“Some very important elements were left out of the New Urban Agenda”


What does the Right
to the City mean for you, and what does it mean specifically in the Mexican

The Habitat International Coalition has
been working on the Right to the City for a long time now. For us, it is work
in progress, a concept that we are always trying to develop collectively. The
whole process started at the global level and in particular, at the first World
Social Forum in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where we worked together with
urban social movements, civil society organisations and networks of academics,
professionals and activists from different fields. Over the years, we developed
the “Global Charter on
the Right to the City
”. Based on this Charter, different groups and
platforms started working at the national and local level. For instance, our
members and colleagues in Ecuador worked to introduce the Right to the City
into the new constitution (2008) and the United Cities and Local Governments
global network developed a Global
Charter-Agenda for Human Rights in the City
 (2011) that includes the Right to the
City in the first articles. Through regular exchanges, debates and training
activities, we inspire each other in our efforts in our respective countries
and cities.

Also inspired by the Global Charter, the Mexico City
 (2010)expands the definition of the
right to the city to include six main components or strategic principles, all
of which are equally important and necessary for the fulfilment of this new
collective right. The first one is the Human Rights component of the Right to
the City. This principle does not only refer to creating specific human rights
programmes and policies for a specific population or for specific issues. The
overall goal is to have a human rights framework for all policies and for
policy making — at the local, the sub-national and the national level. The
Right to the City brings a necessary spatial (or territorial) approach to
already recognised civic, political, social, economic and cultural rights; and
at the same time operates as an umbrella under which new rights can be
discussed and promoted (i.e. public transportation, public spaces).

The second principle is what is called the
social function of land, property, and the city itself. It refers to how we
organise the land of the city, how we use it, and who decides about the
organisation and usage and in whose name. The principle aims at public control
of the land, public control of speculation, and of the gentrification
processes. All over the world, there are growing numbers of empty houses at the
same time that the homeless population or people having trouble to afford the
rent are skyrocketing. In the countries of the Global South, the function of
land, property and the city is also relevant for the regularisation of the
informal settlements that are part of our cities. Sometimes, they make up half
of the city or even more. No government, no public or private sector agency is
going to be able to replace these settlements fully. They are part of the city,
and in our view, they are not informal, irregular, marginal, or illegal—they
are the city made by the people. This is working very well in many countries.

The third principle refers to the city
being run democratically. We understand democracy not only as elections and
representation by political parties. What we mean is democracy being practiced
by all institutions, all the time; democracy in the streets, with the people at
the grassroots level, at the neighbourhood level. People as individuals, but
also as collective organisations ought to have the right to participate in
decision-making processes and in the monitoring of public policies. It is not
enough to have these rights granted on paper, but people need to be able to
actually exercise them. This is particularly important in the present political
context. We are witnessing huge steps backwards in terms of democracy and
democratic institutions in many places in the world. Now that democracy is at
stake again, it is even more important that the Right to the City movements
demand democratic management of the city.

Number four is about the social production
of the cities and the promotion of inclusive economies. Regarding the former,
governments and other development actors and institutions should be able to
recognise that and support and empower the inhabitants in their efforts to
build their own habitat. A significant part of the current housing deficit is
qualitative, and not just quantitative – meaning that we need more policies and
programs that focus on housing and neighbourhood improvement goals and not just
building new housing.

At the same time, the living space should
be also be considered as a productive space – where people can undertake
activities that will generate income for the families and the communities. In a
broader sense, promote inclusive and democratic economies imply to consider the
wide range of economic activities that happen in urban spaces, including the
informal ones2,
as well as the economy of care (or economy of social reproduction)and the social and solidarity
economy4. In
practice, this means for example to ensure labour rights and social protection
to care givers, domestic workers (the majority of them women), and street
vendors, or support and strengthen the cooperative sector and the non-profit
institutions. If government policies are not able to provide enough jobs in the
public and private sectors, people find their own ways to make a living. No one
should criminalise or destroy these informal ways of accessing monetary and
other resources that people depend on for their livelihood, if they cannot
provide a feasible alternative. That is part of the Right to the City, too.

The fifth principle understands the city
not as an entity limited by administrative boundaries, but as a territory, as
an ecological area, as an ecosystem. The city region is connected with, and
depends on, the surrounding rural and agricultural areas. Cities need to create
and maintain a metabolism that respects environmental resources such as water
and crops. Thus, the Right to the City does not mean growing urbanisation at
any cost and possibly destroying everything that is around it. It means looking
at the territory in a very different way, respecting those linkages, and trying
to build an equilibrium between those (i.e. measuring and
controlling the urban footprint). There can be no true Right to the City if
there is no right to live in the countryside, the rural and the peri-urban
areas with dignity and in peace.

And finally, the Right to the City is about
public space: defending public spaces, improving the quality and the quantity
of public spaces, fighting against the deterioration or privatisation of public
spaces (abandon by public policies, vandalised, appropriated by organised
crime, private sponsors, etc.). This is part of many struggles all over the
world, including the Global North. We need to understand public spaces as
public facilities and community centres, not just as streets and parks. Public
spaces play a crucial role in building cities and urban life, as well as
democracy. In an ideal scenario, they can be used by all citizens and
strengthen social cohesion.

To go back to Mexico: the Mexico City
Charter develops not just the conceptual framework for the Right to the City,
but also concrete proposals and policy measures on how to implement it. It does
not simply spell out what we want, but the Right to the City principles serve
as strategic foundations—they lay out in detail how we are going to achieve what we want.
It also defines the roles and responsibilities of different actors and
institutions, including governments, civil society organisations, private
sector, universities and media.

How can local
governments be made more aware that people are actually part of shaping the
city, including the urban poor or homeless people?

We are very aware that the only way to move
forward in implementing the Right to the City is shaping a strong partnership
between civil society and local governments. That is why we partnered up, for
instance, with United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) as part of the initiative of
the Global Platform
for the Right to the City
was launched in 2014.

It will be fair to say that, for the most
part, the implementation of the Right to the City has made the most progress at
the local level, not at the national level. Of course this is a general comment
and not always true, but I think that local authorities are generally better
prepared, and usually more open to the idea that they need to work with the
people and acknowledge their real, everyday problems but also their proposals
and alternatives to solve them. It is at the same time easier and more
challenging for them, because they are not a national office dealing with
numbers and abstract issues.

That being said, we are really concerned
about the fact that many government actors still think of the private sector as
big companies–big transnational companies, usually–, and are often not even
considering medium-sized and small companies. And when they address the social
sector (i.e. social movements, civil society organisations, community-based
organisations, cooperatives, not for profit institutions), they often address
them as victims, as problems, as people that need attention–not as a main actor
that is actively involved in building cities, living in the cities, and
transforming cities much quicker than public policies and even the private
sector are able to. We urgently need a paradigm shift in how we understand
society and the role of the different sectors. We should not be approaching the
marginalised or vulnerable groups as someone that needs help–the Right to the
City is not a charitable initiative; it is a social justice and a human rights
cause. The marginalised groups need the same opportunities to be heard and
influence decisions, in particular those that are going to affect them more
directly. It is the obligation of the public sector to build the necessary
conditions for that.

The Right to the
City is for everyone–but how does it address the dilemma of housing, when one
group needs affordable housing and the other group tries to make as much money
as possible with rent? How do you solve this conflict?

Indeed, the Right to the City is often
invoked in struggles for the right to housing, which is usually understood as
providing affordable houses for people with limited economic means. In many
cases, poor people depend on so-called social housing, so the city needs to
build cheap houses that are affordable. Usually, such houses are built far away
from the city centre on cheap land, which makes it difficult for people to take
up job opportunities, access transportation, governmental offices, schools, and
other services that the city offers.

In Latin America, between 30 per cent and
60 per cent of people are working in the informal economy (if we include
informal employment, in some countries that figure can even reach as high as 80
per cent or more). They cannot enter the banking system; they cannot access
loans, so they are stuck. Very little money pours into that sector, the one
that needs the most attention. And then the public policies often take the
shortcut of giving subsidies to poor people to go and buy houses, which only
the private sector profits from. Public spending should not be caught up in the
market logic, it needs to be sustainable and offer solutions beyond private

We advocate for a circular economy as a
system that does not only consider where the money is coming from and passes
through, but also where it ends up. Government institutions need to be held
accountable for the money they are spending. For example, in Mexico, the
housing policy (inspired by the Chilean model, also applied in other countries
around the globe) is not improving people’s quality of life but indeed is
making them poorer. The year of 1992 marked the beginning of a series of
changes, including the Article 27 of Mexico’s National Constitution to allow
larger land appropriation on sites that were once communal (ejidales).
After more than a decade of what was presented as a ‘successful’ housing policy
and as such exported to Central and South America, “the result in some of these
planned neighborhoods is the emergence of large amounts of units overnight,
with developments of up to 13,000 units.”They
are conceived as monocultures of houses and not as new towns,
“usually built by a single developer and in many cases designed by a single
architect, with very little state intervention.” In these new gated
communities, usually located at least at a two hour daily commute to the city centre,
“there is no zoning, no planning for educational, commercial or civic uses, a
very limited approach to public space, no relation to metropolitan transport
infrastructure, and, most importantly, no room for growth and transformation.”
In other words, “urbanity is collapsed to the simple construc-tion of housing,
not neighbourhoods”. As a consequence, as much as 20% or more of the-se new
developments are empty or abandoned, and the 2010 National Census identifies 5
million empty units in the country.

In theory, they are fulfilling the right to
housing by providing new living space, but in reality, they are destroying
nature and resources and thereby people’s lives. You could even go so far as to
say that they are destroying the future of cities, because their actions are
not sustainable. They are merely contributing to urban sprawl and good business
for some real estate companies and housing developers. In the preparatory
papers for the Habitat III process experts pointed out that on a global level,
cities are growing at least three times more than the urban population. So we
end up with millions of empty units in our cities. This has nothing to do with
the right to housing, or the Right to the City. As a general rule, before
thinking about building more, governments need to see how they can do better
with what they have available, and protect the people that already have
something to lose.

What specific
measures can be taken to implement the New Urban Agenda and what are the

The Agenda gives guidelines, and many of
them we agree with. Most of the strategic principles of the World Charter and
the Mexico City Charter were included, as well as a definition of the Right to
the City as part of the “shared vision”6, making this the first time that this
concept is included in an international declaration signed by 167 national
governments at the UN level. But it is important to mention that some other
very important elements were left out, like the city as a common good, the need
to strengthen democracy and democratic institutions and practices, or LGBT
rights, which we think is really problematic as it does not take into account
the relevant struggles and achievements in different parts of the world during
the past twenty years. At the same time, the implementation and follow-up
measures are not specified enough. That is why the Global Platform for the
Right to the City and other organisations are working on guidelines and
indicators to contribute to this process.

Many of the things proposed in the Agenda
are certainly not new. We would like to see more support for community-driven
change. For instance, housing issues should not solely be addressed through the
private sector. Co-ops, all kinds of institutions from the social and
solidarity economy should be supported. By developing housing, local
governments are not just building things, they are (or they should be)
developing communities.

In Mexico, more than 40 per cent of the
population is living below the poverty line. In order to address the growing inequality
that affects more than 50 million people, everything that the government does
(at the national and local levels) must take that population into account. All
spheres of government have to align their policy and programmes to limit the
exploitation and the spatial segregation that most communities are exposed to
and develop a city that is not just for the wealthy minority. The private
sector also needs to live up to their responsibility–in particular big national
and transnational companies (including banks, real estate, food industry,
services) are making ridiculous amounts of money off the city’s assets and
their populations, and they need to take less and give more back to the
communities. In particular, they need to refrain from pushing the price of land
up for profit. Regulations should make sure this cannot happen.

In trying to implement the Right to the
City, we are also facing a lot of obstacles at the judiciary level. This is one
of the big problems that are not addressed in the New Urban Agenda. It is often
in the juridical system that new participatory planning processes or new master
plans are stopped, because the private sector or other actors file complaints.
The legal rules are usually decided at the national level, so it is very difficult
to influence them. We need to convince national governments to champion these
kind of changes, and say this is what we need to do. Also, it helps if this
message is coming from the North. Policy makers have proven to listen more to
governments or other institutions from the North than to civil society or
grassroots organisations, or actors from the South. The stigmatisation of the
marginalised groups, activists and human right defenders as the ones who always
complain about everything and speak out against development, against progress,
is still around and very powerful, unfortunately.

The Habitat International Coalition is
going to use the New Urban Agenda for what is useful for the people and
communities we work with. The rest, we are going to just leave it there.
Despite the fact that they were for the most part left out in the process of
defining the Agenda, our main tackling points will most probably be local
governments, much more than national governments. Some of us believe that there
is where we can advance our cause for just, democratic and sustainable cities
and human settlements for all.


1. The Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City is the product of an initiative developed by the Urban Popular Movement and negotiated with the Federal District (Mexico City) government for over two years. A Promotion Committee was established in early 2008 to oversee the debate and negotiation process, as well as collect substantive inputs from hundreds of organisations and thousands of citizens. This Committee was initially integrated by the Urban Popular Movement of the National Democratic Congress (MUP-CND), the Mexico City Ministry of Government, the Latin American office of Habitat International Coalition (HIC-AL), and the Federal District Human Rights Commission (CDHDF), later joined by the Coordinator of Civil Organizations on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Espacio DESC) and the Federal District Social Attorney’s Office (PROSOC).

2. According to the International Labour Organisation, approximately 85 per cent of all new employment opportunities around the world are created in the informal economy. UNHABITAT (2010): State of the World’s Cities 2010-2011. Cities for All: Bridging the Urban Divide, UNHABITAT: USA, Kenya.

3. According to the business dictionary, a caring economy is “an economic system in which genuine caring for people and nature is the top priority. Caring economies are currently found in Nordic nations like Finland, Norway and Sweden, where their policies combine the positive elements of both capitalism and socialism. There are government-supported child care programs, generous paid parental leave, funding for families caring for children or elders, universal healthcare, and devote high percentages of wealth to aid the poorer nations.” Another definition affirms that “The care economy is the part of human activity, both material and social, that is concerned with the process of caring for the present and future labour force, and the human population as a whole, including the domestic provisioning of food, clothing and shelter. Social reproduction is the provisioning of all such needs throughout the economy, regardless of whether it is of a paid or unpaid nature.” Alexander, P., and Baden, S. (2000). Glossary on Macroeconomics from a Gender Perspective. Bridge Institute of Development Studies.

4. As defined by Peter Utting, Depute Director of the UN Research Institute for Social Development, “The term social and solidarity economy (SSE) is increasingly being used to refer to a broad range of organisations that are distinguished from conventional for-profit enterprise, entrepreneurship and informal economy by two core features. First, they have explicit economic AND social (and often environmental) objectives. Second, they involve varying forms of co-operative, associative and solidarity relations. They include, for example, cooperatives, mutual associations, NGOs engaged in income generating activities, women’s self-help groups, community forestry and other organisations, associations of informal sector workers, social enterprise and fair trade organisations and networks. For more information see https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/beyond-the-fringe-realizing-the-potential-of-social-and-solidarity-economy/ and http://www.ripess.org/?lang=en

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

Lorena Zárate: President at Habitat International Coalition. In 2000, Lorena Zárate started collaborating with Fomento Solidario de la Vivienda (FOSOVI) and other members of the Mexico Habitat Coalition (CHM), the former HIC-GS team and the Urban Popular Movement in the organisation of the first World Assembly of Inhabitants. Between 2003 and 2011, she was the coordinator of the Latin American Regional Office of Habitat International Coalition (HIC) and was later elected as president of HIC (2011). Lorena Zárate studied History at the National University of La Plata, Argentina.

* Original source.