The open space of Vancouver: reviewing 1976, challenging 2006. (*)


1. For a paper based on secondary sources, Katja’s summary in paragraph 5 of the first page describes very well what I saw and heard when I was there myself. From what Katja writes it is clear that there is no comparison between the historic open Forum of non-governmental and community-based organisations at Habitat I in June 1976 and the one day meeting scheduled for a few NGO representatives in June 2006. However, the paper does not capture the reality of the 1976 open Forum as remember it, or its distance from the governmental conference in content, place and spirit. Nor does Katja provide clear pictures of the different situations and contexts of 1976 and 2006. But she does provide enough information to raise the key issues. So Katja’s paper, based on limited secondary sources on a distant event is a very useful contribution to debates that could make for a better understanding of the issues and more realistic governmental policies.

2. The decision to discontinue the hugely significant and successful NGO/CBO Forums at Habitat I in Vancouver, and Habitat II in Istanbul, is a distressing symptom of malaise. The first and most immediate aspect is that of state and inter-state agencies’ intervention in decision-making and control in housing and local development – especially that of the UN, of course. As a club of national governments, whether democratic or not, the constraints on any one UN department or agency must be directly proportional to its relative size and importance in the UN system. Katja seems unaware of UN Habitat’s predecessor UNCHBP – the Centre for Housing Building and Planning. My association with the UN, mostly informal, goes back to 1959 when the small Centre in the New York building was under Ernest Weissmann’s dynamic leadership. None of the three projects that involved me with the Centre while I was living in Peru,[1] would not have happened, I believe, under the auspices of UN Habitat. It is a far larger and therefore managerially cumbersome body, more conspicuous and therefore more politically sensitive as well. I can understand UN Habitat’s decision to minimise NGO participation and exclude community-based organisations altogether – utterly wrong as it is. In my view, by so doing, UN Habitat is itself at issue as Katja suggests.

3. Katja’s report raises the issue of UN Habitat’s relationship with NGOs and Community-Based Organisations of course, but it contains “developmentspeak” that echoes increasingly obsolete beliefs which I am sure she does not hold. There are many usages that reflect mind-sets still predominant in national government circles – as distinct from those of professionals and officials of some government and most international agencies, notably UN Habitat, which have been promoting policies that support people’s own local initiatives. However, phrases such as “the challenges of giving people a voice” (para 3 page 5) and “the right to adequate housing” reinforce the professional and governing classes belief in capacities that large organisations do not have over necessarily diverse local and personal activities. People’s voices can be stolen or driven underground but never be given. Dwellings and other things can be given, of course, but on significant scales only in high income countries. When the “right to adequate shelter” (para 4 page 5 and the last para) is understood, as it is by most people, as a right to be supplied with a dwelling by the state, counter-productive polices follow or are maintained.

4. The still general failure to distinguish organisations’ power over what people do and their own capacity to do (the first definition of ‘power’ in the Oxford English Dictionary) makes misstatement of “housing problems” inevitable along with the misreading of arguments for people’s rights. When the intended meaning of “rights to shelter” is understood, the obligation of governments to ensure access to all essential resources is clear – and the objective of maintaining or regenerating housing as a locally self-managed activity is implicit. It is only when the complementary powers and limitations of government and governed are recognized that those objectives can be reached. By failing to use more appropriate phrasing, avoiding unqualified references to ‘problems’. ‘voice’ and ’rights’ for instance, Katja’s paper may be misread by many.

5. I started my commentary by endorsing Katja’s paragraph 5 on page 1. As implied above, my understanding of the “crisis within human settlements and housing” is widely shared in professional circles and, of course, it always has been very common indeed among the millions of “inperts” – those who are the experts on their own situations and priorities, and who are therefore most likely to be able and willing to do for themselves what they can do and that their governments cannot do for them. It was this frustration of being blocked and often persecuted by their government, instead of being helped, that was the overriding message from the many sufferers at the 1976 Forum. Katja’s paper does not do justice to the many home and neighbourhood building achievements by people and their own organisations during the past 30 years – some achieved by their own settler federations. Nor is sufficient recognition given to the effective supports given by significant numbers of national and international agencies and the many local and international NGOs that have done more than enough to prove the necessity of policies such as those pioneered by my Peruvian colleagues and teachers so many years ago. Despite all that has been done, by many governments and many more NGOs in low-income countries, support policies are still exceptional. Why haven’t the so evident lessons unknown to so many abusing their powers?

6. Wisely, Katja does not raise the question directly but provides an important clue: In para 1 on page 4 she summarises the North/South division over interpretations of the “housing problem”. In my view both are partly right and partly wrong. We live in one world divided between over-consumers and under-consumers. This reflects the division between high and low income populations, of course. Describing the situation in monetary terms obscures the newly emerging truth that it is the triply polluting way of life that the industrial revolution has imposed on so many with life-threatening consequences for us all – the defilement of persons, the dirtying of environment and the desecration of Life – all direct consequences of the absorption of local community life by supra-local industrial and corporate marketing systems. The emerging debate reverses the conventional perceptions of “housing problems”. These are increasingly seen as the failures of corporate, supra-local commerce and governance to ensure access to satisfactory dwellings at uninflated costs. Genuine solutions are increasingly evident:

“When dwellers control the major decisions and are free to make their own contributions in the design, construction, or management of their housing, both this process and the environment produced stimulate individual and social well-being. When people have no control over nor responsibility for key decisions in the housing process, on the other hand, dwelling environments may instead become a barrier to personal fulfillment and a burden on the economy.[2]

The only change that I would now make to that statement is to change “…may instead become a barrier …” to will become a barrier to personal fulfillment and a burden on the economy . .

7. Katja’s summary of the conclusion of the Habitat Forum in 1976 is that ”something has to be done to avert possible catastrophic consequences of a worldwide urbanization and the increase of slum areas.” We now realize that the cataclysms that we are being warned of will involve huge population movements and hair-raising images of consequences for human settlements everywhere – not the lesser catastrophes of the kind referred to by Enrique Peñalosa, but the far worse consequences of the rich man’s way of life so well represented in the cartoon.

John F C Turner, Hastings, April 9, 2006.

[1] In 1959 Ensie Weissmann contracted me to write up an aided self-help re-housing project for earthquake victims that I was responsible for in Arequipa. It lead to my dismissal from the Peruvian government ministry for which I was working. In 1964 I was the advisor for the UNTV film A Roof of My Own documenting the process of squatter settlements and pioneering projects securing squatters’ tenure and complementing their investments. That film got the UN into trouble with the Brazilian generals of the time – and I had a problem with the then President of Peru, Fernando Belaunde Terry, whom I had persuaded to endorse the film’s celebration of ordinary Peruvians astonishing feats of city building. Despite the name of his party, Acción Popular, Fernando had all the usual prejudices and the belief that the squatters should be sent to populate the infertile Amazonian forests. In 1965, when at the Harvard-MIT Joint Center for Urban Studies to which I had retreated, I was invited to prepare what turned out to be the key paper for the UNCHBP’s 1966 Pittsburgh conference on Uncontrolled Urban Settlement: problems and policies (I had then student Rolf Goetze’s invaluable help). The paper recommended the substitution of conventional policies for the eradication of supposed slums and resettlement in public housing with policies that support and complement what people and their own local communities can do themselves.

[2] in Freedom to Build, Dweller Control of the Housing Process, Macmillan, New York, 1972. John F C and Fichter, Robert, editors; Trans. Spanish, Libertad para Construir, Siglio XXI, Mexico, Buenos Aires and Madrid, 1976; and Italian, Libertá di Costruire, Il Saggiatore, Milan, 1979.