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close this bookThe Courier N 160 - Nov - Dec 1996 - Dossier Habitat - Country reports: Fiji , Tonga (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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View the documentLivable cities and rural rights
View the documentTowards a global concept of urban development - an interview with Daby Diagne
View the documentHabitat II: taking stock
View the document'A house to call my own'
View the documentMegacities
View the documentLagos under stress
View the documentA Eurocrat in Istanbul
View the documentThe exploding city
View the documentAdequate housing in the EU: rights and realities
View the documentCities of the Third World
View the documentWhen conservation is at odds with the local population
View the documentA new 'eco-centre' in West Africa: Two Presidents amid the dust
View the documentThe RDP challenge
View the documentTargeting South Africa's poor
View the document'Guardians of Eden'

Habitat II: taking stock

by Christian Cure'

The future of towns and cities is not what it was. In the 20 years between the first United Nations conference on human settlements (1976) and Habitat II which took place in Istanbul in June 1996, the situation has changed a good deal. The significance of urbanisation - and its irreversible nature - are now acknowledged, as is the powerlessness of the authorities to deal single handedly with the complex phenomena which result The author of this article points out that civil society has suddenly broken into a field hitherto the preserve of official agencies and qualified experts, claiming a 'right to the city' based on research into more equitable development models.

Vancouver to Istanbul: two symbols for two eras

Vancouver was the 1976 host of the first conference on human settlements organised by the United Nations. At that time, the UN was celebrating 30 years of existence and Vancouver, a model of urban development and modernity, provided inspiration for the developers and experts needed to plan the cities of the future. 'Appropriate technologies' heralded the possibility of mass-produced, cheap housing for everyone.

Twenty years later, the UN chose Istanbul as the host city for the Habitat II conference on human settlements, forcing us to face up to a quite different situation: uncontrollable urban growth (400 000 migrants arrive there every year), social and environmental problems, and intercultural and political tensions (amply illustrated by the Turkish politicians' inability to form a government at the very time the Conference was taking place). In brief, Istanbul presents us with the usual list of problems facing most of the world's major cities - and those of developing countries in particular.

Against this backdrop, the international community - 180 countries, 500 local dignitaries, a few thousand professionals and even some ordinary citizens - came together from 3 to 14 June to discuss a 'settlement action plan'. This document, which had been in preparation for two years, contains 183 articles. It sets out a series of goals, principles and undertakings as well as providing an action plan for cities, the initial results of which should begin to be seen by the year 2001.

The preparatory committee selected two basic topics for discussion: securing adequate shelter for all, a basic but nonetheless controversial theme; and sustainable urban development The latter encompasses housing, demographic factors, infrastructure, services, the environment, transport, energy, social and economic development, the future of underprivileged groups and combating exclusion.

The cycle initiated at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 (followed by the Copenhagen, Beijing and Cairo meetings) was continued by Habitat II. Two major handicaps had to be overcome - 'conference fatigue' (with the resulting fact that there were fewer delegates than anticipated) and ensuring that what had been accomplished at earlier conferences was not undermined. Given that the subject of the meeting was human settlements, it was inevitable that sensitive issues already debated at previous summits, relating to the environment and social aspects, would keep recurring.

Civil society as an active force

A number of conclusions arose from the official sessions (hearings, dialogues and various forums) which took place over the two weeks of the conference.

First, Habitat II represented a recognition of the fact of urbanisation. In the past, there was a tendency on the part of the international community to play down, or even ignore, the phenomenon of urban growth and this was reflected in the meagre resources allocated to this area by donors. Today, the issue is better understood than it was 10 or 20 years ago, and it is acknowledged that the growth trend is unstoppable. Statistical studies and a set of 'urban indicators' drawn up for Habitat II confirm the scale of the problem.

Second, the Istanbul summit was a lesson in modesty. The obvious powerlessness of public authorities to deal single-handedly with the challenge of burgeoning towns and cities is recognised. The result was an understanding that a more pragmatic view is needed - one which pays more attention to the complexities of urbanisation, to the wide variety of possible responses and, above all, to the multi-faceted nature of the players involved.

The Conference therefore became a genuine forum for debate. One of its most significant aspects was the emergence of 'civil society' as an active force. Hitherto, the field has largely been the preserve of official agencies and qualified experts. For the first time in a UN forum, local authorities, community leaders, private sector representatives and other dynamic forces in civil society were invited to give their views and take part in discussion groups. Whereas in the past, the debate was dominated by macroeconomic and technical questions, in Istanbul, the political and social aspects were given prominence as well.

The effect of this was to improve the quality of the debate. The outlines of a new relationship between governments and civil society (NGOs, ordinary citizens and popular urban groups) were defined - with the local authorities slotting in somewhere in the middle. And there was a particular focus on the question of dimension or scale: what should be the basis for urban democracy and citizenship. Both of these are seen as essential if one is to have successful and sustainable urban development policies.

A right to the city?

The first stage of the analysis is to look at urban life from a macroeconomic standpoint. Urban growth is determined by the evolution of the world economic system and, in particular, by the globalisation of markets. This has generated increased competition, including competition between cities themselves. Since the end of the 1980s, cities have been responsible for between 50% and 80% of the GDP of most countries. In other words, they represent more than mere links in the global economy; they are, in fact, pivotal points.

Hence the principles which broadly underpin the Habitat 11 programme. In fundamental terms, public policies must promote the capital, housing, property and employment markets, with a view to improving the efficiency of urban management (living conditions, infrastructures, services, environment, etc.). This is not just desirable in human terms but also essential if urban productivity is to be improved. Many decision-makers at the meeting agreed that privatisation of services, partnerships involving the authorities, the community and the private sector, and decentralisation were all part and parcel of a new standard for good local governance.

Representatives of 'social' interests, on the other hand, were successful in focusing the debate on fundamental rights and principles, including individual and social rights. Indeed, these issues dominated the Conference and gave rise to the most difficult negotiations.

There were prolonged talks, for example, on the central issue of the right to a roof over one's head. The outcome was a commitment by governments to promote 'the full and progressive acceptance of the right to adequate shelter'. The NGOs had been hoping for a more clear-cut undertaking. Questions relating to the status of vulnerable groups, women's rights and their equal access to land, and protection against eviction, were also the subject of heated exchanges.

Perhaps the most important step forward, however, was the success of civil society representatives in sowing the seeds of a new idea - the 'right to the city'. This concept has been devised on the basis of research into more equitable and soundly-based development models to which local authorities are increasingly giving practical support. Thousands of individual experiences and issues were highlighted in Istanbul by NGOs and community groups. Thus, there is a mass of evidence that populations are capable of responding through local initiatives and of taking responsibility for improving their living and housing conditions. If this 'resource' is to be exploited to the full, urban politicians must develop a deeper understanding of the scale of micro-territories and local societies within cities. They also need to promote and coordinate their decision-making in a way which involves consulting and involving the local populations. In the modern era, this is the key to ensuring social cohesion.

Beyond Istanbul

There may have been a lot of new thinking on the basic principles, but there was no reference to financial undertakings in the Habitat 11 programme. On the latter issue, the international community was highly circumspect.

The World Bank took the initiative, announcing the launch of an 'urban compact', involving an additional $15 billion in loans for urban projects over the next five years. It also revealed that it would triple its aid to NGOs involved in the urban environment. Recent World Bank estimates suggest that just 0.2% to 0.5% of a country's GDP would need to be set aside for the poor to gain access to basic urban services.

As regards monitoring, the NGOs and local authorities won the right to sit on the Human Settlements Committee which will be responsible for implementing the habitat programme.

The most important points to emerge from Istanbul, however, were that local authorities were given both formal recognition, and a major practical role - in keeping with their current responsibilities. The habitat programme is, in fact, a powerful call for decentralisation and increased local autonomy, its action plan being built on the implicit principles of 'subsidiarily' and 'proximity'. To a large extent, the successful implementation of the programme will depend on the mobilisation of municipal politicians and officials - and on the policies they adopt at local level. The agenda for cities in the 21 st century that was adopted at the Rio Summit must now be fleshed out and become the future reference for action by local authorities, NGOs and citizens' associations. Finally, the importance of decentralised cooperation and the role of local councils in international cooperation have been reconfirmed.

Local authorities and their international organisations decided to form a worldwide coordinating group to continue structured dialogue with the international community and to guarantee that the Istanbul resolutions are followed up.

Some people predicted that Habitat 11 would be 'the revenge of the cities'. To quote P. Maragall, chairman of the Committee of the Regions, the conference at least provided the opportunity to build, and to give a wider audience to 'the voice of the United Cities within the United Nations'. That itself is a major step forward.