Quito in Ecuador is, by all accounts, a stunningly picturesque city with a mix of pre-Colombian and Spanish influences, its past traced back to the 16th century. Quito was among the first two cities to be declared World Cultural Heritage sites by UNESCO in 1978. Nearly four decades later, through this week, it played host to a gargantuan assembly of nearly 45,000 delegates in what is best described as the ‘Olympics of urbanisation’.
There, national delegations from more than 140 countries, elected representatives and mayors in hundreds, world’s leading urban planners, thinkers and architects discussed how to make cites “more sustainable, inclusive and resilient” at the UN Human Settlements Programme, also known as UN-Habitat. This is the third edition of the global conference held every 20 years. Habitat I held in Vancouver in 1976 took note of the rapid urbanisation in the world and Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996 wrestled with some of its rising challenges.
However, as urbanisation gathered huge momentum across the world, primarily in Asia, and combined with neo-liberal economic policies, the need was felt for a commonly agreed set of goals and a roadmap to implement them. This was the main agenda of Habitat III. At the end of the conference, after much wrangling and negotiation, we now have the New Urban Agenda (NUA).
The UN describes it as an “an action-oriented document which will set global standards of achievement in sustainable urban development”. The NUA will now have to be read with the Sustainable Development Goals which were globally agreed upon last year but it is not binding on the UN member states.
Mumbai, as other Indian cities, has paid scant attention to Habitat III and its outcomes. This is partly because the global summit sees a collection of national government officials while cities are governed by local — or state — officials and bureaucrats. And, partly, because Mumbai’s administrators and policy-makers are too occupied with pothole-ridden roads and impending civic election to care about the letter or spirit of Habitat III. The NUA, now whatever is that, would be their refrain.
Yet, when cut through the clutter at Habitat III, among the themes discussed were two which greatly concern and reflect Mumbai’s state of affairs: Inclusive urbanisation and the right to the city. In the 23-page NUA, the word “inclusive” appears some 36 times. That is how much it matters and how much it weighed on the minds of those who drafted it, and later signed it.
But right there, in Quito, the gap between good intention and practice was evident. The manicured lawns of central Quito’s El Arbolito Park where the high-power Habitat III was held were cordoned off from the rest of the city by a tall and green wire fence, the inside of which featured large billboards and one of them stated “Inclusive Cities”, a good friend and urban thinker told me. Outside the fence, local residents of Quito whose future is threatened by land acquisitions and car-centric transport policies protested.
The wire fence around the Habitat III was ironic. It was also symbolic of how the high-powered global cities movement was failing to be inclusive. In India, through the cacophony on “Smart Cities” and the rushed implementation of this programme, the themes of inclusiveness and the right to the city have been sorely missing. Mumbai’s urban development or redevelopment, as in other Indian cities, is driven by the tech-and-automobile model in which people — especially the poorer — are marginalised.
Affordable housing, access to education and healthcare, safety and security, voice in the city’s governance structure — everything has to do with people’s right to the city. There is now a promising campaign building around this right, voluntary organisations and advocacy groups have discussed ways to weave it into the on-going development work, and non-conventional urban planners have argued that ensuring this right should be the only way forward for Mumbai. The sooner our “Smart Cities” neo-urbanists realise this, the better it would be.