Opinion Author: Jim Jarvie, Denia Syam Comments

New visions for how cities will look in the future are increasingly criticized by NGOs and other civil society organizations for not focusing on the rights of urban citizens, particularly those increasingly “left behind”.

Many ACCCRN members and partners are therefore focused on a “New Urban Agenda” to be agreed by the Habitat III cities conference in October 2016.

The agenda is ambitious, calling for fair and inclusive urbanization. Yet even though it is being developed through a lengthy consultation process, questions have been raised over whether consultation is being taken seriously.

There is already a recognized failure to discuss commitments made during the Habitat II conference in 1996, and progress towards them. There is no obvious consideration of what steps governments and other signatories have taken toward target delivery. The new agenda of Habitat III thus gives the impression of starting afresh with no obvious pathway toward urban social inclusion within member states.

Without such a pathway, there is little to challenge the way urbanization is unfolding in Asia which is lacking social inclusivity and increasing social inequity.

Framing the new urban agenda, and the investments needed to make it work in whatever final form it takes, in the context of inclusive resilience building, is needed.

The Habitat III process, and finalized agenda, must meet the demand for open and public dialogue that informs citizens and allows participation in the decision making processes.

To do so would provide additionality to practical measures such as designing improved infrastructure projects, while contributing to global implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 11 (SDG 11) — to “ensure universal access to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services; to enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management; and to increase the number of communities adopting and implementing policies that embrace inclusion, resource efficiency, mitigation and adaptation strategies that enable resilience to climate change”.

As recently reported by City Scope, inclusion of the phrase “right to the city” in the Habitat III strategy first draft upset some governments and led to a closed door meeting calling for its deletion. Updates removing references to “people” have even been suggested on the basis that governments, not people, are taking on the New Urban Agenda.

This is an unwelcome surprise to many, including ACCCRN members and partners taking part in the long consultation process driving Habitat III, while calling for an inclusive, rights-based foundation to the agenda.

From a resilience building perspective, the right to the city principle should be fundamental, allowing collective power of citizens to direct the course of urbanization. While recognizing that resilience building works with urban systems, it requires ‘human dimensions’ to be central. Resilience cities should meet the expectations of its citizens in the space they live. Thus, giving authority over the New Urban Agenda solely to governments can be considered a violation of citizens’ rights.

Closely tied to the sometimes vague and opaque nature of the global Habitat III process is the pressing, practical issue of Asia’s urban infrastructure needs. This has been estimated to have a value of around US$ 8 trillion required between 2010 – 2020 to maintain current levels of economic growth. Whereas the greatest opportunity for framing investment should be at the city level, where local governments and citizens understand their own needs and vulnerabilities, administrative and financial authority usually resides at national level.

This, and capacity gaps in urban governance, already result in failure among cities to coherently establish effective land use planning, maintenance of core infrastructure, and provision of critical services to citizens. This is why it is so important that the voices of people become increasingly heard and heeded to reframe urbanization in a more inclusive context.

NGOs and other civil society groups calling for change in the trajectories of urbanization have recognized they have minuscule amounts of capital to invest in programs and projects compared to those driving urbanization from the trading, financial, and to a greater or lesser extent, government sectors.

Yet inclusive resilience calls for cities to serve their citizenry, not the other way around, with the citizenry serving select elites. 

The challenge in addressing inclusion and social justice in cities across Asia will need to be faced via tools of persuasion, advocacy, and finding common ground with government, finance, and investment mechanisms that are too rarely engaged as equal.

The Habitat III New Urban Agenda is an arena to be active in this process and all ACCCRN members are strongly encouraged to become involved.


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