SURABAYA—Prepcom 3 Habitat III is all over the city of Surabaya these days. Banners, signage and media on many streets and their corners carry the message “Toward a New Urban Agenda” and “H III” as Habitat III’s icon.

The city cleans up its streets and spaces even further. Some lamp posts have been replaced, decorative street lights are up.

Thousands of delegations from UN member countries are gathering to comment on, discuss, negotiate and make changes to the zero draft of the New Urban Agenda, which will be finalized on Oct. 17 to 20 this year in Quito at Habitat III, the third major bi-decennial global summit to set the policy agenda for the next 20 years.

Every Habitat conference results in recommendations for housing and development policies and actions by governments of UN member countries. What is different at this year’s Habitat, though, is that the specific title of the conference diverges from the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat I and II) to the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development.

The shift of emphasis from “human settlements” to “housing and sustainable development” is also reflected in the agenda that is produced from each conference.

Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996 produced the Habitat Agenda that, according to the UN, acknowledged human beings “are at the center of concerns for sustainable development, including adequate shelter for all and sustainable human settlements, and they are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.”

The extensive document, which contained 241 paragraphs with more than 600 recommendations, was criticized as early as one year after, by prominent development planning professor David Satterthwaite, who highlighted a lack of assessment criteria. This criticism has been echoed in 2016 by researchers at New York’s [The New School] Habitat Commitment Project.

When the draft of the New Urban Agenda was published in early May, critics, both scholars and civil society activists, attacked the content for at least five reasons.

First, implementation assessment remains a weakness, but the shift of emphasis from human beings and harmony with nature to a vaguer “cities for all.”

Although the term “people-centered” can be found many times in the document, the shift from “settlement” to “urban” reflects the abandonment of “non-urban” areas.

Second, the zero draft does not challenge the status quo in development processes. The document only states that the world’s urban population will nearly double in 2050 and therefore there will be challenges “in terms of housing, infrastructure, basic services, food security, health, education, decent jobs and natural resources, among others” (para. 2).

But rather than identifying the problems of current urbanization trajectories, the document takes it as a given fact and straight away pushes it into the need to readdress how human settlements are “planned, financed, developed, governed and managed.” The zero draft neither explores the possible ways to curb urbanization, nor suggests the need for alternative development processes and programs.

Third, the zero draft misses the elephant in the room that causes unequal developments, which is the domination of the property market in urban development. In a gathering in May, civil society groups in Indonesia identified that the zero draft failed to focus on its vision of a people-centered city. It did not address either current urban development trajectory, which tends to kill notions of urban citizenship and responsibility, creativity and human dignity as the main components of the city.

Fourth, the use of the term “urban” in the title itself is already problematic because it perpetuates the urban bias. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has often spoken of the need to membangun dari pinggiran, or develop from the periphery. This term can also be translated as “develop from the marginalized”, given that many areas have been neglected for decades.

Therefore, to be consistent with this vision in Indonesia, it would have been ideal if Indonesia had pushed for more attention to the urban-rural divide and interconnectedness in the New Urban Agenda, or whatever title it had. In fact, one of the main problems of contemporary cities is that the cities are disconnected from their hinterlands, while at the same time they remain dependent on rural areas to produce their needs.

Previous discussions within the network of civil society groups in Surabaya resulted in several recommendations in response to the zero draft. The response identified the need to plan cities based on three basic needs: human settlement, justice and social relations.

The domination of the monetary system in every aspect of urban development erodes consciousness as citizens, as it pushes away people-centeredness into financial-centeredness. These are concepts that are not touched by the New Urban Agenda.

Furthermore, the current New Urban Agenda draft shows that much of the “effective implementation” of these policies is driven by infrastructure investment and financing rather than the role of the people.

There are mentions of a “participatory” approach, but the agenda does not sufficiently address how this is approached, despite the fact that “participation” has many levels.

Why does the New Urban Agenda matter? First, we need another agenda that focuses more on empowerment of local societies and pushes for alternative development by and for the people.

Second, there needs to be more emphasis on the needs of cities—human settlement, justice and social relations—to achieve more relevant cities for flourishing citizenship.

Third, although The Habitat Agenda from the second conference has shown traces of these alternative concepts, it lacked assessment and evaluation of the project, and this lack of assessment criteria is also repeated in the zero draft.

The Habitat Agenda from Habitat II, for example, was against forced evictions. But the current zero draft of the New Urban Agenda does not mention them.

At the end of the day, it is still doubtful that if the New Urban Agenda will be implemented on the ground in each member country. Moreover, the Habitat Agenda from Habitat II is still incompletely and unequally fulfilled.

Nevertheless, it is still important to ensure that the commitments from Habitat II still apply in the current Habitat III agenda.

It is also important to establish assessment criteria on the next agenda from Habitat III, along with stronger implementation commitments and consequences for breaching them.


The writer is a senior research fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

Original article