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


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.

Logo de la Carta de la Ciudad de México por el Derecho a la Ciudad.

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

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

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.

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 HabitatIIIis 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

[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 HabitatIIIexpert “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

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

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

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.

Isabel Pascual is the communications officer of the Habitat International Coalition (HIC) General Secretariat. HIC originated at Habitat I in 1976 and is a founding member of the Global Platform for the Right to the City.

* Original