work, people clinging to life by a thread. Housing issues are human rights issues which need human rights responses”.

The ambitious new campaign aims to pressure policy makers and politicians to approach all city management decisions from the perspective that the right to housing is a basic human right – an approach which would radically alter the trajectory of cities today.

Adam Vaughn, a Canadian MP present at the campaign launch – drew attention not only to national and city-level policies, but also to global trade agreements which prioritise the rights of capital interests over the human rights of citizens. Addressing the resistance to this approach which he anticipates, he exhorted us to reconsider the way we think about the crisis in housing globally: “Housing is not the problem. Housing is the tool which solves all the problems.”

Inclusive Cities, the Informal Market and The Right to the City

One of the core messages of the NUA is that cities need to be inclusive in order to be economically successful and socially just. This idea was articulated in many ways by different participants, but perhaps most convincingly by WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing) –a global network of organised informal economy workers – including street vendors, waste pickers and home-based workers.

WIEGO presented the findings of their Inclusive Cities Project and their message was clear and simple: informal workers contribute significantly and productively to national and city economies, and it is in everyone’s interest to support them. Despite this, representatives from India, Ghana and Brazil shared stories of stigmatisation, harassment and punitive legal frameworks which undermined their ability to create livelihoods in their cities.

These women spoke about the critical need to organise informal workers, how the nature of informal labor made organising for collective bargaining and negotiation a particular challenge, but that it could be done, as had been demonstrated by the WIEGO project to mobilise informal workers internationally.

Common in their narratives was a disjuncture which is familiar to IHP Cities students – between ideas about what it means to be a ‘global city’ and what it means for a city to be alive, just and a space of opportunity and access for all its citizens. In other words, a question deeply embedded in the IHP Cities program – who has the right to the city?

The irony of this was not lost on us.  Like all major international events that are hosted in the developing world, Habitat III was preceded by a ‘cleansing’ of the city’s homeless and street vendors in the area surrounding the conference, in order to make way for the global world citizens who would attend the event. The area surrounding the conference venue was heavily securitised, guarded by highly visible police, military and private security, and roads were closed and guarded for several blocks around the venue. To enter Habitat III, you had to register, a process which required state-issued ID and waiting in line for hours.

pic4The lines to go through security screening wound through a beautiful urban park, with children’s playgrounds and a market. On the day after the conference, we saw workers removing these structures. They had been put up only for the conference, and despite the fact that hundreds of local children had come to play on them everyday, they were removed when the visitors left.

Inside the conference, food was supplied by upmarket chains – for upmarket prices. A cup of coffee inside the venue cost the same as a 15 minute cab ride outside. Ecuadorian street food is delicious, varied, plentiful and cheap. It seems both a missed opportunity, and a lack of commitment to the vision of the NUA, that street traders were cleared out, and chains brought in.

Human Rights vs. Property Rights in the Global Economic System

David Harvey spoke twice during the week, both times in events that were scheduled as part of the resistance to Habitat III.

The first time we saw him speak, we travelled into the old city to the San Roque Market for an event entitled “Popular Markets and Social Metabolism in Cities” The event consisted of two panel discussions focusing on the role of popular markets and informal sector food/produce vendors in Latin American cities like Quito. After hearing directly from several local, indigenous organizers about the struggles they are up against with the state as well as big corporations like supermarkets, Harvey and three graduate students from the New School discussed their research on popular markets like San Roque.

They explained how the majority of money coming in to vendors at markets like this one stay in the very indigenous communities that produce the food—while food producers and growers see a tiny fraction of the profit brought in by sales at supermarket chains like SuperMaxi, which are rapidly growing in popularity in Ecuador.

David Harvey spoke about the threats that Mercado San Roque, as well as other markets like it in addition to street vendors, face in Quito and other major cities around the world. Harvey asserted:

“Planners here in Quito are trying to cleanse the city of the indigenous. They think this is modernization. But this actually creates a dead city.”

The land San Roque is on is very valuable to the city and developers, and there is talk of building a large hotel there. He asked us to imagine a Quito without the market. To imagine walking around the historic center of the city without a single indigenous street vendor selling corn, empanadas, or pastries.

Harvey explained how he had seen this happen to many other cities around the world and how devastating the results are: not only for the populations and/or businesses “cleansed” or gentrified out, but for the very character and feeling of a city. These cities, in a sense, lose their souls through this process of so-called development and modernization, and he fears that Quito could be next.

Harvey and his students’ message was one of getting to the underlying structural root of the problem: He said:

“Cities are now being built on commercial principles. We’re building cities for people to invest in, but not for people to live in. This is what capitalism does. If you want to change it, you have to change capital.”

The second time we saw him speak was at the Universidad Central, where he received an honorary professorship. The content of this talk was very different to the one at the market-  it was pure economic urban theory.  Despite this, the lecture hall was literally stampeded by hundreds of students eager to hear him speak, who packed the seats and the corridors, and listened intently for two hours while he delivered his lecture in English, with translation. For Sonny and I, this was deeply instructive – that here in Quito, a political economist-geographer was held by college students in as much esteem as a rock star! We are hoping Sonny will be able to secure him as a guest speaker for our upcoming NYC launches.

Harvey’s talk was dense and complex – in essence, he put forward a political economy analysis of what everyone at Habitat III had been discussing from a policy perspective: What happens when the market is allowed to distribute housing and land rights in cities? Instead of focusing on what happened to urban citizens, however, Harvey picked apart the impact of cities on the economic system, and how cities, when regulated only by the the free market, essentially bolster and sustain global capitalism.

Harvey’s argument was that capitalism has always saved itself from crisis by mass reorganisation of the built environment. His example here was China’s recent massive urbanisation and inter-city infrastructure drive, which according to Harvey, created an over-accumulation of value in China, which was then exported globally, and saved global capitalism from the financial crisis which would otherwise have brought it to its knees.

For Harvey, what is happening today in cities can only be explained by understanding how capitalism has seen the rise of merchant capitalism over industrial capitalism to: Industrial capitalists make the value in the poorest countries in the world, and merchant capitalists realise this value in the most developed parts of the world. The example he gave here was Apple products – their value is made in China, but realised in the West – and it is far more profitable to realise value than it is to make it.

In a similar pattern, bankers have realised that it is far more profitable to lend people money to speculate on land or to buy houses. This means, money is not necessarily flowing back into production, and more and more value is produced which is not absorbed by productive activity. This, for Harvey, explains the way in which investments are flowing into urbanization today:

 “The main flow of capital is into the form of urbanization which is creating investment opportunities for people, rather than creating a decent living environment for the population. The best sign of this is the global crisis of affordable housing. In New York City, 50% of the population is in a housing crisis, and yet NYC is experiencing the biggest construction boom in history. One of the biggest incentives for this form of urbanisation is groups of investors: at the point of distribution, we now have bond holders who want more places to put their money. We have to rethink the dynamics of capital in the contemporary era. We cannot talk about urban futures, without also talking about the future of capitalism.”

The Quito Papers: From dreams to nightmares and back again.

pic5A few years ago, Joan Clos, the Executive director of UN Habitat (and former Mayor of Barcelona) , Saskia Sassen, Richard Sennet, and Ricky Burdett, all old friends and colleagues, had a discussion about the Athen’s Charter, and its 96 point ‘recipe’ for a good city. They decided it was time to revisit this document, which still has such enormous sway in thinking about how to create cities today. The result of this revisiting, is a new document – the Quito Papers, launched at Habitat III. Sennet opened the discussion at the launch with the following statement:

“In the 1930s, a group of architects, led by Le Corbusier, developed a 96 point charter for building ‘good’ cities. The Athens Charter, as it came to be known, was written mostly on a boat, by people fleeing from World War Two. These people had a dream – that a city could work and function like a marvellous, well-oiled machine. Today, that dream has turned into a nightmare. It has served as the blueprint for destroying cities. The city has become simplified into a set of forms that are both oppressive and exclusive to the vast numbers of people who need access.”

 The nightmare which Richard Sennet is describing here, is the strong and pervasive influence of modernist, functionalist thinking in urban planning which is still shaping cities, especially new cities in the developing world, according to Le Corbusier’s vision of a clean, orderly, rational, hyper-planned and perfectly executed urban space.

Sennet, who is married to Saskia Sassen, grew up in one of le Corbusier’s creations – an enormous and notorious tower in Chicago, which has since been torn down, so he knows first hand the deadening and oppressive potential of this approach to city planning. Burdett and Sennet showed slide after slide of the manifestation of Le Corbusier’s vision – tall buildings, surrounded by empty space, on the edges of cities all over the world.

IHP Cities students first encounter this tension in urban theory and how it plays out in the built environment in New York City, where they trace the ideological battle between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, and the tangible, lasting legacy which that battle has left on the city.

Sennet’s contribution to the Quito Papers draws heavily on systems theory, and posits that we need to start seeing and designing cities not just as systems – but as open systems. The three characteristics of an open system are: complexity, incompleteness and porosity. According to Sennet, we need to acknowledge that we do not really understand how complexity is generated, but that it is essential to the healthy functioning of a city. Complexity, he says, is created by many different things happening at the same time, and different, disparate functions which do not fit neatly together, happening at the same time and somehow creating synergy. His example here was Nehru Place in Delhi, where intense complexity is created and sustained by synchronicity and simultaneity.

Incompleteness in design, is for Sennet, the secret to creating cities that are imbued not only with the wisdom and perspective of top-down design, but also with the living, breathing, responsive design needs of urban inhabitants. The example he gave here was Aravena’s half-houses – the revolutionary architectural design innovation which has allowed Chile to roll out huge quantities of cheap social housing. Half houses, like all good urban design, according to Sennet, carry an incomplete DNA of development – they trigger the start of a process, but do not determine its end. Thus, Sennet says, as planners, we need to ask not how do we plan complete cities, but how do we build shells that can be finished by urban citizens, according to their individual needs, exigencies and desires.

For Sennet, “the open city is as far from Le Corbusier’s shining engine as it is possible to be”. The new cities built on Le Corbusier’s model, are closed systems. There is no room for innovation or responsiveness. Complexity cannot be generated in these closed systems, and when large portions are owned by single corporations, the potential for porosity, innovation, creativity and complexity are even more stunted. To remedy this, these thinkers argue, we must diminish the power of planning. As Joan Clos said

The plan does not make the city, the city is made by the interaction between ideas and people. The city is a political artefact, not a technical artefact.”

While Sennet and Clos make a plea for designing open cities, Sassen addresses the impact of the processes described by David Harvey, and argues that cities first need to be reclaimed:

“To talk about the city means to talk about a massive loss of habitat. Over the years, small farmers have been systematically displaced, and they go to the slums on the edges of cities. In this process – we lose the knowledge of people who have known for generations how to create life from land, and we create slum-dwellers. In the city, we see the same process happening, with trillions of dollars spent on buying up urban land, not for homes, but for investment, the consequence of which is the mass displacement of urban citizens.

And here, Sassen begins to make the argument which Jane Jacobs may have disagreed with. The authors of the Quito Papers, whilst championing the need for urban citizens to play a role in the designing, making and planning of their urban spaces, also recognise that there is, now more than ever, an urgent need for regulation, for some kind of top-down vision and implementation – and that that higher power cannot be the free market.

Sennet, who was friends with Jane Jacobs, told a story of a disagreement the two of them had. At a time when schools in America were being forced to desegregate racially, Jacobs was opposed to this intervention. She felt that you could not force people to change their prejudices and politics, and attempting to do so was counterproductive. Sennet firmly disagreed, saying that despite the top-down nature of this intervention, social good would come of it. In this early disagreement between friends, lies the seed of the main argument put forward by the Quito Papers:

Cities need to be regulated, in particular, the property market must be guided by a human rights approach, and not a profit-making one. There must be planning – planning, which as Sennet said of the desegregation laws “imposed on people to live better”.  But plans for the built environment must be designs for open systems, not closed ones – they need to leave room for urban citizens to breathe their own life into their cities, to adapt them, to change them, to make them their own.

What now for IHP Cities post Quito 2016?

Over the next months, I will be reworking several elements of the IHP Cities Program to ensure that our students are engaging with the New Urban Agenda, and part of the historic moment in which it has become the over-arching policy for urban development.

Our students are well placed to monitor its implementation in seven cities in the world, and, if they are to leave college and work in the urban development arena, they will need to be well-versed in this critical document and the challenges it will face in realising its ideals.

These program revisions will include:

  • a proposal to Leilani Farha for our students to generate video material to support the UN’s #Maketheshift campaign, documenting the stories of people in each of the seven cities which IHP Cities works in who are living the consequences of failed housing policies.
  • a rethinking of student research assignments to focus on the implementation challenges of the NUA.
  • Redesigning syllabi to ensure that both the NUA and the Quito Papers become part of the core IHP Cities curriculum.
  • Working with country coordinators to ensure that programs are positioned so as to examine the impact of the NUA in practice.
  • Connecting our coordinators, alumni and students to the multiple people and organisations we forged connections with.

pic6A huge thank you to World Learning’s professional development fund, as well as the IHP Fund, which made our attendance in Quito possible.

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