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The New Urban Agenda: the error of leaving the solution of challenges and commitments to the market

La Nueva Agenda Urbana: el error de dejar al mercado la solución de los desafíos y compromisos

Ritaual de clausura del Foro Social de Resistencia Popular a Habitat III, QUITO, ECUADOR (20 Octubre 2016)

Through Resolution 66/207 on December 22, 2011, the General Assembly of the United Nations decided to convene the Habitat III Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, to be held in Quito, Ecuador from October 17 to 20, 2016, with the aim of examining the global urban situation and approving a New Urban Agenda.

Following the procedures of the United Nations, the General Assembly formed a preparatory committee, open to all Member States of the United Nations. The committee organized ten groups[1]  that gave rise to working documents[2] , meetings, and thematic statements[3] . As part of this process, the Urban World Forum of Medellín (April 2014) was also held, and the Prepcom I, Prepcom II and Prepcom III[4] .

The Resolution sets the pattern of the concerns of the United Nations, to be worked on in the course of the process:

“ (…) Also recalling the objective, set forth in the Millennium Declaration and the final report of the 2005 World Summit, of significantly improving the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020, and the objective set out in the Implementation Plan of the Decisions of the World Summit on Sustainable Development ("Implementation Plan of the Johannesburg Decisions") to halve the percentage of people who lack access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2015,

(…) Expressing concern at the steady increase in the number of slum dwellers around the world, despite achieving the Millennium Development Goals’ target for a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020,

(…) Taking note of the final document of the High-level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly on the Millennium Development Goals, in particular paragraph 77k, in which the Heads of State and Government committed to work for cities to not have marginal neighbourhoods, even surpassing current goals, by reducing slum populations and improving their living conditions, with adequate support from the international community, and to do so by giving priority to national urban planning strategies in which all stakeholders participate, promoting equal access for the inhabitants of slums to public services—including health, education, energy, water and sanitation, and adequate housing, promoting sustainable urban and rural development, and encouraging UN-Habitat to continue to provide the necessary technical assistance.”

Based on the follow-up of these initiatives and concerns, it can be said that the realization of Habitat III was preceded by a broad process of reflection and debate that, at the national level, should have materialized in the formation of National Committees, and in the elaboration of status reports by country. However, this second step occurred very weakly or not at all. The mobilization of the states towards Habitat III and the participation of the civil society were practically absent from the process, which led to the discussion being carried out almost exclusively among experts within official or semi-official circles.

An initial approach to the situation of cities, a framework from which subsequent reflection should be developed, was raised by the Nairobi Declaration (April 13, 2015), which stated the following: "We note that the urbanization process in the last twenty years has expanded and accelerated even more, especially in the developing world, so that by 2050 it is expected that at least two thirds of the world population will live in urban areas. In addition to being sources and sites of exacerbated conflicts and inequalities, cities are also centers of opportunity and drivers of prosperity."

Months later, the Montreal Declaration on Metropolitan Areas (October 6 & 7, 2015), emphasized this idea as follows: "We live in an increasingly urban world. For the first time in history, more than half of the world's population lives in cities. By 2050, this figure will reach almost 70%. In 1996, when Habitat II was held in Istanbul, there were 2.6 billion people living in urban areas worldwide. It is expected that in 2016, when the global community meets in Quito for the Habitat III Conference, this amount will reach 4 billion. According to the OECD, at the end of this "metropolitan century", most of the urbanization process of our planet will probably be completed, and by the year 2100, approximately 85% of the world population will live in cities. This accelerated urbanization is evident in the countries of Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America." The Montreal Declaration also concluded that the rise of metropolitan areas and socio-spatial and economic inequalities presented significant challenges in the metropolises.

To address the challenges of today's cities, the New Urban Agenda defines three main pillars: planning, urban legislation, and financing, which, interacting together, would provide the necessary framework for development. Accordingly, good urban planning is essential for the development of profitable and sustainable investments, based on adequate legislation and sound finances, without which even the best designed plans will never come to fruition. On this basis, the new urban agenda proposes the following main variables: Population and urbanization, poverty and inequality, exclusion and segregation, certain commitments, and an action plan.


  1. Leave no one behind; end poverty in all its forms and dimensions.
  2. Affirm citizens' rights.
  3. Guarantee a city for all.
  4. Promote sustainable and inclusive urban economies; achieve gender equality.
  5. Sustainability of the environment in terms of land and energy.
  6. Approve and implement disaster risk reduction policies.

Action plan

Urban Economy

Item 45 : Dynamic, sustainable and inclusive urban economies.

Item 46:  Social housing and public services as catalysts of economic development.

Item 58:  Enabling environment for business activity based on the principles of environmental sustainability and inclusive prosperity.

Sustainable urban and rural development

Item 27 : Equitable access to the city.

Items 26 and 49 : People-centered urban and rural development, that protects the planet (considers age, gender, and care of the earth). / Management and sustainable use of natural resources and land.

Land management

Item 69 : Social and ecological function of lands.

Item 71 : Sustainable management of resources.

Item 72 : Urban and regional planning.

Item 74:  Rational waste management.

Item 75 : Energy efficient construction.

Items 65 - 67 - 73 - 77 : Sustainable management of natural resources in cities and settlements in a way that protects urban ecosystems through disaster risk reduction strategies. / Quality public spaces, resilience to climate change and disasters. / Sustainable use of water. / Resilience of cities with the Sendai framework.

Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation

Items 79 - 74 - 50:  Climate change mitigation and adaptation, global temperature rise below 2degC, strive to not surpass 1.5degC warming. / Use of renewable energy. / Sustainable transport and mobility.

Defence of public space

Items 37 and 51 : Public spaces that are safe, inclusive, accessible, green, and of high quality. / Public spaces that are safe, inclusive, and sustainable.

Housing and services

Items 32 - 33 - 35 - 36 : Development of policies and integrated housing approaches. / Promote housing policies at the national, regional, and local levels aimed at the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing. / Improve tenure security for all. / Accessibility for people with disabilities.

Item 34:  Equitable and affordable access to sustainable basic physical and social infrastructure for all.

Item 55:  Adequate public services that guarantee healthy cities.

Instruments for urban management

Item 15:  Work towards a change in the urban paradigm:

- Reorient the way of planning, financing, developing, directing and managing cities and settlements towards sustainable urban development

- Recognize the leading role of national governments in the definition and application of inclusive and effective urban policies.

- People-centered approaches to sustainable urban development.

- Strengthening urban governance

- Reactivation of planning

- Effective, innovative, and sustainable frameworks and instruments for financing.

Topics in Debate

Despite the efforts made so far by the United Nations, the main variables proposed by Habitat III—comparable with those of COP 21 and Sendai, and that are synthesized in the Sustainable Development Goals (respecting the specificity of each of the spaces referenced here)—continue to be unanswered challenges,  especially so when they are not accompanied by precise indicators that commit States in a real way.

Regarding the first issue, poverty and inequality, the preparatory document[5]  of May 31, 2015, states the following: "Urbanization offers the possibility of new forms of social inclusion, including greater equality, access to services, new opportunities, and participation and mobilization that reflects the diversity of cities, countries, and the world." But it adds that “inequality and exclusion abound, to the detriment of sustainable development: One third of the urban population of the developing world (863 million people) live in slums[6]  and more than two thirds do so in cities where income inequality has increased since 1980.[7]

To remedy this situation, notes the document, it is necessary to take two paths simultaneously: a) the political commitment  to inclusive urban development, and b) establish mechanisms and institutions  that facilitate inclusion, including participatory policy decisions, accountability, universal access to services, spatial planning, and a strong recognition of the complementary functions of national and local governments in the pursuit of inclusive growth.

We know, however, that poverty, spatial segregation, and the vulnerability of cities and their populations are not due only to the absence of political decisions, or to the existence of deficient mechanisms and institutions. UN-HABITAT / ROLAC has published several studies that analyse the current situation of Latin American cities. "Faces of Poverty in Cities of Latin America and the Caribbean[8] " tells of the reality of a large part of the population living in cities in this part of the world, characterized by material precariousness in terms of housing, services, water and sanitation, disposal of waste, transportation, stagnation in access to property, and violence—a product of a situation of structural exclusion in which risk and vulnerability are the daily context for the majority of the population. There is a growing phenomenon of inequality in the distribution of income around the world. A recent report by Oxfam on global inequality[9]  proposes some revealing figures. According to this report, the world's wealth is divided into two: Half is in the hands of 1% of the population, and the other half is distributed among the remaining 99%. Likewise, 10% of the world population owns 86% of the planet's resources, while the poorest 70% (more than 3 billion adults) only have 3%. The report and other studies indicate that this inequality is deepening and becoming more and more evident where the majority of the population is today, that is, in the cities.

With regard to the rural-urban relationship, Habitat III preparatory document No. 10, Rural-Urban Linkages[10] , states that: "The interdependencies between urban and rural areas, their flows and functions are demonstrated through the local and national economic dynamics, socio-cultural bonds and environmental synergies that are produced through human settlements. These include financial remittances, food security, migration, prevention and reduction of loss of food and food waste, ecosystem services, goods, social services, transport, employment, energy, and markets".

In the perspective of guaranteeing an adequate relationship between one and the other, it proposes a series of measures such as regional planning, decentralization, the strengthening of intermediate cities, the development of public mechanisms aimed at reducing poverty, social attention to reduce inequalities, the strengthening of connectivity, and the protection of ecosystems, among other measures.

According to UN projections, in the year 2025 of 8.3 billion people worldwide, 5 billion will live in cities, and of them, 4 billion in 27 cities of the Global South with more than 8 million inhabitants (21 of these cities are located in Asia). Philippe Haeringer calls this phenomenon of uncontrollable urban expansion, "megalopolization[11] ", where urban growth would have been autonomized from economic and social conditions, constituting a phenomenon in itself to the detriment of the countryside, beyond the capacity of cities to adequately host or not, new contingents of inhabitants.

More than having a role or function reserved for increasingly specific places, megacities—particularly those of the third world—exist today for themselves and due to themselves. This situation generates very serious problems of sustainability due to the incessant increase of urban density, traffic, noise, and air pollution. However it also generates new forms of relationship between city and countryside, where the first, in need of an increasing amount of resources for its existence, literally devours the latter economically and ecologically.

In terms of urban vulnerability, the Habitat III preparatory document No 15, "Urban Resilience", is a call to face the dangers derived from natural phenomena through "resilience", understood as the recognition of the urban area as "a complex and dynamic system that must continually adapt to diverse challenges in an integrated and holistic manner." It argues that the more people and assets are concentrated in cities, the more complex the range of shocks and stresses that can influence, negatively or positively, resilience.

Vulnerability is closely linked with poverty, socio-spatial segregation, and social inequalities, which mean that a significant part of the population is located in inconvenient, inaccessible places in houses of precarious materials, without water or electricity, exposed to natural phenomena and everyday risks. Reality shows that the best land in an urban environment is appropriated by real estate capital. Further, in general, the state, by the logic of "promoting investment", services the land and builds large physical infrastructure through public-private partnerships.

On the ecological sustainability and the difficulty to adapt to climate change, the Report "The State of Cities in Latin America and the Caribbean" (2012) by UN-Habitat points out that the demand for water in the large urban areas of Latin America increased 76% in 15 years; that pollution from sewage dumping is becoming a given constant; that many of the rivers have been converted into open sewers; and that many cities suffer from the excessive presence in their atmosphere of particles that have harmful impacts on health.[12]  This report adds that the physical growth of Latin American cities is causing a significant loss of the natural environment and the breakdown of ecosystems that cause irreparable damage to biodiversity[13] . On the other hand, urban ecosystems have inadequate disposal of urban waste. The decomposition of solid waste contaminates water sources, and methane emissions deteriorate air quality.

On urban planning, Habitat III preparatory document No. 8, "Urban spatial planning and design", notes that "there is a growing global consensus that urban planning strategies and policies contribute to economic growth, social development, and environmental sustainability and resilience”. The recent debate on the Post-2015 Development Agenda emphasized the development of inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable human settlements. Urban planning was recognized as a positive way to shape a sustainable and equitable future. This marks a significant change in past perceptions and an emphasis on strategies "that limited the role of the public actor, while giving a preponderant role to market forces".

Despite this desire, Alain Bourdin[14]  points out that the current metropolitan civilization is intimately tied to the market and the culture of consumption: Consuming has become a vision of the world, a value in itself. The main actors in the big city are those who have the power to decisively influence the minds and hearts of millions of people by telling them what to consume and what not to, when, and why; those who imagine the products, invent behaviours, and create the new demands of consumption; those who with their symbolic production encourage movement; and those who own the capital and accumulate the profits generated by this movement.

However, the market not only shapes the expectations of the citizens but also the city itself: for example, in response to concrete economic interests, real estate capital, or those that propose privatization of services. This makes the city a permanent scenario of conflict, in which the have-nots often succumb to a scenario that, moreover, is increasingly dominated by organized gangs and drug trafficking.

Finally, in regards to financing, Habitat III preparatory document No. 7, "Municipal Finances", notes that: "Despite their economic importance, cities lack resources for development. In many countries, local taxes could be an important source of financing for development, but regional governments are not allowed to expand their income base. In developing countries, local taxes represent 2.3% of GDP, compared to 6.4% in industrialized countries (...) Local governments are under pressure to do more with less. In many cases, municipal functions are becoming increasingly complex and include issues of job creation, social inclusion and climate change. Therefore, they have to be creative in finding income sources and judicious in rationalizing their expenses. Most cities in the developing world still rely heavily on transfers and subsidies. The structure of local income shows that the regional contribution is potentially a good source of local income, but in most developing cities, this represents less than 4.3% of local revenues, compared to 40-50% in cities in Australia, Canada, France, the UK, and the US."

Financing, crucial for urban development, is closely linked to measures such as the decentralization of public resources and the establishment of adequate mechanisms for recovery of urban surplus value. It also has to do with a perspective of development, siloed by sector and in pyramidal hierarchy, that must change into another, in which territoriality and horizontality prevail.

These problems that we have mentioned already were present in the concern of Habitat II, held in Istanbul, Turkey in 1996. We recall point 4 of the Istanbul Declaration: To improve the quality of life within human settlements, we must combat the deterioration of conditions that in most cases, particularly in developing countries, have reached crisis proportions. To this end, we must address comprehensively, inter alia, unsustainable consumption and production patterns, particularly in industrialized countries; unsustainable population changes, including changes in structure and distribution, giving priority consideration to the tendency towards excessive population concentration; homelessness; increasing poverty; unemployment; social exclusion; family instability; inadequate resources; lack of basic infrastructure and services; lack of adequate planning; growing insecurity and violence; environmental degradation; and increased vulnerability to disasters. " [15]

To this end, Habitat II established certain commitments, including consideration of the social function of land and property, promoting the recovery of urban capital gains, protecting vulnerable populations against eviction, guaranteeing the progressive right to adequate housing, and promoting sustainable human settlements.

Habitat III has not evaluated the status of the commitments adopted in 1996 and, above all, the policies established to carry them out: the state as a facilitator and as a subsidiary agent of private investment.[16]  Perhaps this lack of critical balance of the ineffectiveness of these policies adopted twenty years earlier—leaving the solution of Habitat problems almost exclusively in the hands of private initiative— has been the main weakness of Habitat III, because in doing so, the same error occurs. This explains to a large extent why habitat problems have worsened globally in the last two decades and why the challenges we face are increasing. These problems cannot be solved by the New Urban Agenda, nor by urban resilience—a poorly focused buzzword, because it starts from the mistaken assumption that we must adapt to neoliberal policies that promote development without limits. In other words, accept a development-oriented social pact reinforced by Habitat III but already defeated by reality.

We need a new urban social pact that involves everyone and that arises from inhabitants themselves, not from resilience, but from their resistance to unrestrained development policies, their networks, and urban social movements. We need a pact based on human rights, the environment, and responsibility towards this generation and those to come.

[1] The Right to the City, urban socio-cultural framework, national urban policies, urban governance and institutional development, municipal treasury and local systems, urban-territorial strategies: land markets and segregation, economic development strategies, urban ecology, urban services and technology, and housing policies.

[2]  http://habitat3.org/the-new-urban-agenda/documents/issue-papers/


 • Citizen Participation - Tel-Aviv, Israel  (September 2015).

 • Metropolitan Areas - Montreal, Canada  (October 2015). 

 • Intermediary Cities - Cuenca, Ecuador (November 2015).

 • Cities and Renewable Energy - Abu Dhabi, UAE (January 2016).

 • Smart Cities - Barcelona, Spain (February 2016).

 • Informal Settlements - Johannesburg, South Africa (February 2016).

 • Financing the New Urban Agenda - Mexico City, Mexico (March 2016).

[4] September 2014, April 2015 and July 2016.

[5] Habitat III Themes

[6]  Almost one billion people live in slums without basic services and social protection (UN Habitat: 2010/2011).

[7]  The line of alert is determined by the UN when the countries/cities reach a Gini above 0.4. UN-Habitat and CAF (2104) Construction of More Equitable Cities: Public Policies for Inclusion in Latin America, Nairobi and Caracas.

[8]  UN-HABITAT / ROLAC– Rio de Janeiro – Brasil, Agosto 2005


[10]  New York, May 31, 2015

[11]  “The Megalopolization of the world. From the concept of Cities to the reality of the Megalopolis.” In Geography and Culture, No 6 June 1993, pg. 3-14

[12]  Between 2000 and 2004, the annual average surpassed the recommended level by the WHO (20 micrograms/m3). The greatest contributor to atmospheric contamination is land transport, but also electricity generation by coal or oil and industrial production.

[13]  The World Health Organization recommends that cities provide at least 9 to 11 square meters of green area per resident. Notwithstanding, the data collected between 2003 and 2008 for 16 cities show that half of them do not comply with this recommendation.

[14]  “La Métropole des Individus”, L‟Aube, Essai, Paris 2005.  A.B es Sociólogo y urbanista, profesor en la Universidad de París VIII, Director del Instituto Francés de Urbanismo.   

[15]  http://habitat.aq.upm.es/aghab/adeclestambul.html

[16]  See this reference to housing policies: "Los Con Techo, A challenge for social housing policy”, Susana Aravena et al, Edited by Alfredo Rodríguez and Ana Sugranyes, Ed. SUR, Santiago 2005.

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Kaitlyn Dietz


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