In the next few days, world and local leaders will be gather in Quito by the occasion of Habitat III – The United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development. There is no fuss about that, as today the majority of the world´s population lives in urban areas and it seems only logical that this issue should be addressed by the international community. However, that was not the case with Habitat I and II, thus it is relevant that we recognize how we got here in order to understand the contemporary challenges for this agenda and its meanings.
The rapidly growth of urban population worldwide since the end of World War II, in a disorderly manner in most of the cases, exposed to the international community the problems faced by urban areas not designed to accommodate so many people. What seemed so far as a domestic problem began to be perceived as a global issue and as a threat to the goals of peace of the United Nations. If the discussion in the core of the organization was the development of the most vulnerable countries, improvements in health and education of the world’s population, human rights and peace, then the UN would have to introduce the urban issue on its agenda.
Nonetheless, it took a while for the United Nations to present the urban debate clearly in multilateral forums, mostly because the international community had not yet realized that the issue was a subject by itself and that it permeated all the others. Although it might have appeared in sparse discussions, there was no perception of the urgency of the matter. Only in 1972, at the Conference on Human Development in Stockholm, is that there was alert to the problem. From that moment, the United Nations began to cover issues related to urban life, and this change of perception culminated with the First United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat I), in 1976, carried out in the city of Vancouver.
Habitat I opened the multilateral debate to human settlements and allowed the matter to be discussed and designed by member countries of the UN. However, it is important to note the historical moment of the conference: the Cold War. At that time, although there was a warning to social issues, the discourse that prevailed in the international system was the one about security and defense. The world was still divided between the capitalist and the socialist bloc, which somehow overshadowed social problems, especially those faced by developing countries.
Consequently, at the Vancouver Conference, the perception of the world leaders was that urban problems were too complex and subsequently demanded the action of a strong and unified state, “[…] the urban agenda was shaped by those who believed that only a strong central government was capable of dealing with the myriad of urban problems that were emerging at that time” (MORENO; WARAH, 2006, p. 6). The future dynamics of global governance would show the opposite.
Habitat I occurred in the midst of the Cold War and the oil crisis, important facts that certainly shaped a more state-centered and less pragmatic character of this summit. At the time that the conference took place, the studies pointed to an exponential increase of the world population, generating pessimistic views about the future of cities and negatively marking the conference, and this feeling of powerlessness over the issue contaminated the delegations, which presented a proposal that was weak and detached from reality. Therefore, Habitat did not have the impact expected in the international community.
Differently, at Habitat II in Istanbul, a broader perspective on urban issues was presented, including different society sectors on the discussion, not only the nationals delegations and this was a landmark.
Despite the lower visibility of the 1976 conference, when compared to 1996, Habitat I had an important result: the creation of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS). The office to address the issue was established in 1978, in Nairobi, and ended up being the first office of a United Nations agency in Africa. Initially, Habitat was just an operating program of the United Nations Commission on Human Settlements attached to the General Assembly and had only 58 member States. The institutional structure of the Centre has been strengthened over the years and in 2001, after the Habitat II +5, the Centre was elevated to United Nations Programme for Human Settlements.
From 1976 to 1996 Conference, twenty years had passed and many changes had occurred in the world. Thus, the complexity of the problems faced in urban areas was also amplified, and new issues had emerged, requiring new approaches. Changes in urban issues demanded a new approach to the difficulties of the United Nations, which in fact followed (ROLNIK; SAULE JR, 1997, p 15).
The 1990s were marked by the turbulence of the end of Cold War, but also by the UN Social Conferences, and Habitat II was the last social conference of the decade, ending the cycle that had began in 1992 with the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio-92).
The Istanbul Conference meant the resumption of the discussion on urban issues, but from a new perspective on the problem, in view of the changing international environment and the conditions of human settlements. The question of human settlements became, therefore, to be global, but with clear implications sites, so its discussion at a world summit demanded not only the participation of national governments but also of local government.
Habitat II was an important milestone for reinforcing to the international society that human settlements are a global issue and that local governments are actors in international relations. In addition, the conference contributed to the reaffirmation, by both the Habitat Agenda and the Istanbul Declaration, of human rights discussed at previous conferences, with the inclusion of the right to housing and adequate shelter.
The main problems facing cities in 1976 and 1996 persist in many parts of the world, such as slums, but a new myriad of problems emerged since then and climate change was one of them. For Habitat III, the debate during the preparatory process was centered in the new urban agenda.Therefore, we can expect from Quito some statement regarding the new urban agenda and the reinforcement of the goal 11 from the Sustainable Development Goals – wich encompasses the objective for making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
Today, the strict state action in addressing issues that are global, as human settlements, is restricted by the strength of the various actors in the international system and its own dynamics. If the vision of the States and the United Nations in 1976 was more restrictive, in 2016 it is broader and encompasses many actors who are to some extent involved directly or indirectly with urban issues. Global governance precludes the unilateral action by states, and this is possibly one of the most significant elements since the end of the dynamics of the Cold War.
To conclude, we need to look for Habitat III as a point in the long process establishing urban issues in the international agenda and local governments as global actors. With that in mind, it could be expected that Habitat III will continue the conversation and will now bring the attention of the debates to the inescapable challenges imposed by climate change. Finally, urbanization is a question for International Relations and inevitable researchers will have to address the issue framing its connection to contemporary global challenges.
MORENO, Eduardo López; WARAH, Rasna. Thirty Years of the Urban Agenda (1976 – 2006): what has been achieved? In: UNITED NATIONS. Habitat Debate, v. 12, no. 2, June 2006.
ROLNIK, Raquel; SAULE JÚNIOR, Nelson. Habitat II – assentamentos humanos como tema global. IN: BONDUKI, Nabil Georges (Org.). Habitat: as práticas bem-sucedidas em habitação, meio-ambiente e gestão urbana nas cidades brasileiras. São Paulo: Studio Nobel, 1997
Ana Carolina Evangelista Mauad é Doutoranda no Instituto de Relações Internacionais da Universidade de Brásilia.