Central Quito was in gridlock for almost a week as the city hosted the UN’s Habitat III conference. An estimated 30,000 people gathered in the Ecuadorean capital for this landmark meeting which takes place every 20 years in a different part of the world. Government representatives, housing and planning experts, activists, and a host of others held intense discussions and compared notes on ways to solve housing problems affecting both rich and poor countries.
In his closing comments, the Habitat Secretary-General, Dr. Joan Clos, said 167 countries were represented at Habitat III making it bigger than Habitats I and II. He said urbanization was a dominating and world-changing force:
“Urbanization is happening at an unprecedented pace and scale, and 3.7 billion people now live in cities. We think in the forthcoming years, by 2050, this will rise to 7 billion. This is a figure that has global impact.
“It is historic in the sense that never in human history have we seen such a transformation of human society. This represents huge challenges, and the New Urban Agenda aims to guide strategy to face these challenges.”
Dr. Clos emphasized that there was no international treaty to force common action. The New Urban Agenda adopted this week was intended to provide a framework and guidelines to be integrated into national policy. Migration, increased inequality, and climate change needed to be addressed. A different approach was proposed. The new conceptual proposal of Habitat III was that urbanization should not be feared but guided in a positive direction.
During the first few days, getting into the conference center posed the biggest hurdle. On the first day, people had to queue for up to 3 hours or more to clear security and enter the main venues which were spread across the city. Main roads were blocked to the despair of taxi drivers. Signposting was unclear, and bewildered and confused delegates were to be seen wandering around trying to find meeting rooms and entry points.
Once these hurdles were cleared, the speakers and sessions were stimulating and informative. Speakers from countries as diverse as the US, China, India, Brazil, Colombia, South Africa, and Ghana expounded their views on housing and planning problems. They discussed ways to make cities more inclusive, greener, cleaner, safer, and better connected.
The poor are being increasingly edged out of cities because of the high cost of houses to buy or rent. As a result, cities have become the domain of the rich while the less well off, who are essential to the efficient running of cities, cannot afford to live in them. The extreme poor are joining the growing ranks of the homeless. These problems are being experienced in varying degrees in both the affluent North and the South. This is why housing has been placed at the center of the New Urban Agenda.
Professor Han Verschure from Leuven University, who has attended all three Habitat meetings, has some reservations about the New Urban Agenda. “The New Urban Agenda is there and approved, but it is a very general non-committal document. Unfortunately, in the face of so many challenges, such as the increasing gap between rich and poor, the dominance of the real estate developers in shaping the formal cities disregarding the majority of urban communities, the incapacity of many national politicians to develop a long-term vision or to defend real sustainable cities, this is a missed opportunity.” He qualified this by adding that the preparatory work done, among others by the experts on the Policy Unit documents and by UN-Habitat, was quite promising and on some subjects also innovative.
On the positive side, Prof Verschure says local authorities have gained a stronger voice in the debate, and several cities around the world are initiating sustainable urban development programs and projects, together with local communities. Many more have to follow. “The young generation have a tremendous task and responsibility in the coming years,” he said.
Li Sun, a young Chinese sociologist, said her particular concerns were social exclusion and pollution which she highlighted in her contribution to the conference.
There are 275 million migrant workers from rural areas in Chinese cities who are excluded from urban social welfare systems. They are making a huge contribution to economic development but not enjoying the benefits.
Li Sun says: “Economy is not so much an issue in urban China. 500 million Chinese have already been lifted out of poverty in the last 3 decades. However, social inequality and exclusion are matters of intense debate among researchers and scholars in China. More attention should be paid to social inclusion and justice in studies.”
A former Habitat official, Nicholas You, who attended as an independent consultant, summed up the general view of the conference, “Fantastic conference, fantastic gathering, unfortunately the registration and entrance is a microcosm of inequity and inequality.”
The conference was rich in ideas. As always, hopes and aims were high but the fundamental challenge lies in finding resources to turn vision into reality. Hopefully, despite the odds, there will be genuine progress when Habitat meets again in 20 years. Meanwhile, the people of Quito can reclaim their roads and enjoy the freedom of the city again.
All photos © Rita Payne