Declaration by Habitat International Coalition President for World Habitat Day 2012
October 1, 2012
In the past few years, documents of all kinds have tirelessly repeated an unprecedented fact: for the first time in history, half of the global human population –about 3.4 billion– lives in cities. It is expected that in 40 years that percentage will reach three quarters, although certainly with differing figures between regions and countries.
This trend toward urban concentration not only goes unquestioned, but is accepted as irreversible, and discussions surrounding this topic make constant reference to our “urban future”. Extreme visions fall short in explaining the reality that surrounds us: from aphorisms like “engines of growth” or “magnets of hope” that promote cities as embodying the only possible way of life while completely neglecting the importance of rural life and its relation to cities, to the apocalyptic denunciation that we are on our way to having a “planet of slums”. In both cases, little is said about the differentiated responsibility of social actors, of the rapport between urban and rural worlds, or of the nuances and possibilities to transform these processes of urbanization.
The concentration of economic and political power, worsened by the dogmatic and repetitive application of the savage neoliberal policies arising from the Washington Consensus, is a phenomenon of exploitation, dispossession, inequality, exclusion and discrimination whose dimensions are clearly visible: cities where luxury and misery coexist; thousands of empty housing units and thousands of people left homeless without a decent place to live; land without peasants, dominated by agro-business and privatization; and rapid and concentrated accumulation of common goods and collective wealth in the hands of a few. Several decades of a lack of support to small-scale rural production and aggressive propaganda of urban consumption patterns have resulted in millions of young women and men being driven from their places of origin, leaving them without viable options for their future.
The conditions and rules that our societies have created are condemning half of the world’s population to live in absolute misery, while inequality grows both in the North and in the South. In some Latin American and African countries, the so-called slums are home to over 60% of the population.
What we have found in these territories are the consequences of actions and omissions of various actors (decisions taken by a few affect the lives of the majority). However, at the same time, housing, land and habitat policies create possibilities and conditions for the reproduction and/or transformation of these complex processes and social relations, and are strong tools for deepening or decreasing the economic, social, political and cultural inequalities that divide our societies today.
Considering that 85% of the new jobs at the global level are created in the so-called informal sector, we must ask ourselves what kinds of opportunities are available for the youth. Also, we must question what kinds of citizens and what interpretation of democracy is producing these macro politics and their territorial consequences? The city as a centre for business for the few seems to be worth more than the right to the city for all. This apartheid, in its various dimensions, is still painfully visible among us.
It is not news for anyone that, especially during the last 30 years, many governments have more or less abandoned their responsibility to regional and urban planning, allowing scandalous speculation and the accumulation of exponential earnings for the real state sector. At the same time, current policies ignore and even criminalize the individual and collective efforts of impoverished populations to secure a decent place to live in peace and with dignity. According to several research reports, between 50 and 75% of the housing and neighborhoods in the Global South were built by inhabitants’ initiatives and efforts, with little to no support from governments or other actors.
We have called on the urgent need for urban and agrarian reform for a long time now. The essential components of alternative paradigms and social practices of production and enjoyment of human settlements -democratic, inclusive, sustainable, productive, livable and secure- have been part of the debates, proposals and concrete experiences of social movements, national and international networks, unions, professionals and technicians, academic institutions, and human rights activists in different countries over the last 50 years.
Thousands of people and dozens of organizations and networks have taken part in the elaboration, signing and dissemination of the World Charter for the Right to the City and the International Declaration of Peasant’s Rights, demonstrating that the right to live with dignity in cities would be impossible to achieve without also struggling for the right to live with dignity in the countryside. Considering that these categories are not static –and that they are being questioned today more than ever for their diverse juxtapositions– the right to the city approach urges us to look at territories and the places we live in a more integral and complex manner. Various environmental (ecosystems, watersheds, weather conditions, etc.), social (migration), economic (processes of production, distribution, consumption and waste), political (legal frameworks, policies and programs), and cultural (language, traditions, imaginary) phenomena are interwoven and closely linked together. Our struggles cannot be accomplices to the dualistic vision that maintains them separated and pitted against one another, in a rapport that is based more on competition and exploitation than on complementarity and equilibrium.
We will need to further develop this perspective if we want to move forward with urban reform as a alternative paradigm to what many are calling a “civilization crisis”. We believe that the values and proposals contained in the right to the city present many points in common with the ancient worldview of “buen vivir” (good living) that have being gaining particular relevance in both political and programmatic terms in the last decade. In this sense, both alternative proposals place human beings and their relations with nature (conceived of as being mutually dependent and sacred) in the center of our thoughts and actions. They consider land, housing, habitat and the city as rights and not as commodities, prioritizing the social function of property and collectively-defined public interest. They fight against speculation, land grabbing and mega-projects, and delve deeper into the conceptualization and practice of democracy, not only representative but direct, participative and communal. These alternatives encourage collective rights, not only individual ones, they conceive of and feed into a productive habitat and an economy that provides for human life and for the community, not for the personal earnings of the few. Finally, they promote complementarity and solidarity, not savage competition; they respect, support and guarantee a multicultural and diversity approach, against the imposition of discriminatory homogeneous models.
Neither people nor the planet can endure any longer. It has become clearer now more than ever that a radical change in our patterns of production, distribution and consumption is needed, in addition to a transformation of the symbolic standards and values that govern our life in society. This must happen if we truly want to realize a “good living” for all in our cities, towns and communities.
Habitat International Coalition President