Opinion piece: The Right to the City: Strategic approach for the Post-2015 and the Habitat III Global Agendas


Lorena Zárate, President of Habitat International Coalition
(HIC) outlines the multiple challenges facing the rapid growth of urban
populations and how a multistakeholder framework entitled the “right to
the city” could provide a comprehensive approach to support the
sustainable cities and human settlements agenda that may emerge from the
current post-2015 negotiations, as well as contribute to the Habitat III Summit
in 2016.

[The Right to the City is] the right to change ourselves, by changing the city
David Harvey, 2008

The text is partly based on an article originally written for
the publication
El derecho a la
ciudad, Institut de Drets Humans de Catalunya and Observatori DESC, Barcelona,
2011, pp. 53-70 (in Spanish and Catalonian). Electronic version available at  
http://www.idhc.org/esp/161_propies.asp This English
version is an excerpt of the full article currently in final edition process
for a publication by the Uppsala University, Sweden.

The urban phenomenon: The cities we

During recent years, documents of all kinds keep repeating the
same ground-breaking facts: for the first time in human history, half of the
global population – around 3.5 billion people – now live in cities, and by 2050
it is expected that 70% of us will live in urban areas (albeit with many
differences between and within regions and countries).1

It is increasingly difficult to find analyses about the
underlying causes of urbanization. The tendency to population concentration is
not only not questioned; it is perceived as
irreversible (our “urban future”). There are oscillating, extreme views that do
not suffice to thoroughly explain our surrounding reality: from the aphorisms
that strongly defend life in the cities and the role it plays in relation to
rural areas (“development engines”, “hope magnets”), to the apocalyptic
denouncement that we are on our way to having a “planet of slums.” In both
cases, there is little said about the distinct responsibility of various social
actors, about the relation between the rural and the urban worlds, or about the
nuances and possibilities to transform the process.

The concentration of economic and political power is a
phenomenon of exploitation, dispossession, exclusion and discrimination whose
spatial dimensions are clearly visible: dual cities of luxury and misery; empty
buildings and people without a decent place to live; land without campesinos (peasants) who are subjected to
abuses by agro-businesses; and private appropriation and accumulation of
commons goods, resources and wealth that were collectively created. It is
estimated that, from all the private land in the world, three quarters are in
the hands of only  2.5% of the world population.2 The conditions and rules currently present in our
societies are globally condemning more than one third of the world population
to live in absolute poverty. The inequalities are increasing both in the so
called developed and developing countries. Impoverished neighbourhoods [so called “urban
slums”]3 are home of at least one third of
the population in the global South (in some Latin American and African
countries it could reach 60% or more).

It is not new to anyone that, especially in the last 25 years,
many governments have abandoned their responsibility for any urban-territorial
planning, leaving “the market” to freely operate the private appropriation of
urban spaces, almost without any restriction to real-estate speculation and
exponential revenues. Thousands of families have been put under the unbearable
threat of eviction without any alternative – with particularly devastating
effects on women and children.4

At the same time, many current regulations ignore, or even
criminalize, people’s individual and collective efforts to obtain a decent
place to live. In the South, between 50 and 75% of the available living space
is the result of people’s own initiatives and efforts, without any – or with
very little – support from governments and other actors. In many cases, these
initiatives go against many “official” barriers.5 Instead of supporting those popular processes (what we
define as “social production of habitat”), our States have created conditions
to guarantee that a few private housing developers make profits.6

The cities we want: Struggles for
the Right to the City and the urban reform in Latin America and the world

For a long time now, we have been talking about the urgent need
of an urban reform that is in solidarity with agrarian reform. The main
elements of a democratic, inclusive, sustainable, productive, educational and
liveable city have been part of the debates, proposals and concrete experiences
of social movements, national and international civil society networks, trade
unions, academic institutions and human rights activists in different Latin
American countries for the last 50 years. The urban reform and the Right to the
City are now present both in theoretical and legal frameworks and as a platform
for action, social mobilisation and articulation of alternatives in other
regions as well.7

The Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro 1992), Habitat II (Istanbul,
1996) and the First World Assembly of Inhabitants, Rethinking the
City from the People 
(Mexico City, 2000) were important moments for the
articulation of actors and the development of concrete proposals. Undoubtedly,
this process has gained new strength and expanded in size and content since
2001 in the World Social Forum (WSF). Thousands of people, and dozens of
organizations and networks – UNESCO and UN Habitat included – have since
participated in discussions, preparations, signing and dissemination of the World Charter for the
Right to the City
8– defined as the equitable usufruct of cities within the
principles of sustainability, democracy, equity and social justice.

Parallel to these civil society initiatives, some governments at
regional, national and local levels have created instruments to protect and
realize human rights in the urban context. Some of the most progressive ones
now in force include the European Charter to Safeguard Human Rights in the City
(2000), the City Statute of Brazil (2001), the Montreal Charter of Rights and
Responsibilities (2006), the Constitution of Ecuador (2008), the Global
Charter-Agenda for Human Rights in the City (2010) promoted by the network
United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), the Gwangju Human Rights Charter
(2012) and the Vienna Charter (2012).

At an international level, the Right to the City was taken up as
official motto by the Fifth World Urban Forum, organized by the UN Habitat in
Rio de Janeiro in 2010, and offered a series of massive and multi-actor
activities of promotion, reflection, debate and training. Simultaneously, in
unprecedented joint efforts and thanks to the role played by the National Forum
for Urban Reform (Brazil) at the local level, we decided to summon the first
Social Urban Forum. From both events came declarations which include a great deal
of postulates and proposals. These achievements may certainly be considered
important; at the same time, this is the moment to stay active and alert to
protect the collectively defined contents and moved forward towards an
effective implementation. The current work of the UN Human Rights Council
Advisory Committee on local governments and human rights shows the growing
relevance of this topic in the global agenda and opens an important opportunity
to increase the knowledge, expertise and advocacy among different actors.

The Mexico City Charter

The government of the Federal District of Mexico City joined the
growing list of supporters after signing the Mexico City Charter for the Right to
the City
9 on July 2010, as a result of an advocacy process led by
the Urban Popular Movement (Movimiento Urbano Popular-MUP). This was
supported by the Habitat International Coalition-Latin America (HIC-AL), the
Mexico City Commission for Human Rights, and the Coalition of Civil Society
Organizations for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Espacio DESC).
Forming a promoting committee, they have over the past four years encouraged
the participation of an estimated 5,000 citizens in the elaboration of the
Charter through various events and consultations.

Its promoters agree that this instrument aims to confront the
most profound causes and manifestations of exclusion: economic, social,
territorial, cultural, political and psychological. It is explicitly posed as a
social response, counter to “city-as-merchandise,” and as an expression of the
collective interest. It is without any doubt a complex approach that demands
the linking of the human rights theme in its integral conception (civil,
political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights) to that of
democracy in its diverse dimensions (representative, distributive and

As specified in its Preamble, the formulation of this Charter
has the specific objectives to contribute to the construction of
an inclusive, liveable, just, democratic, sustainable and enjoyable city. It
wishes to stimulate processes of social organization, to strengthen the social
fabric, and to construct an active and responsible citizenship. Furthermore, it
promotes the construction of an equitable, inclusive and social/solidarity
urban economy that guarantees productive insertion and economic strengthening
of the popular sectors.

The strategic foundations and proposals that are formulated – as
they are being conceived – should be valid for human settlements of any size,
both urban and rural. Their contents are not only a catalogue of rights, more
or less isolated, but show the enormous efforts to account for the complexity
of a comprehensive approach to the territory:

1. Full exercise of human rights in
the city

A city in which all persons (children, youth, adults and the elderly, including
girls and boys and women and men) enjoy and realize all human rights and
fundamental freedoms, through the construction of conditions of collective
wellbeing with dignity, equity and social justice.10 National, provincial and local governments must define
public policies according to human rights commitments as included in the
international instruments.

2. The social function of the city,
of land and of property

A city whose inhabitants participate in order to assure that the distribution
of territory and the rules governing its use can thereby guarantee equitable
usufruct of the goods, services and opportunities that the city offers. It is a
city in which collectively-defined public interest are prioritized,
guaranteeing a socially just and environmentally balanced use of the territory.

3. Democratic management of the city
A city in which its inhabitants participate in all decision spaces – reaching
to the highest level of public policy formulation and implementation – as well
as in the planning, public budget formulation, and control of urban processes.
It refers to the strengthening of institutionalized decision-making (not only
citizen consultancy) spaces, from which it is possible to do follow-up,
screening and evaluation of public policies.11

4. Democratic production of the city
and in the city

A city in which the productive capacity of its inhabitants is recovered and
reinforced, in particular that of the popular sectors, fomenting and supporting
social production of habitat and the development of solidarity economic
activities. It concerns the right to produce the city, but also the right to a
habitat that is productive, which will generate income and strengthen the
popular economy, not just the monopolistic profits of the few.

5. Sustainable and responsible
management of the commons (natural, public heritage and energetic resources) of
the city and its surroundings

A city whose inhabitants and authorities guarantee a responsible relation with
the environment, in a way that makes possible a dignified life for individuals,
communities, and peoples, in equality of conditions and without affecting
natural areas, ecological reserves, other cities or future generations.

6. Democratic and equitable
enjoyment of the city

A city that reinforces social coexistence, recovery, expansion and improvement
of public space, and its use for community gathering, leisure, creativity as
well as critical expression of political ideas and positions. In recent years,
a great part of those spaces, necessary for life in a community, have not been
taken care of.

To be able to advance in its realization, the Charter outlines
the commitments that should be assumed by the local
government, autonomous public bodies, educational institutions, civil society
organizations, the private sector and people in general. The effective
fulfillment of these commitments implies dynamic processes of interaction and
negotiation among the different actors involved, and it poses new challenges
for public administration. Spaces and mechanisms to incorporate organized
social participation in the management of the city are demanded. All of this
requires a generation of new forms of inter-sectorial coordination of
co-responsible actions, assigning a more active role to the communities and
urban and rural organizations when public programmes in their territories are
negotiated and articulated.

In synthesis, it is possible to affirm that the Mexico City
Charter conceives of the Right to the City in a broad sense. It is not limited
to the defence of individual human rights in order to improve the living
conditions of its inhabitants; rather, it integrates rights and
responsibilities implicated in the management, production and responsible
development of the city. From this perspective, it not only encompasses the
construction of conditions that assure the access of all people – without
discrimination – to goods, services and opportunities existing in the city, but
rather poses a more radical approach, profiling the city that we aspire to and
want to construct for future generations.

Will the Post-2015 and the Habitat III Agendas take these
experiences, propositions and commitments into account to really build the city
we want?

Lorena Zárate is currently President of Habitat
International Coalition (HIC). She was regional coordinator of HIC-Latin
America office from 2003-2011. She has been involved in the elaboration and
dissemination of the World Charter on the Right to the City, the consultation
process to define the Mexico City Human Rights Program, and the Promoting
Committee for the elaboration of the Mexico City Charter for the Right to the
City. At international level, she has been in close collaboration with the UN
Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing as well as with the Office
of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on how to improve security of
tenure, land and housing rights and the right to the city worldwide. In 2013,
she was awarded the John Bousfield Distinguished Visitorship from the Geography and Urban
Planning Program at the University of Toronto. She has published books and
articles on issues related to housing rights, social production and management
of habitat and the right to the city. She has participated as speaker in more
than 20 countries, in particular within the framework of the World Urban Forum
and the World Social Forum. She has given presentations and public lectures at
universities in Argentina, Canada, Ecuador, Mexico, South Korea, Spain, Sweden
and Switzerland.

Habitat International Coalition– HIC (http://hic-net.org/) is the global, independent
and nonprofit network for the defense, promotion and realization of the right
to a safe place to live in peace and with dignity, both in urban and rural
areas. Established in 1976 in Vancouver, Canada (within the framework of Habitat
I), it consist today of more than 350 NGOs, CBOs, scholars, research and
education institutions, as well as human rights activists working in more than
120 countries. Through solidarity, networking and support for social movements
and organizations, and influencing the public policies and the international
agenda, HIC works to achieve social justice with focus on four central
objectives: advance towards gender equality and equity; defend and promote the
right to a healthy environment; support the social production and management of
habitat; address violations of the human right to an adequate standard of life
(including land, housing, water and food). HIC has a longstanding consultative
status at the UN-ECOSOC.

1. UN Habitat 2008.
2. According to Oxfam’s new report “Working for the
Few”, 85 richest people in the world own as much as 3.5 billion poorest.
See http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/01/17/oxfam-bus-wealth_n_4616103.html 
It is estimated that, from all the
private land in the world, three quarters are in the hands of only 2.5% of the
world population. At the same time, 71.6% of rural families in Africa, Latin
America and Asia (China excepted) are landless or have little land, while women
own only an estimated 1-2% of all titled land worldwide, which is often
attributed to the fact that women rarely can inherit property (Steinzor 2003).
3. According to UN-Habitat, aslumis the most degraded area of a city,
characterized by inadequate housing conditions, lack of basic services and
security of tenure. But the origins of the concept (during the first half of
the 19th century) reveal very negative meanings, linked to a strong
stigmatization and discrimination of its inhabitants: it is a place of the
“lowest class…occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals
and semi-criminals”; “nests of ignorance, vice.” Charles Booth, “Life and
Labour of the People in London”, 1889, and description from Cardinal Wiseman
Ward, included in Ward 2008, p 568. Those connotations are still present in the
dualism “formal/informal” frequently used by governments and academics to
describe both the people and the places where they live, despite the fact that
they can be as different from each other as Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)
or Kibera in Nairobi (Kenya).
4. For a detailed analysis of the financial and mortgage
crisis of 2008, its links with the economic and housing policies, and the
preliminary recommendations, see the Report of UN Special Rapporteur on the
Right to Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnik, presented at the Tenth Session of the
Human Rights Council, A/ HRC/10/7 (February 4, 2009), Available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/10session/reports.htm 
As included in the National Law
Center on Homelessness & Poverty Report 2013, over the course of one year
between 2.5 and 3.5 million people will experience homelessness in USA;
approximately 1.5 million of those will be children.
5. Habitat International Coalition (HIC) members have
been analysing and supporting this process in different countries and cities of
the world for more than three decades, promoting another “view” on social
production and management of habitat that has influenced programmes, policies,
laws and constitutions, as well as relevant international documents. Among
others, please refer to some of the following publications: Enrique Ortiz F. y
Zárate (eds.), 2002,
Vivitos y coleando. 40 años trabajando por el hábitat popular en América
Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana y HIC-AL, México; Enrique Ortiz Flores y Ma.
Lorena Zárate (eds.), 2005,
De la marginación a la ciudadanía: 38 casos de producción y gestión
social del hábitat
, Fundación Forum Universal de las Culturas, HIC y HIC-AL, Barcelona; y
Rino Torres, 2006,
La producción social de vivienda en México. Su importancia nacional y su
impacto en la economía de los hogares pobres
, HIC-AL, México.
6. In Mexico, the housing policy (inspired by the Chilean
model, also applied in other countries around the globe) is not improving the
quality of life of the people but indeed making them poorer. After almost 10
years of what was presented as a “successful” housing policy “urbanity is
collapsed to the simple construction of housing, not neighbourhoods”, usually
built by a single developer (Castillo 2007). At the end of 2005, 9 private
developers concentrated 25% of the total housing production at national level.
The net revenues of six of them reached an average of 1118% growth in the stock
market between 2000 and 2007, which represents almost three times the global
yield rate index for the same period (Ortiz 2007). According to the latest
Mexican National Census (2010), there are 5 million empty houses in the
country. This policy was possible thanks to the profound transformation of the
financial system and the promotion of individual private ownership as the only
alternative (both being strong recommendations by the World Bank (World Bank

7. For a compilation of articles on recent struggles,
achievements and challenges at global and local level see Sugranyes and
Mathivet 2010.

8. Full text available at http://hic-net.org/document.php?pid=2422
9. Full text and other related materials available at http://www.hic-al.org/comite.cfm (Spanish) and http://hic-net.org/document.php?pid=5407( English).
10. It should be noted that, according to the
international human rights framework, the obligations of the State in this
matter are grouped as follows: 1) Respect: to abstain from taking measures that
obstruct or hamper the exercise of human rights; 2) Protect: to inhibit that
third actors (private sectors, enterprises) affect or violate the human rights
of populations and people; and 3) Guarantee and accomplish: to dedicate the
maximum amount of available resources to achieve human rights, under the
principle of non-retrogression.

11. The Council and the National Conference of Cities in
Brazil, with a broad and very disciplined process of local and national
participation, although not perfect, make up a good example of maximum
authority and fair representation of all social sectors. The Council is
composed of 86 representatives, 49 from civil society organizations and 37 from
different governmental bodies. More information available at: 
http://www.cidades.gov.br/index.php/o-conselho-das-cidades.html( accessed April 15, 2014).


Castillo, José, 2007. After the Explosion, in Ricky Burdett and
Deyan Sudjic (eds),The Endless City, London: Phaidon Press Ltd, pp 183-184.

Davis, Mike, 2006.Planet of Slums, Verso.

Harvey, David, 2008.The Right to the City. New Left Review
53, 25-40.

Ortiz, Enrique, 2007.Housing Policies in Mexico: Impacts and Perspectives (1992-2007), Trialog Magazine 94/3.

Steinzor, Nadia, 2003.Women’s Property and Inheritance Rights: Improving Lives in
Changing Times. Final Synthesis and Conference Proceedings Paper
, Women in Development, Bureau for Global Programs, Field
Support and Research and United States Agency for International Development, http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNADA958.pdf(accessed April 3, 2014).

Sugranyes, Ana and Charlotte Mathivet (eds), 2010.Cities for all. Proposals and
experiences towards the Right to the City
, Santiago de
Chile, HIC. Electronic version available at http://hic-net.org/news.php?pid=3848

UN Habitat 2008.State of the World’s Cities 2010-2011 – Cities for All: Bridging
the Urban Divide
, Earthscan, London, http://www.unhabitat.org/pmss/listItemDetails.aspx?publicationID=2917(accessed March 31, 2014).

Ward, Philip Wilfrid, 2008.The Life and Times of Cardinal Wiseman, Volume 1, BiblioBazaar.

World Bank, 1993.Housing: Enabling Markets to Work, Washington, DC: World Bank.

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