Dispatch from Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador, October 2016

Courtesy Cancillería del Ecuador
“Travel and meetings facilities, Habitat III” Courtesy Cancillería del Ecuador

For those unfamiliar with Habitat III (also known as the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development), you might be interested to know that this global gathering, bringing together many of the world’s most influential urbanists, took place only a couple of weeks ago in Quito, Ecuador.  Habitat III, so-called because it is the third in a very-occasional series of conferences on the theme (the last, Habitat II, was held in Istanbul in 1996), set forth what it calls The New Urban Agenda, meant to manage urban development for the next two decades.  How much of this agenda and the conversations surrounding it are able to nourish some of its more democratic aspirations remains to be seen.  Our colleague, Prof. Sophie Gonick of NYU’s Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, shared this dispatch from her experience at the conference.

In mid-October, I headed to Quito, Ecuador, to attend the Habitat III meetings with literally tens of thousands of diplomats, politicians, development workers, scientific experts, and other academics. For four days, we would convene in one place to discuss the future of cities. As I traveled south, I was keen to pay attention to both the official discourse and the vast assortment of parallel conversations that had sprung up around it, often in opposition. In addition to the formal program, the city’s various universities and cultural centers also held their own events. My days were thus spent traveling between the gated Habitat enclave and local auditoriums and classrooms throughout Quito’s central valley.

While each space addressed similar questions, the resulting conversations often appeared separate from one another. In UN-sanctioned conference rooms, bureaucrats elaborated their benchmarks and guidelines. At FLACSO, the premier Latin American educational institution, storied academics insisted on the need to formulate alternatives and rely on theories and imaginaries of democratic emancipation. Finally, in the popular resistance forum at the Universidad Central de Ecuador, activists, young academics, and NGO workers discussed experiences and struggles from social movements across the globe. One morning, I sat around a table in an airy and decrepit classroom with other young academics to discuss how we study processes of resistance. Seemingly far removed from both the technocratic Habitat enclave and the high theory of FLACSO, we could actually reflect on what it means to move between the worlds of activism, academia, and policy. Such exchanges that transgress traditional boundaries and hierarchies produced the most fruitful material. Yet they were few and far between.

Meanwhile, much has been made about the inclusion of the right to the city discourse within the official New Urban Agenda. Throughout many spaces, that language was ubiquitous. But it remained largely an illusive concept, a problem that has plagued it since its formulation. In one event at Habitat III dedicated to its implementation going forward, almost a dozen activists and civil society actors shared their experiences and thoughts. The panel concluded with two films clips meant to illustrate the right to the city. In both—one about spatial justice in Sao Paolo and the other about housing struggles in Washington, DC—the most salient questions to emerge concerned race and gender. Yet neither theme, especially race, was visible within most discussions. Cities are by their nature intersectional, and that intersectionality should necessarily be taken up as we think about the New Urban Agenda and its implementation.

Finally, perhaps my most poignant moment from Habitat only came after, as I was perusing Facebook once back in New York. A friend had posted pictures of the playground equipment that had been set up around the official site. Workers were taking it down now that the main event was over. Perhaps we should remember LeFebvre’s insistence on play as integral to the right to the city. Here, then, was a portrait of that right—illusive, maddening—denied.