In a swelter over shelter

Besides highlighting some of the enduring concerns faced by today's urban planners, what else has the Istanbul 'city summit' -- Habitat II -- actually achieved?

By Vir Singh
Published: Sunday 07 June 2015

In a swelter over shelter

-- (Credit: Shri Krishan)
with the broad consensus over the need to address the world's burgeoning urban crisis, much was expected of Habitat ii, the second un Conference on Human Settlements held June 3-14 in Turkey's very own 'mega-city', Istanbul. However, the question before the delegates was: how was the crisis to be addressed?

The Istanbul meeting, dubbed the 'city summit' by un secretary-general Boutros Boutros Ghali, marked the 20th anniversary of the initial Habitat conference at Vancouver, which for the first time had planted urban issues on the global agenda and offered visions of what a future city would look like. The difference today is the context -- the overwhelming scale and immediacy of the crisis. Problems of rapid urbanisation -- unemployment, homelessness, hunger, crime, random violence and declining air and water quality -- have reached almost unmanageable proportions.

In 1950, 30 per cent of the world's population lived in cities; only London and New York had a population of more than eight million. By 1995, the world's urban population had tripled to 2.5 billion -- about 45 per cent of the planet's population. In the last 46 years, the number of cities containing more than eight million residents has jumped from two to 20. In 1950, there were no such mega-cities in the developing world; today, there are 16. In less than 10 years, half of humanity will live in urban areas.

Of particular concern to policymakers is the fact that the bulk of urbanisation is occurring in developing nations, most of which are ill-equipped to deal even with existing urban problems. Habitat estimates that by the year 2025, 80 per cent of the world's urban population will live in developing countries. Unsanitary housing conditions have wreaked havoc in the developing world, from a recent cholera epidemic that swept through Peru to the plague outbreak of 1994 that hit India. Increasing inequalities in cities has led to social exclusion, creating war zones in Karachi, Lagos and Port-au-Prince.

Developed countries too face growing problems. Fiscal crises have prompted city governments to cut employment rolls, sparking widespread protests. Integration of immigrants remains a major challenge in rich countries. Meanwhile, income disparities amongst urban dwellers, within countries as also between developing and developed nations, continue to increase.

The delegates at Istanbul focussed on practical solutions, featuring more than 600 'best practices' -- initiatives that would address housing, credit, employment and other urban needs. Wally N'Dow, secretary-general of Habitat ii and head of the Nairobi-based un Centre for Human Settlements (unchs) called for "new and innovative partnerships" to provide the required political impetus for implementing the global plan of action. But the conference also saw renewed and, according to some, unnecessary, debate on previously discussed issues, including programmes for reproductive health and family planning, parents' and children's rights, recognition of same-sex couples etc.

A right to housing
The greatest controversy at Habitat ii centered around the responsibility of governments to provide housing. The debate pitted supporters of 'housing as a human right' against those governments, especially the us, which opposed housing as a 'stand-alone' right. After prolonged negotiations, in a trade-off between delegates, mention of the right to adequate housing was dropped from the preamble to the action plan, but left intact in other sections. Some housing rights activists praised the outcome as the first explicit recognition of an independent right to housing by Habitat. The housing language now includes water and sanitation as primary ingredients of an adequate standard of living, in addition to food, clothing and housing.

ngo activists also raised the issue of forced evictions, including removal of residents for development projects and raids on squatter settlements. But here again, they had to settle for a compromise. While the activists secured language protecting residents from forced, not just illegal, evictions, governments merely agreed to oppose "forced evictions that are contrary to the law".

Where's the money coming from?
Even these limited victories are meaningless without resources. The World Bank renewed its call for harnessing private firms to the cause of housing, shelter, basic city services and employment. But before that, governments need to provide an investor-friendly environment -- transparent, responsive, with consistent policies and greater decentralisation of authority.

Local government representatives, in their statement to country delegates (the first recognition at the un of local authorities as a distinct group), called for long-term private investment, rather than speculative ventures, in city projects. They also asked for greater revenue collection powers.

Around the world, national governments, while quickly divesting themselves of local and regional responsibilities, have not granted the required fiscal authority to local governments. "It is not just about finance at the local level," said India's Ela Bhatt, who has founded the widely acclaimed Self-Employed Women's Association (sewa) in Ahmedabad. "It is about the sustainability of the whole effort."

The Group of 77 (g-77) developing nations and China wanted to commit rich nations to upping development assistance to 0.7 per cent of their gross domestic product. Paula DiPerna, a development analyst, noted that increased assistance from developed countries and higher social spending by developing nations were "the keystones of the Rio compact", yet none of the Habitat seminars focussed on the decline, since 1992, of both.

Besides development assistance, the largest developing country concern to emerge at Habitat involved the institutions that are to coordinate implementation of the conference agenda. Developed nations, led by the us, did not support strong, independent roles for the unchs and the Commission on Human Settlements, choosing instead to "link" them to "the process of un reform". g-77 / China took this to mean consolidation of unchs into another un arm which might shift the agency from Nairobi to New York, a move resisted by the African delegates. Finally, however, us negotiators gave way and agreed in principle to end efforts to curtail the unchs and the Commission.

Fireworks and fizzle
On the final day of the conference, Cuba's Fidel Castro blasted the world's rich nations, almost all of which had not sent top leaders to Istanbul, for their apparent lack of political support. "Those who have almost destroyed the planet and poisoned the air, the seas, the rivers and the soils, are presently showing little concern over saving humankind," Castro told a packed house. "How many heads of state and government from the developed countries are attending this meeting today?" Postponements and delays in negotiations spilled over onto the last day. Persisting differences -- among others, on reproductive health, rehabilitation of local residents to former nuclear testing grounds (Marshall Islands) and recognition of original residents of occupied territories (an Arab initiative directed at Israel) -- dragged on till the gavel sounded.

Partnerships and political will
To consolidate Habitat ii's gains, two things are needed. The first, institutionalisation of partnerships, is already in progress. In the days preceding the official conference, local authorities, private firms and foundations and women's groups met to review the draft Habitat plan and were granted an opportunity to highlight concerns and make suggestions to government delegates.

At Istanbul, national governments repeatedly stressed the need, because of growing fiscal deficits, for granting greater responsibility to local authorities; the latter complained that they did not have the necessary authority to raise their own revenues for meeting newly-granted responsibilities for water, electricity, roads and other essentials. This leads to the other essential element: political will.

Habitat ii was marked by the virtual absence of world leaders, a fact that does not bode well for the future of decentralisation. Community groups noted that only top-level political support in respective nations can foster and sustain lasting partnerships.

Throughout the conference, no direct mention was made of the fact that nowhere on the planet is there a sustainable city of the sort envisioned by the delegates. Yet, as the 'best practices' demonstrate, there are plenty of examples illustrating various elements of sustainability. A feature common to all the best practices is broad-based participation. And it is on that front, Habitat organisers say, that most progress can be made. Real partnerships, uk's secretary of state for environment John Gummer pointed out, form "when even the poorest see that they have a part to play, that they can take ownership, that their contribution, however small, is a necessary part of the achievement of a new city. It is then that we have begun on the only process which can make the ideals of Habitat ii a success."

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