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“Change comes from the heart of the world”

By Werner Soors
on October 21, 2016

Once every twenty years the United Nations brings together thousands of participants from member states to garner and secure political commitment, review past commitments, address and identify challenges towards sustainable urban development. This week, Quito (Ecuador) played host to the UN’s third conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, Habitat III (17-20th October).

Habitat III is the first UN global summit after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals. Augusto Barrera, former mayor of Quito, was the one who came with the idea of hosting Habitat III. The idea was supported throughout Latin America, a region that has witnessed rapid urbanization, rural-urban migration and a concentration of resources and services in the cities. Plans for the conference continued even as the country suffered a massive earthquake measuring 7.4 on the Richter scale less than six months ago.

 “Change comes from the heart of the world” – the Habitat III slogan literally reflects Quito’s geographical location at the center of the world, at latitude zero. The slogan is accompanied by an emphasis on outlining an ‘inclusive’ urban agenda for the next twenty years, an objective which feels slightly ironic when one notices the fenced-off El Arbolito Park where the conference takes place.

Getting there

My journey to Habitat III started in Bolivia on Friday, after the worst trip ever! Twenty four hours and 4 airports later, I finally arrived to the city declared as a UNESCO world heritage site. Beautiful roses, people dressed in traditional outfits and posters greeting the approximately 45,000 participants from around the world.  The city sprouted new road signs, and brand new bike paths along some streets. I had landed in a Quito quite different from the one I had spent the last 20 years living in, I felt.

The atmosphere was a different story. Quito has witnessed several protests in the recent past against the current mayor, Mauricio Rodas, driven by the lack of participatory decision-making in ‘development’ projects such as the new metro system, highways and overpasses – infrastructure which led to the eviction of people in poor neighbourhoods, and reflected the lack of a comprehensive urban mobility plan. Inclusivity and organisation took another hit when I found myself facing a 10-block long queue to enter the conference premises. Five hours under the relentless Quito sun didn’t do much for my enthusiasm. Of course, there was a special queue for international participants – not quite sure if I can say this is ‘equity’.

National president Rafael Correa – also presiding the conference assembly – was quick to deflect the long queues to the UN’s responsibility to arrange logistics. His colleagues in the US Congress would have been proud of him –  Blame the UN if things go wrong!

Habitat III between hope and scepticism

By the time you read this, Habitat III will have culminated with the adoption of the ‘Quito declaration on sustainable cities and human settlements for all’, also known as the ‘New Urban Agenda’. This agenda has raised both hope and scepticism. Most observers hope that the agenda will lead to real political commitment and transformative urban development. Yet quite a few have their doubts. The London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) – particularly engaged in the urban agenda ever since the preparation of Habitat I in the 1970’s – described the draft New Urban Agenda (June 2016) as one that “lacks both an overarching vision (…) and a consistent approach to implementation”. To correct this, the IIED advocated for “an explicit overarching vision that promotes sustainable and just urbanization (…) This vision has to recognise (…) above all, the systemic conditions that threaten the very possibility of a sustainable future”. Whether that clearer vision emerged during the conference, well…

Even then, scepticism remains. As reported in the Inter Press Service earlier this week, many experts fear that Habitat III “will only pay lip service to commitments that will quickly be forgotten, as occurred after the first Habitat conference (…) and the second”. The Guardian was even more critical and described  “sustainable, inclusive and resilient” as “the conference’s favourite buzzwords”.

From a public health point of view, the meagre attention to health in Habitat III was striking. In the draft New Urban Agenda, health is mentioned 12 times (cities should “allow people to live healthy”) but nowhere developed. Among the hundreds of events on the Habitat III calendar, barely a handful were dedicated to health: a UNFPA session on health and empowerment on the opening day, a WHO session also on Sunday, and two side events on Thursday (I don’t count ‘Implementing urban health and wellbeing by taking a systems approach’, co-organised by an ITM public health unit but cancelled at the last minute). Besides being remarkable, this is a lost opportunity. Whatever ideology people adhere to – like hedonism striving to maximise health and wellbeing, or eudaemonism optimising the path to health and wellbeing – most experts today regard health as a core part of wellbeing. If we want our future cities to be ‘sustainable, inclusive and resilient’, then health and wellbeing are essential ingredients. Yet curiously, the Habitat III jargon got stuck in ‘shared prosperity’, and hardly used the term ‘wellbeing’. A pity.

 “The city that we want or the city that they want?”

During the high-level round table “Leave no one behind” on Monday, speakers addressed the challenges towards the path to ‘shared prosperity’. Poverty reduction and access to basic services were elements common across discussions. Equity and inclusion were indeed the mantra of the conference, yet many groups felt excluded. Jean-Yves Duclos, Canada´s Minister of Families, Children and Social Development highlighted the exclusion of LGTBI groups, particularly criticizing the move to exclude the LGBTI community from urban development plans by 17 countries a few months ago. In the shadow of Habitat III, women, cyclists, pedestrians, indigenous people, students, LGTBI people and evicted locals organised a parallel event, Resistance Habitat III, and planned a march on Thursday (while this blog was being written).

‘People’ were to be at the heart of the new urban agenda. This was one of the key messages of the sessions I attended. I was pondering this when suddenly a caramelera (woman who sells candies and snacks) in the Arbolito park surrounding the venue brought me back to reality. “What is this for?”, she asked, as she struggled with a toddler on her back. I thought of echoing some of the nice slogans I had heard at the Conference, such as ‘diminish poverty’, ‘increase access to services’, ‘decrease inequity’… Then I realized that we cannot achieve this dream of inclusive, safe and sustainable cities, if we remain blind to the ‘invisible’ in our streets. It reminded me of Eduardo Galeano´s poem, The Nobodies:

“…The nobodies: the sons of no one,

the owners of nothing.

The nobodies:  treated as no one,

running after the carrot, dying their lives, fucked,


Who are not, even when they are.

Who don’t speak languages, but rather dialects.

Who don’t follow religions,

but rather superstitions. 

Who don’t do art, but rather crafts.

Who don’t practice culture, but rather folklore.

Who are not human,

but rather human resources…”


But probably those nobodies will not be invited to the closing cocktail.

About Werner Soors

Werner Soors is a former ITM staff member.

About Patricia Granja

Patricia Granja is medical doctor with a masters degree in public health. Is an ITM alumni. She worked until last year at the Ministry of Health in Ecuador at the national level. She now is tutor of the Public Health Masters Program of the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador and invited professor of the San Simon University in Bolivia.