Historic consensus reached on ‘right to the city’ in New Urban Agenda


UNITED NATIONS— A major hurdle has been cleared in the
final negotiations on the New Urban Agenda, the U. N.’s new
20-year urbanization strategy, with governments tentatively reaching a deal on
a controversial concept known as the “right to the city”.

The agenda, which seeks to offer a vision of sustainable cities,
is set to be adopted next month at the Habitat III conference in Quito. This week, diplomats are
scrambling to wrap up agreement on the document before an expected 30,000
people descend on the Ecuadorian capital for the weeklong gathering.

For months, a major sticking point has been on this issue of the
right to the city, a concept that has gained widespread support, particularly
in Latin America, but has not been enshrined in international law. In part,
that tension point is what prompted this week’s unscheduled round of talks.

Now, a compromise agreement would preserve the contentious term in
the draft New Urban Agenda — a historic achievement, say many observers.
However, it would do so by diluting its definition in comparison to what was initially
proposed. Nonetheless, supporters say they’re ready to accept the compromise as
a victory.

Several delegations told Citiscope on Thursday that the agreement
— which was reached in a closed-door session Wednesday afternoon, the same day
that talks began — set a positive tone as diplomats dive into more-complex
issues in order to resolve remaining disagreements.

[See: For the New Urban Agenda, it’s now or never]

“Yesterday a very good consensus was already reached on one of the
very complex issues, and we all hope that the same can be reached with the rest
of the points,” Habitat III Secretary-General
Joan Clos told the 60-odd delegations assembled atU. N.Headquarters on Thursday. “The final
outcome is always a compromise, and we encourage all of you in reaching this
very positive and favorable outcome.”

Synthesis of rights

The “right to the city” emerged early in the Habitat III process as a demand from civil society
groups active in urban social-justice campaigns around issues such as
gentrification, forced evictions, foreclosures, refugees, the privatization of
public space and the criminalization of homelessness.

Under the slogan “Cities for people, not
for profit”, such groups have called for the New Urban Agenda to encourage
national and local governments to care for their most vulnerable inhabitants
rather than cater to private-sector interests as the planet continues to
urbanize at a rapid pace.

[See: A needed cornerstone for Habitat III: The Right to the City]

The movement, which coalesced in the HabitatIIIprocess
under an advocacy platform called the Global
Platform for the Right to the City
, builds on an idea coined in 1968
by French intellectual Henri Lefebvre. More recently, the academic community has
refined the concept, especially in the field of urban studies, where geographer
David Harvey has been one of its leading proponents in books and articles.

Several international civil society forums, such as the World
Social Forum, sought a common understanding of the idea in the early 2000s.
Their efforts resulted in the 2004 World
Charter on the Right to the City
. “Right to the City” was later the
theme of the 2010 U. N.World Urban Forum in Rio de Janeiro.

In the political arena, the right to the city has been adopted by
several municipalities in Mexico and Europe, which have signed onto the Mexico
City Charter for the Right to the City
 and the European Charter for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in
the City
, respectively.

The right to the city also is enshrined in law at the national
level in Brazil and Ecuador, the two countries that championed the concept’s
inclusion in the Habitat III process.

[See: The challenges of land and inclusion for the New
Urban Agenda

However, the term is relatively unknown in the human rights world.
Indeed, “right to the city” is not currently recognized under international
human rights law, an argument that several governments raised to counter any
such mention in the New Urban Agenda. Activists respond by arguing that the
right to the city is a synthesis of existing human rights, not a new right per

“In some countries and cities, the recognition of the right to the
city and/or the adoption of right to the city charters seem to have positively
improved the interaction between authorities and inhabitants and led to
concrete results,” Bahram Ghazi, with the Office of the U. N.High Commissioner for Human Rights, told
Citiscope in a written statement.

“If the use of the concept of the ‘right to the city’ can
encourage and mobilise governments to comply with their binding international
human rights obligations, and ensure that they pay due attention to the
essential indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights in their
legislations, policies and practices,” Ghazi continued, “it can prove to be a
valuable contribution to the New Urban Agenda and to the realization of human
rights worldwide.”

Watered-down but historic

The term was included in the first draft of
the New Urban Agenda, released in early May. That language read, “We commit to
the realization of the concept of cities for all, which in some countries is
defined as the Right to the City and compiles the shared systemization of
existing rights, seeking to ensure that all inhabitants, of present and future
generations, are able to inhabit, use, and produce just, inclusive, and
sustainable cities, which exist as a common good essential to a high quality of

However, this section was quickly flagged as controversial by
governments across the political spectrum, including Canada, the European
Union, India, Japan, the Russian Federation and the United States. At the same
time, Brazil and Ecuador gained allies in Chile, El Salvador, Paraguay and
Uruguay, although it never received formal endorsement from the Latin American
and Caribbean bloc, known asGRULAC.

[See: Mexico seeks to place rights at the centre of the
Habitat III negotiations

The right to the city ultimately became the subject of several
closed-door negotiating sessions, including Wednesday’s breakthrough meeting,
where the Netherlands and Uruguay were tasked with co-chairing a drafting
committee that could come up with mutually agreeable phrasing.

As yet, the language has not been finalized. However, multiple
sources from national delegations have confirmed that they succeeded, with the
likely final version reading:

We share a vision of
cities for all, referring to the equal use and enjoyment of cities, and human
settlements, seeking to promote inclusivity and ensure that all inhabitants, of
present and future generations, without discrimination of any kind, are able to
inhabit and produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, resilient, and sustainable
cities and human settlements, to foster prosperity and quality of life for all.
We note the efforts of some national and local governments to enshrine this
vision, referred to as right to the city, in their legislation, political
declarations and charters.

Although the term survived through each of the four iterations of the New Urban Agenda, its phrasing
was increasingly watered down, a trend seen again in this latest version. “We
commit” became “we anchor” and finally “we share.” For the countries that
already embrace the concept, it was “defined as”, then “understood as”, then
“recognized as” and finally “referred to as the right to the city”. (This final
version also makes the term lower case, in line with how other human rights,
such as the right to adequate housing and the right to development, are treated
in the document.)

[See: Dámaso Luna Corona: Guaranteeing urban rights
requires a ‘comprehensive approach’

Nelson Saule has represented the Global Platform on the Right to
the City throughout the Habitat III negotiations
and says he is prepared to accept the compromise. “Considering the
circumstances today, where member states are less and less committed to rights,
it’s a victory,” he said Thursday. However, he expressed disappointment that in
the final version, cities are no longer referred to as a “common good”, which
he called a “central point” in his group’s formulation of the right to the

However, according to Habitat III Secretariat Coordinator Ana Moreno, such
objections should not overshadow the historic nature of the term’s inclusion in
an international agreement. “Member states approved it conscious of what they
were adopting,” she told a group of civil society representatives Thursday.

Photo: The
idea of the right to the city has been one of the most contentious parts of the
New Urban Agenda negotiations. (SergeyIT/Shutterstock)

* Original