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Published on 29/10/2016

Back from Habitat III

From 17 to 20 October, the third United Nations conference on housing and sustainable urban development brought together 35,000 people from 107 countries in Ecuador’s capital city. GRET was also present in Quito, with three representatives participating to convey the vision and messages of the NGO. A look back at some key points after four days of fruitful discussions.

The last UN conference on the subject – Habitat III, held in Istanbul in 1996 – brought together some 10,000 participants. In Quito, twenty years later, the public had expanded considerably: as well as political deciders, a large number of experts, academics, private sector stakeholders, members of civil society and residents’ associations were in attendance… as well as young people, via alternative forums and events organised in parallel to the official conference. Given the acceleration of urbanization and increasingly dizzying projections – the United Nations estimates for example that 200,000 people move to urban areas every day and that two thirds of the world population will be living in cities by 2050 – it is crucial to attempt to counter the potential ill-effects and to work together to build viable, fair and environmentally respectful urban territories. In light of this, GRET dispatched a team of three people to attend the event: Virginie Rachmuhl and Antoine Ciguené, urban development experts with GRET (the former at Headquarters and the latter in Haiti), accompanied by Serge Felix, general secretary of the Baillergeau neighbourhood council that was set up by GRET in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

GRET’s high points at Habitat III

GRET produced a number of documents for the Habitat III conference: position briefs, solution factsheets and videos that you can see here. It was also involved in organising several events. Firstly, together with CESSMA – the Research institute for development-laboratory, the Lavue-CNRS Laboratory, Egyptian engineering consultants Takween Integrated Community Development – and in partnership with the AFD, Cities Alliance and Centre Sud – it co-organised a side event entitled “Co-production of knowledge on diversity in precarious neighbourhoods”. This workshop, which took place on 17 October at la Casa de la Cultura and on 20 October at the AFD stand, gave rise to a very fruitful exchange of experiences between researchers, professionals, a donor, a residents’ representative and a municipal executive, who had travelled from Burkina Faso, Egypt, France, Haiti and Myanmar.

On 20 October at the France Pavilion, GRET also organised and facilitated a workshop to present the Reconstruction Support Centre set up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as part of its Reconstruction and Upgrading Project in Baillergeau (Areba), following the earthquake in 2010. Lastly, GRET participated in a side event organised on 19 October by the AFD on the theme of “Cities and crises”, as part of an exchange between the Central African Republic and Haiti. It also spoke on 19 October at the Alliance Française on appropriate housing for the French overseas territories.

In-depth discussions on co-production in precarious neighbourhoods

In Quito, GRET particularly highlighted the notion of co-production. As a reminder, this approach consists of producing knowledge in collaboration with various stakeholders – inhabitants, researchers, professionals and representatives from local authorities. Methods vary: planning produced by inhabitants, work on existing data, exploratory markets, etc. The specific feature of co-production is the fact that it comprises localised knowledge that comes from the field, contrary to more general traditional studies.

“It’s also a knowledge that focuses on action: it leads inhabitants to deeper knowledge of themselves and to formulate clear requests to the public authorities. It makes it possible to take better decisions”, remarks Kareem Ibrahim, founder of Takween ICD, during the workshop devoted to the subject. Co-production in itself possesses a transformative capacity. It “changes our way of thinking and of seeing”, adds Toe Aung, director of urban planning in Yangon, Myanmar.

This workshop – in which GRET actively participated – focused more specifically on the issue of co-production in precarious neighbourhoods. During the discussions, Agnès Deboulet from the Lavue-CNRS Laboratory highlighted the huge diversity of these neighbourhoods and the stigma that is often attached to them. The term “precarious” must be used, according to her, not to highlight the physical characteristics of neighbourhoods, but to illustrate the absence of recognition they are subjected to and the precariousness of their situation, as they are constantly vulnerable to risks of eviction by public authorities. When choosing terminology, the focus must therefore be on the political aspect.

New Urban Agenda: some prospects for the immediate future

At the end of the Habitat III conference, 197 countries adopted the United Nations New Urban Agenda (NUA), which provides guidelines – that are not bindings – to draw up national policies on urban development for the next twenty years.

On the issue of precarious neighbourhoods, this new agenda does not propose significant progress compared to the two previous UN conferences. The dominant position remains unchanged, i.e. they must disappear, using either preventive or curative means. Among the institutions that defend these neighbourhoods – including GRET – there has been a noteworthy change: it is no longer just about having them integrated into the city, they must be considered rather as sources of inspiration for designing the cities of the future. In so far as they represent the largest form of urbanization in the 21st century, precarious neighbourhoods should be taken fully into account in urban planning so that they obtain long-awaited recognition.

This subject is directly related to the right to the city. Its defenders are pleased that this issue is referred to in the NUA, even if the formulation remains prudent: “We note the efforts of some national and local governments to enshrine this vision, referred to as right to the city, in their legislations, political declarations and charters.” This acquirement is a first step. The right to the city defines cities as a “common” good that benefits those who live in it, as opposed to a market-based vision of cities. Public space – which comprises the “commons” of the city that are open and free for all – has an essential role to play. For people living in highly dense precarious neighbourhoods, the existence of such spaces is vital. Yet there tends to be less such spaces and an increasing degree of built-up space. Lastly, governance is another aspect: the right to the city is a process that can be achieved above all via social movements. It also requires public regulation and participation of inhabitants, as local authorities can facilitate the development of civic initiatives.

The Habitat III conference is finished, but a lot remains to be done for the principles adopted at it to be applied. GRET will continue to attentively monitor progress, promote concrete solutions co-built with its partners and invest itself in creating strategic alliances in order to influence political decisions.

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