Fractured Continuity: Habitat II to Habitat III


Wading through
the knowledge products of the current Habitat process highlights a failure to
account for previous commitments. HIC-HLRN’s Joseph Schechla critiques the
process and content of Habitat III against the criteria forged at Habitat II.

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The substantive debate toward next
year’s Habitat III conference is now warming up. In part,
this has been jumpstarted by the publication, in late May, of a series of “issue papers
written by U. N. and other multilateral agencies to offer a current snapshot of
concerns to be covered in the Habitat III process. A public e-discussion on the papers concluded at the end of

While it would be impossible for the
22 issue papers to cover all relevant issues, they have succeeded in
identifying many. They have also catalyzed debate around these issues as well
as others that were left out of the studies. Yet the issue papers have almost
completely omitted any evaluation of — or, often, even reference to —
commitments that were made at the last Habitat summit, held in 1996 in Istanbul.
Indeed, this is a trend that can be seen in the broader Habitat III messaging,
as well.

The papers do reflect both a global
and thematic perspective, and are clearly the result of a tremendous amount of
effort. Habitat International Coalition (HIC), a civic initiative that sprang
out of Habitat I, which
took place in 1976, sees the issue papers as essential reading. But the papers
offer this perspective largely without mentioning what has come before.

The agreement signed by member states
in Istanbul in 1996, known as the Habitat Agenda (or Habitat II Agenda), technically
remains in force. How have national authorities and international institutions
done on the pledges that made up that agenda in the intervening two decades?
Anything short of a full review of those commitments would render the Habitat III process
in doubt. But as yet, that review has not happened.

Further, governments are currently in
the process of submitting national reports as a key requirement under the Habitat
III process. These would seem to provide a natural forum for inquiry into the
local context of the Habitat Agenda commitments. But again, the criteria for
drawing up these national reports disregard the 1996 pledges.

Amnesiac approach

Let’s look at some examples of this
amnesiac approach from the issue papers themselves.

A first concern involves an apparent
narrowing of the Habitat process to a solely urban agenda. The principles and
issues laid out in the issue papers actually make a strong conceptual case for
continuing the inclusivity of the Habitat Agenda. In this, the core Habitat II promise of “balanced rural and urban
development” should be remembered.

True, the issue papers do include a
study on urban-rural linkages.
However, even that paper makes no mention of the corresponding Habitat II
commitments or of their implementation status today.

Second, the issue papers suggest an
abandonment of the human rights approach of previous Habitat policies. The two
quintessential contributions of Habitat II were its committed approach to both
human rights and good governance. While the Habitat II outcome cited the human
right to adequate housing 61 times, none of the new issue papers addresses the
significant development in this line of thought that has taken place since

Third, the states and other
stakeholders at Habitat II pledged that democratic local authorities would be
“our closest partners” in implementing the Habitat Agenda. Yet this year, HIC
and United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), the global network, were forced
to remind readers of the “Urban Governance
issue paper of that established principle.

True, this paper does cite the
Habitat II reference to “local democratic rule”. But it does not elaborate on
either the specificity offered in the Habitat Agenda or the exponential
development of the theory and practice of related movements such as The Right to the City that has taken place ever since.

“[N]o solution, however technically
sound and well-financed, will be sustainable if it does not have the support
and ownership of the communities in which it is implemented,” UCLG argues. “In order to foster and
strengthen local democracy, the Habitat III Agenda should recognize local
governments as the key agents in constructing democratic legitimacy at local

Fourth, the issue papers often fail
to grapple with underlying causes. Issue paper No. 22,“Informal Settlements”,
for instance, was led by UN-Habitat, the agency that is also leading the
Habitat III process. Again, the paper fails to make sufficient reference to the
related Habitat II commitments, nor has it kept up with the times.

Importantly, the paper also avoids
the policy-related genesis of slums, deferring instead to secondary, often
circumstantial factors in the formation of informal communities. A hint of
causality does arise from the paper’s admission that governments have been
disengaging from the provision of affordable housing. But the impacts of
privatization, real-estate speculation and financialization remain completely

Without even attempting to identify
these factors, “Informal Settlements” picks up the story in the middle. The
paper notes, for instance, that slums “affect prosperity of cities and their
sustainability”, as if informal settlements are extraneous to cities.

A corrective view has been offered by
Laila Iskander, Egypt’s minister of urban renewal and informal settlements.
“Cairo is two-thirds informal neighbourhoods,” she said in a media interview
last year. “So if we’re going to talk about the formal part of the city or the
informal part, it’s one city.”

Macroeconomic policies, meanwhile,
are not mentioned at all throughout the issue papers. That’s despite Habitat
II’s commitment to take this factor decisively into consideration in all
related policies, including around housing affordability, finance, land tenure
and more.

Reinventing the Wheel

Finally, global concerns on some
issues have strengthened since Habitat II took place. Yet worryingly, the issue
papers seem to view some of these trends as irreversible, except perhaps for
perhaps their direst consequences. Examples include the predicted three-fold growth of urbanization by 2030, the
burgeoning population boom and the continued destruction of the Earth’s

While the papers do identify these
looming problems and note current and needed innovations to ameliorate them,
the studies do not cover structural obstacles. Indeed, the 22 issue papers
could do well with an additional standalone report on population trends and
related global and state-level policies.

Still, such a recommendation would
not preclude simply learning from what is already underway. The apparent ease
with which some of the visionary Habitat II commitments are being abandoned
weakens the otherwise valuable content of the issue papers and the Habitat III
discourse in general.

That omission, meanwhile, is creating
the need to reinvent the wheel. Today’s debate remains faced with questions
that began to be answered during Habitat II: What caused this? Shouldn’t there
be a law? What are the consequences for the people? Who is responsible for the

Original source

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Photo: A delegate to the Habitat II
City Conference (1996) walks in front of Istanbul`s Lutfi Kirdar Conference
Centre, flanked with Turkish and UN flags. With preparations now underway for
Habitat III, some are worried that pledges made at the Istanbul summit are
being forgotten. Source: Burhan Ozbilici/AP.