Habitat II Baby, Habitat III Bathwater


substantive debate toward the 2016 Habitat III Conference
is warming up. The disappointment that states earlier expressed at PrepCom2 (Nairobi, April 2015) for slow
progress in producing the draft material for the outcome document has subsided.
The rich content of 22 Issue Papers, so far, has superseded some of the discussion
over process and defined the emerging contours of the new Habitat Agenda.
Beyond that visible horizon, however, lie several content, methodology, process
and ideological concerns that remain to be reconciled in advance of the
crowning October 2016 event at Quito, Ecuador.

this writing, the Issue Papers (in
English) on 22 habitat themes under six broad headings have been published and
vetted through an e-discussion that concluded on 31 July. That
conversation will carry on now in other forms, forums and mechanisms, including
the corresponding Policy Units of volunteer experts and numerous public events
that span the coming year. This review of the Issue Papers prognosticates many
features of that ensuing debate that the Issue Papers and other official
Habitat III messaging have provoked, either by their content, or by their very

Method, Content

Issue Papers identify many challenges, threats and opportunities in human
settlement development in the coming 20 years of Habitat III implementation.
The current generation of Habitat International Coalition (HIC), which civic
initiative sprang out of Habitat I (1976),
has reviewed the 22 thematic papers as an indicator of the current discourse,
finding them to be “essential reading.” At the same time, HIC has cautioned
that anything short of wide and effective participation in the debate and a
review of Habitat II commitments would
render the Habitat III process in doubt. Those two indispensable values still
remain at stake.

HIC position arises not from some nostalgic attachment to the spirit and
content of that participatory, principled and productive Habitat II, 20 years
ago, but from standard evaluation practice in any development effort. Like the
official Habitat III messaging, overall, the Issue Papers make little mention
of the current Habitat Agenda. In fact, that subject of inquiry is made
majestic only by its conspicuous absence.

22 Issue Papers have demanded a great deal of time and resources from many
concerned parties. Even if it means running the risk of Issue Paper fatigue, a
parallel evaluative reporting process is equally essential. The review of the
Habitat II commitments and the assessment of their implementation areglocal, required both at global and
local levels. The 22 Issue Papers reflect the global and thematic perspective,
but largely without mentioning what went before.

the long-promised National Habitat Reports would
be the natural locus of that inquiry in the local context. However, the
UN-Habitat national reporting criteria have disregarded the
Habitat II commitments. As a whole, the 22 new Issue Papers faithfully uphold
that amnesiac approach.

official approach to Habitat III is managing the headlong discourse so as to
capture the latest technical knowledge in a field self-acclaimed as “urban.”
Since the early internal discussions within UN-Habitat, this has been branded
as aiming toward a “New Urban Agenda.” However, any review of what has gone
before in the two rounds and 40 years of global habitat policy reveals that
this mislabels the intended broader content and scope.

= urban +

consistent with the omission of the standing commitments, the Papers still do
not justify narrowing the subject to only an “urban” agenda. The principles and
issues laid out in the Issue Papers actually make a strong conceptual case for
restoring the “Habitat” Agenda’s inclusivity. If forty years of commitments
bear any relevance to, or integrity with the present process, the core Habitat II promise
of “balanced rural and urban development” should be remembered (Habitat II
Agenda, ( ¶43k, 75, 76m, 107, 109, 126, 156, 163–69).

to popular demand, the Issue Papers included No. 10 on Urban-Rural Linkages. However, even that iteration makes no
mention of the corresponding Habitat II commitments or their outstanding
implementation status today. Nonetheless, in light of the Issue Papers as a
whole, the exclusively “urban” Habitat III messaging and approach—in both word
and deed—appear more and more untenable as a global policy premise or
functional reality. In the Papers 1 –Inclusive Cities and
10 – Urban-rural Linkages, even Paper 8 – Urban and Spatial Planning and Design, the more-inclusive
“habitat” approach is evident and unavoidable. In this sense, the narrative of
the Papers does not change the practical imperative of more-integrated human
settlement planning and administration, but indicates that Habitat III branding
has to comply.

democracy and human rights?

Issue Papers also confirm the abandonment of the normative and human rights
approach of foregone habitat policy theory. The two quintessential
contributions of Habitat II were its committed approach to both human rights
and good governance. While the Habitat II Agenda cited the human right to
adequate housing (HRAH) 61 times throughout the consensus document, no Issue
Paper treats the prolific normative development of HRAH since 1996.

the states and other stakeholders at Habitat II pledged that democratic local
authorities would be “our closest partners” in implementation (Istanbul
Declaration, ¶ 12). In 2015, both HIC and United Cities and Local Governments
(UCLG) had to remind Issue Paper 6 – Urban Governance readers
of that established principle and that Habitat III has to put local democracy
at the heart of the new agenda. The relevant Issue Paper does cite the Habitat
II reference to “local democratic rule,” but does not elaborate on either the
specificity offered in the current Habitat Agenda or the exponential
development of the theory and practice of “the right to the
” and related movements ever since. UCLG argues that

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. 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 level.”

“Slum Problem”

UN-Habitat-led Issue Paper 22 –Informal Settlements discussion
has not made sufficient reference to foregoing Habitat II commitments, nor has
it kept up with the forensic times. It avoids the policy-related genesis of
slums and defers to circumstantial, secondary factors for the formation of slum
communities. A hint of causality arises from the Paper’s admission that
governments have been disengaging from the provision of affordable housing, but
the concomitant privatization, real-estate speculation and financialization, as
well as UN-Habitat’s neoliberal policy advice, are not acknowledged factors (p.

attempting to identify the genesis of slums or the factors that necessitate
them, Paper 22 picks up the story in the middle, purveying the pathology of
slums and observing that they “affect prosperity of cities and their
sustainability,” as if informal settlements in cities are alien and extraneous
encumbrances (p. 4). A corrective view has been expressed by Egypt’s current
Minister of Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements when debunking a suggested
contradiction between urban renewal and informal settlements. She noted that
“Cairo is two-thirds informal neighborhoods. So if we’re going to talk about
the formal part of the city or the informal part, it’s one city.”

22 refers to “unjustified evictions,” but omits their human rights
classification as a gross violation, the need to criminalize the practice, the
Habitat II commitment to “protect from and remedy” forced evictions (H2: ¶ 40n,
61b, 98b) and the entitlements of reparations in their event. These normative points
are still needed to cover informal settlements at all.

Papers also would benefit from recognition of the need to implement the human
right to participation and the related entitlement to free, prior and informed
consent (FPIC) in cases of development, in general, and slum upgrading,
in particular. If the human rights method conscientiously had been applied, the
gender component also would not be missing in the Paper, but instead note that
the impacts of inadequate living conditions are most severe for women.

Urbanist Ideology

the Papers avoid calling all ominous and life-degrading human-settlement
phenomena as “inevitable,” the assumption nonetheless prevails throughout the
Papers that certain trends are irreversible and remain immune to any prospect
of mitigating them, except for only their direst consequences. Examples are the
predicted three-fold territorial enlargement of urbanization (cities) by 2030, the
burgeoning growth in population, the continued destruction of the atmosphere et al. The Papers identify these looming
problems and note current and needed innovations. However, they do not cover
structural obstacles, but conclude with apparent serenity at current trends in
technical adjustments to ensure some measure of urban comfort for those who can
afford them.

body of Issue Papers reveals the need also for an additional Issue Paper on
population trends (growth, ageing, youth bulge) and related global and
state-level policies (or lack thereof). That would complete the picture and
address some of the causes and consequences behind the looming assumption that
current trends are, perforce, immutable. The global challenges of (1) eliminating disparity and (2) accountability for
injustice and its manifestations (e.g., forced eviction) are lost amid the
technical detail.

policies are not mentioned at all, despite the repeated Habitat II commitment
to take that decisive factor into consideration in all related fields of
policy, housing affordability, finance, land tenure,et al (H2:
¶ 40, 62, 65, 67, 115, 186, 189, 201). The apparent ease at abandoning such visionary
Habitat II commitments has weakened the otherwise-valuable content of the Issue
Papers and the Habitat III discourse, in general. That omission is also
creating the need to reinvent the wheel of Habitat issues, with all the
cognitive and cost inefficiencies that that process implies.

“Everything already has been
thought of before, one just has to try to think of it again.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


the Issue Papers could not conceivably cover all relevant issues, they largely
have succeeded to identify many, while catalyzing debate around both those
issues and the ones left out. Although they mostly have omitted any reference
to, or evaluation of Habitat II commitments that theoretically still are in
effect, the Papers have pointed out important trends that a Habitat Agenda
observer can interpret. However, any faithful review and updating of the
sustainable human settlement agenda must not throw out the Habitat II baby with
so much Habitat III bathwater.

all of the recent Issue Papers and the further discourse would benefit from a
regimen of both maintaining integrity with, and challenging Habitat II issues
and commitments adopted in 1996. The apparent structural forgetfulness about
what went before is closely related to the other gaps wanting to be filled: The
Papers succeed in presenting problems and posing solutions; however, they need
a greater emphasis on root causes and the normative aspect of remedial
responses, including the applicable international norms—not least including
Habitat II commitments—that would cure, prohibit, seek to prevent and/or avoid
many of the problems identified. The debate still faces the need to ask—and
answer—those hanging questions: What caused this? Shouldn’t there be a law?
What are the consequences for people? Who is responsible for the remedy?

the Habitat III Issue Papers are indispensable reading for the rich descriptive
and analytical substance they contain, these other issues remain on the table,
conspicuous by their absence. The needed debate over standing commitments and
curative responses still needed eventually would propel the importance,
relevance and legitimacy of the Habitat III processes. The coming phase of
Habitat III discourse could achieve that tall order through the rigorous
deliberation that should ensue. We also rely on the constructive inputs of
inveterate HIC Members and officers, along with the contributions of fellow
civil society and local-democracy partners, to complete the story toward a
serious New Habitat Agenda in 2016.

Download HIC Comments on Habitat III Issue Papers

10 August 2015


2000, Joseph Schechla has coordinated the Cairo-based global and Middle East/North Africa programs
of the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) of Habitat International Coalition. The Coalition was founded at
Habitat I, in Vancouver (1976) as the civic movement supporting the Habitat
Agenda. The purpose of HLRN, within HIC, is to build the capacity of civil
society organizations to specialize in economic, social and cultural rights,
particularly the human rights to adequate housing, water and land, and apply
human rights methodology in research, programming and advocacy, including in
cooperation with UN mechanisms and forums.