Habitat III: leaving no one behind

There is still space to influence the implementation, the tools, the monitoring and evaluation processes.

Alexander Macfarlane
1 November 2016

Buildings where people have been evicted, Nigeria. Julian Walker. All rights reserved.In cities across the world the dramatic increase in forced and market-driven evictions disproportionately affects the urban poor. While the issue of evictions remains a massive preoccupation for civil society, urban planning processes continually face an intricate balancing act between the entitlement rights of urban dwellers on ­the one hand, and the stimulation of urban prosperity on the other.

The UN Habitat III conference that has just taken place in Quito presented a unique opportunity to support a truly transformative New Urban Agenda, though the agreed draft is limited in terms of the extent to which evictions are explicitly articulated. Once again, this raises the question of whether academia can play an effective role in influencing the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

What the researchers say

Alexandre Apsan Frediani of the Bartlett Development Planning Unit at University College London (DPU) explains how evictions regularly occur due to urban development processes that have been stimulated by governments: “there are often market forces that start permeating urban areas, due to governments not finding mechanisms to reconcile economic or market development with the protection of marginalised groups living in inner city areas”. Through research undertaken in Johannesburg and São Paulo, Alexandre finds that “in reality, when you see the trade-offs on the ground the economic development agenda starts being prioritised over the rights of the urban poor”.

The consequence is that vulnerable, marginalised groups are threatened. Government prioritisation of economic growth is manifested through various discourses that seek to legitimise evictions. An ongoing research project being conducted by Cassidy Johnson, for example, is exploring the way in which the ‘protection’ of residents through risk mitigation can facilitate relocation in order to make way for private development. Cassidy reveals how “evictions are occurring more and more as a result of doing disaster management. A way of thinking about how to respond to the risk of people being affected by disaster is to actually move people”.

In Nigeria, as Julian Walker has observed firsthand, the state is able to evict people with no protection or compensation. He explains, “this has a lot to do with symbolic battles of legitimacy and citizenship, so the way they are able to evict people is by saying ‘these people have no rights’. There is a lot of language around criminality, with environmental protection. So by presenting people that they want to evict as the locus of social problems they are able to do it”.

New Urban Agenda

The New Urban Agenda adopted at Habitat III is lacking in any explicit recommendations on how to manage these trade-offs. Alexandre, who feels that there is a lack of clarity, explains that “on the one hand they say ‘we need to encourage market development’ and on the other hand ‘evictions should not take place’. So there is a whole issue around trade-offs and prioritisations. It’s not that it’s not there, it’s that everything else is also there too, it’s like a huge shopping list”.

Analysing the previous versions of the draft in the run-up to Quito, the DPU (with other colleagues at the Development Studies Association Urbanisation and Development Group workshop) raised a series of issues indicating that despite acknowledgment, no explicit reference was made to the protection of the urban poor against the loss of the particular entitlements generated by urban development processes. “We need much more visibility for the right to the city. In the latest draft the right to the city did feature a more prominent role, which is a welcome change, though, it is still not very clear how trade-offs will be made”, adds Alexandre.

Furthermore, how evictions are framed in the New Urban Agenda has been questioned. Julian Walker objects to the narrow definition that focuses on ‘arbitrary forced evictions’. “It’s clear from our research that this could be very problematic”, says Julian. “I think having the word ‘arbitrary’ in there is a disaster because involuntary resettlement doesn’t fall into that scope”. Questions around terminology are similarly at the heart of Cassidy Johnson’s research. The word ‘resettlement’ is frequently used to justify evictions, though as she explains “resettlement is a misnomer, in resettlement one should get the things that they lost when they are moved, whereas this is very difficult to achieve in practice when people are forcibly removed”.

Universities in collaboration

Buildings where people have been evicted, Nigeria. Julian Walker. All rights reserved.Despite these shortcomings, Barbara Lipietz urges that there is still space to influence the implementation, the tools, the monitoring and evaluation processes. Now that the New Urban Agenda has been adopted, consideration must turn to the role of academic researchers and institutions such as the DPU, and the types of research and alliances that need to be built in a post New Urban Agenda world.

Outlining the role of universities in these processes, Barbara argues that it is by supporting advocacy that eviction processes can be changed in order to better protect entitlement. She explains, “one of the ways in which we can do this is because the university has an audience, has a role, has a credibility”. Alexandre Apsan Frediani agrees: “there is a distributional argument about funding and how northern institutions can channel funds in a collaborative way through horizontal partnerships with groups in the global south”. This focus on collaborative research and partnership building forms a central ethos of the DPU. He is convinced that the largest gap in the Habitat III process was that “at the national level there was a missed opportunity to involve civil society groups and communities that have been facing the challenges of urbanisation. They have been left out of the agenda making processes”. 

However, academic departments such as the DPU can play a role in the implementation of a New Urban Agenda that promotes sustainable and equitable development by supporting local governments and civil society groups. Alexandre argues, “we need to find a way that civil society and communities themselves can be key stakeholders in monitoring progress. Academia could set up urban observatories or research centres such as the Habitat International Coalition proposal for a Global Observatory for the Right to the City. These centres could support communities in assessing situations, making visible the ways in which urban trends are not meeting the commitments of the urban agenda. This would enable an empowering relationship between different stakeholders”.

The creation of such spaces would foster a culture of translocal learning, to benefit a comparative approach to mitigating against evictions. By learning how communities have been able to avoid evictions, how they were able to enhance their capacity to negotiate with different stakeholders, these lessons learned can be shared with other communities in other locations. Translocal learning can be supported by “creating platforms and spaces where communities can come together and share their experiences, not only based on their local concerns, but also trying to position them within wider international trends so that they can better negotiate locally, but also internationally as well”.

Barbara concludes that “evictions aren’t disappearing, they are increasing in this type of context and remain a massive preoccupation for people”. She predicts that Habitat III is unlikely to be “good enough or strong enough. There remains a need for a more explicit commitment to the protection of the entitlements of the urban poor”.

Researchers and academia can play a significant role in ensuring that the voices of the urban poor are heard, and that there is strategic engagement with potentially contradictory urban processes, ensuring that these entitlement remains on the agenda. With the New Urban Agenda now approved, this may be the best way to ensure that Habitat III can deliver in its promise to ‘leave no one behind’

Further reading on the Bartlett Development Planning Unit’s engagement with the Habitat III process is available online.

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