What does the Right to the City mean for you, and what does it mean specifically in the Mexican context?
The Habitat International Coalition has been working on the Right to the City for a long time now. For us, it is work in progress, a concept that we are always trying to develop collectively. The whole process started at the global level and in particular, at the first World Social Forum in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where we worked together with urban social movements, civil society organisations and networks of academics, professionals and activists from different fields. Over the years, we developed the “Global Charter on the Right to the City”. Based on this Charter, different groups and platforms started working at the national and local level. For instance, our members and colleagues in Ecuador worked to introduce the Right to the City into the new constitution (2008) and the United Cities and Local Governments global network developed a Global Charter-Agenda for Human Rights in the City (2011) that includes the Right to the City in the first articles. Through regular exchanges, debates and training activities, we inspire each other in our efforts in our respective countries and cities.
Also inspired by the Global Charter, the Mexico City Charter (2010)1 expands the definition of the right to the city to include six main components or strategic principles, all of which are equally important and necessary for the fulfilment of this new collective right. The first one is the Human Rights component of the Right to the City. This principle does not only refer to creating specific human rights programmes and policies for a specific population or for specific issues. The overall goal is to have a human rights framework for all policies and for policy making — at the local, the sub-national and the national level. The Right to the City brings a necessary spatial (or territorial) approach to already recognised civic, political, social, economic and cultural rights; and at the same time operates as an umbrella under which new rights can be discussed and promoted (i.e. public transportation, public spaces).
The second principle is what is called the social function of land, property, and the city itself. It refers to how we organise the land of the city, how we use it, and who decides about the organisation and usage and in whose name. The principle aims at public control of the land, public control of speculation, and of the gentrification processes. All over the world, there are growing numbers of empty houses at the same time that the homeless population or people having trouble to afford the rent are skyrocketing. In the countries of the Global South, the function of land, property and the city is also relevant for the regularisation of the informal settlements that are part of our cities. Sometimes, they make up half of the city or even more. No government, no public or private sector agency is going to be able to replace these settlements fully. They are part of the city, and in our view, they are not informal, irregular, marginal, or illegal—they are the city made by the people. This is working very well in many countries.
The third principle refers to the city being run democratically. We understand democracy not only as elections and representation by political parties. What we mean is democracy being practiced by all institutions, all the time; democracy in the streets, with the people at the grassroots level, at the neighbourhood level. People as individuals, but also as collective organisations ought to have the right to participate in decision-making processes and in the monitoring of public policies. It is not enough to have these rights granted on paper, but people need to be able to actually exercise them. This is particularly important in the present political context. We are witnessing huge steps backwards in terms of democracy and democratic institutions in many places in the world. Now that democracy is at stake again, it is even more important that the Right to the City movements demand democratic management of the city.
Number four is about the social production of the cities and the promotion of inclusive economies. Regarding the former, governments and other development actors and institutions should be able to recognise that and support and empower the inhabitants in their efforts to build their own habitat. A significant part of the current housing deficit is qualitative, and not just quantitative – meaning that we need more policies and programs that focus on housing and neighbourhood improvement goals and not just building new housing.
At the same time, the living space should be also be considered as a productive space – where people can undertake activities that will generate income for the families and the communities. In a broader sense, promote inclusive and democratic economies imply to consider the wide range of economic activities that happen in urban spaces, including the informal ones2, as well as the economy of care (or economy of social reproduction)3 and the social and solidarity economy4. In practice, this means for example to ensure labour rights and social protection to care givers, domestic workers (the majority of them women), and street vendors, or support and strengthen the cooperative sector and the non-profit institutions. If government policies are not able to provide enough jobs in the public and private sectors, people find their own ways to make a living. No one should criminalise or destroy these informal ways of accessing monetary and other resources that people depend on for their livelihood, if they cannot provide a feasible alternative. That is part of the Right to the City, too.
The fifth principle understands the city not as an entity limited by administrative boundaries, but as a territory, as an ecological area, as an ecosystem. The city region is connected with, and depends on, the surrounding rural and agricultural areas. Cities need to create and maintain a metabolism that respects environmental resources such as water and crops. Thus, the Right to the City does not mean growing urbanisation at any cost and possibly destroying everything that is around it. It means looking at the territory in a very different way, respecting those linkages, and trying to build an equilibrium between those (i.e. measuring and controlling the urban footprint). There can be no true Right to the City if there is no right to live in the countryside, the rural and the peri-urban areas with dignity and in peace.
And finally, the Right to the City is about public space: defending public spaces, improving the quality and the quantity of public spaces, fighting against the deterioration or privatisation of public spaces (abandon by public policies, vandalised, appropriated by organised crime, private sponsors, etc.). This is part of many struggles all over the world, including the Global North. We need to understand public spaces as public facilities and community centres, not just as streets and parks. Public spaces play a crucial role in building cities and urban life, as well as democracy. In an ideal scenario, they can be used by all citizens and strengthen social cohesion.
To go back to Mexico: the Mexico City Charter develops not just the conceptual framework for the Right to the City, but also concrete proposals and policy measures on how to implement it. It does not simply spell out what we want, but the Right to the City principles serve as strategic foundations—they lay out in detail how we are going to achieve what we want. It also defines the roles and responsibilities of different actors and institutions, including governments, civil society organisations, private sector, universities and media.
How can local governments be made more aware that people are actually part of shaping the city, including the urban poor or homeless people?
We are very aware that the only way to move forward in implementing the Right to the City is shaping a strong partnership between civil society and local governments. That is why we partnered up, for instance, with United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) as part of the initiative of the Global Platform for the Right to the City that was launched in 2014.
It will be fair to say that, for the most part, the implementation of the Right to the City has made the most progress at the local level, not at the national level. Of course this is a general comment and not always true, but I think that local authorities are generally better prepared, and usually more open to the idea that they need to work with the people and acknowledge their real, everyday problems but also their proposals and alternatives to solve them. It is at the same time easier and more challenging for them, because they are not a national office dealing with numbers and abstract issues.
That being said, we are really concerned about the fact that many government actors still think of the private sector as big companies–big transnational companies, usually–, and are often not even considering medium-sized and small companies. And when they address the social sector (i.e. social movements, civil society organisations, community-based organisations, cooperatives, not for profit institutions), they often address them as victims, as problems, as people that need attention–not as a main actor that is actively involved in building cities, living in the cities, and transforming cities much quicker than public policies and even the private sector are able to. We urgently need a paradigm shift in how we understand society and the role of the different sectors. We should not be approaching the marginalised or vulnerable groups as someone that needs help–the Right to the City is not a charitable initiative; it is a social justice and a human rights cause. The marginalised groups need the same opportunities to be heard and influence decisions, in particular those that are going to affect them more directly. It is the obligation of the public sector to build the necessary conditions for that.
The Right to the City is for everyone–but how does it address the dilemma of housing, when one group needs affordable housing and the other group tries to make as much money as possible with rent? How do you solve this conflict?
Indeed, the Right to the City is often invoked in struggles for the right to housing, which is usually understood as providing affordable houses for people with limited economic means. In many cases, poor people depend on so-called social housing, so the city needs to build cheap houses that are affordable. Usually, such houses are built far away from the city centre on cheap land, which makes it difficult for people to take up job opportunities, access transportation, governmental offices, schools, and other services that the city offers.
In Latin America, between 30 per cent and 60 per cent of people are working in the informal economy (if we include informal employment, in some countries that figure can even reach as high as 80 per cent or more). They cannot enter the banking system; they cannot access loans, so they are stuck. Very little money pours into that sector, the one that needs the most attention. And then the public policies often take the shortcut of giving subsidies to poor people to go and buy houses, which only the private sector profits from. Public spending should not be caught up in the market logic, it needs to be sustainable and offer solutions beyond private property.
We advocate for a circular economy as a system that does not only consider where the money is coming from and passes through, but also where it ends up. Government institutions need to be held accountable for the money they are spending. For example, in Mexico, the housing policy (inspired by the Chilean model, also applied in other countries around the globe) is not improving people’s quality of life but indeed is making them poorer. The year of 1992 marked the beginning of a series of changes, including the Article 27 of Mexico’s National Constitution to allow larger land appropriation on sites that were once communal (ejidales). After more than a decade of what was presented as a ‘successful’ housing policy and as such exported to Central and South America, “the result in some of these planned neighborhoods is the emergence of large amounts of units overnight, with developments of up to 13,000 units.”5 They are conceived as monocultures of houses and not as new towns, “usually built by a single developer and in many cases designed by a single architect, with very little state intervention.” In these new gated communities, usually located at least at a two hour daily commute to the city centre, “there is no zoning, no planning for educational, commercial or civic uses, a very limited approach to public space, no relation to metropolitan transport infrastructure, and, most importantly, no room for growth and transformation.” In other words, “urbanity is collapsed to the simple construc-tion of housing, not neighbourhoods”. As a consequence, as much as 20% or more of the-se new developments are empty or abandoned, and the 2010 National Census identifies 5 million empty units in the country.
In theory, they are fulfilling the right to housing by providing new living space, but in reality, they are destroying nature and resources and thereby people’s lives. You could even go so far as to say that they are destroying the future of cities, because their actions are not sustainable. They are merely contributing to urban sprawl and good business for some real estate companies and housing developers. In the preparatory papers for the Habitat III process experts pointed out that on a global level, cities are growing at least three times more than the urban population. So we end up with millions of empty units in our cities. This has nothing to do with the right to housing, or the Right to the City. As a general rule, before thinking about building more, governments need to see how they can do better with what they have available, and protect the people that already have something to lose.
What specific measures can be taken to implement the New Urban Agenda and what are the obstacles?
The Agenda gives guidelines, and many of them we agree with. Most of the strategic principles of the World Charter and the Mexico City Charter were included, as well as a definition of the Right to the City as part of the “shared vision”6, making this the first time that this concept is included in an international declaration signed by 167 national governments at the UN level. But it is important to mention that some other very important elements were left out, like the city as a common good, the need to strengthen democracy and democratic institutions and practices, or LGBT rights, which we think is really problematic as it does not take into account the relevant struggles and achievements in different parts of the world during the past twenty years. At the same time, the implementation and follow-up measures are not specified enough. That is why the Global Platform for the Right to the City and other organisations are working on guidelines and indicators to contribute to this process.
Many of the things proposed in the Agenda are certainly not new. We would like to see more support for community-driven change. For instance, housing issues should not solely be addressed through the private sector. Co-ops, all kinds of institutions from the social and solidarity economy should be supported. By developing housing, local governments are not just building things, they are (or they should be) developing communities.
In Mexico, more than 40 per cent of the population is living below the poverty line. In order to address the growing inequality that affects more than 50 million people, everything that the government does (at the national and local levels) must take that population into account. All spheres of government have to align their policy and programmes to limit the exploitation and the spatial segregation that most communities are exposed to and develop a city that is not just for the wealthy minority. The private sector also needs to live up to their responsibility–in particular big national and transnational companies (including banks, real estate, food industry, services) are making ridiculous amounts of money off the city’s assets and their populations, and they need to take less and give more back to the communities. In particular, they need to refrain from pushing the price of land up for profit. Regulations should make sure this cannot happen.
In trying to implement the Right to the City, we are also facing a lot of obstacles at the judiciary level. This is one of the big problems that are not addressed in the New Urban Agenda. It is often in the juridical system that new participatory planning processes or new master plans are stopped, because the private sector or other actors file complaints. The legal rules are usually decided at the national level, so it is very difficult to influence them. We need to convince national governments to champion these kind of changes, and say this is what we need to do. Also, it helps if this message is coming from the North. Policy makers have proven to listen more to governments or other institutions from the North than to civil society or grassroots organisations, or actors from the South. The stigmatisation of the marginalised groups, activists and human right defenders as the ones who always complain about everything and speak out against development, against progress, is still around and very powerful, unfortunately.
The Habitat International Coalition is going to use the New Urban Agenda for what is useful for the people and communities we work with. The rest, we are going to just leave it there. Despite the fact that they were for the most part left out in the process of defining the Agenda, our main tackling points will most probably be local governments, much more than national governments. Some of us believe that there is where we can advance our cause for just, democratic and sustainable cities and human settlements for all.