Interview with CEDLA researcher Dr. Christien Klaufus about her participation in the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development: Habitat III to take place in Quito, Ecuador.

What is the Habitat III Conference? And why is it important for the Latin American region?

The Habitat III Conference is the third conference that United Nations General Assembly organizes in order to reinvigorate the global commitment to sustainable urbanization, to focus on the implementation of a New Urban Agenda. UN Habitat had the first conference on housing and urbanization problems in 1976. The second one was 20 years later, the Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996, and this is the third one, 20 years later again. We know that the world is urbanizing rapidly. By 2030-50 over 70% of the world population will be living in the cities. The conference in Quito aims to establish a new urban agenda. The draft of this urban agenda is ready and available online, but it will be formally adopted during the conference. During the four days of Habitat III , information and expertise on organization processes and urban governance will be exchanged by all kinds of stake holders related to urbanization from over the world, such as politicians, policy makers, academics, activists, artists, etc.


Why is it important for the Latin American region? It is important for all regions that are still urbanizing, so I think right now it is primarily important for Asia and especially Africa because Africa will be the most rapid urbanizing region. Latin America is already the most urbanized region in the world, so it already had this rapid wave of urbanization during the second half of the 20th century. The importance will be that Latin America can exchange their experiences with other regions, so other regions might be able to perhaps learn from the Latin American experiences. So the importance lays on the possibility to share and exchange experience and know-how with other regions. What are important issues that should be included in the Urban Agenda that specifically concern Latin America?

The new Urban Agenda is a 24 pages long and very broad document. It contains everything that the Urban Agenda aims to provide: more equal opportunities to all citizens, better social housing, better infrastructure, fight poverty and inequality, etc. It is so broad that maybe not this document in itself, but the local policies that will be developed, and especially the implementation of those policies will be important, and will show us whether or not this conference contributes in a positive way. Regarding the results of such agenda’s and how to evaluate them; it was stressed by Enrique Peñaloza Lodoño (mayor of the city of Bogotá, Colombia) that we still lack enough comparable data to actually know what the situation in different cities is, and I agree. For example, from my own research topic on the infrastructure of cemeteries, we hardly know anything about it. So without available and reliable data it is hard to know what the problem is exactly, it is even harder to know what can be learned from other cities. If you don’t even know what’s happening in your own city, how can you ever compare. Many cities try to learn from many cities, this has resulted in lists of so-called ‘best practices’, which is also a risk on itself: people look only for ready-made solutions, while there is no such thing. So, what could be learned is one the one hand that we need more information and knowledge on current urban issues, and on the other hand, that we should be careful to exchange that knowledge in ready-made formulas, as if best practices could be copied. And because Latin America has already experimented so much with trying to fight rapid urban growth, sprawl, inequality, etc. there are many examples that are nowadays mentioned as best practices, like Medellín, which is one of the famous examples.

So how did Medellín become a best practice city?

Medellín was able to turn from being the number one murder capital of the world into a more livable city, with lower homicide rates, and better opportunities for people of poor areas. They invested in infrastructure that would facilitate the mobilization of people in poorer neighborhoods of the city, like the metrocable and the metro system. They also invested in libraries, schools and other facilities. But the explanations for its success are not only related to the development of physical infrastructure, but also to policies on the national level, like the zero tolerance policy on violence, which managed to reduce violence in general. So it’s not just one kind of policy on the local level that transformed Medellín into an exemplary city. But the success in urban renewal resulted in a very reductionist view of policymaking, a ‘success formula’. The two mayors that started implementing these new policies gave it a name: Social Urbanism, so the name became a brand. And by branding a set of qualities as social urbanism, it became something in itself. People think that they can copy social urbanism, but of course it all depends on the context and the timing.

What will you be doing in HabitatIII?
One of the events we organize with LANDac (LANDac is the academy for Land Governance, which is a collaboration between the university of Utrecht and the ministry of foreign affairs, so it’s an IS academy) is a formal side-event that will have the format of a round table session. The Netherlands has an international development cooperation project in the city of Beira which is in Mozambique. This side-event will be focused on exchanging information and experiences between Beira, Mozambique and experts from the cities of Cuenca en Quito, Ecuador. The whole idea is to have a round table session in which the mayor of Beira and a housing experts will explain what kind of steps they took in terms of land governance (LANDac is about land governance) to implement projects that will protect their city against climate change. Why land governance? Because in order to implement this projects, infrastructure had to be made, which means that land had to be expropriated, and people had to be relocated, etc. During the roundtable the speakers will exchange experiences about how this process worked out for Beira, what went right and which aspects could have been improved. Experts from Quito and Cuenca will reflect on the Beira case; these Ecuadorian cities do not have much experience with climate change but they do have experiences with the implementation of large scale infrastructural projects.
The second event is outside the main venue and will be in collaboration with Pakhuis de Zwijger and meant for a broader public. There, two colleagues and myself will explain how, in our own research, we come across examples in which land governance leads to winners and losers, what that means, and what we can learn from it. I will present my own findings of my fieldwork in Lima: the land governance regarding Deathscapes, cemetery’s: where are the frictions between the cities of the dead and the cities of the living? and who wins and who loses? Because at a certain point, if there is land shortage, which usually is the case, it’s all about who takes the land and what is it for. A concrete example that I came across is that due to lands shortage, people start occupying land on cemetery’s; they build their house on the cemetery. Or people make money selling graves, because money is to be made by offering burial spaces. So there are all kinds of frictions taking place.
In the third event we will be hosting a formal key note speech by ex-mayor Sergio Fajardo of Medellín on land Governance during his administration. Dr. Fajardo will reflect on inclusive urban development and will highlight some of the cornerstones of the policies that supported Medellin’s transition. Following his contribution, the mayors of Beira and Maastricht will reflect on Fajardo speech on the basis of their own experiences.

So Habitat III really is a huge conference?
About 45.000 participants are expected, so yes, it really is huge. It is so big that having an overview beforehand is practically impossible. So it will be a puzzle in itself trying to figure out which events will be worth participating in. There is the main assemblies: official keynote speeches, official meetings among all kinds of stake holders. Parallel to this, there many side events. Then there is the official network events in which formal institutions are given the opportunity to promote their knowledge or network. But that is only in the main building. Besides that there is a whole village with all sorts of pavilions, the Netherlands for instance will have an own pavilion. And outside, in the city itself there is all kinds of temporary locations where people do things, make art, or have breakfast together, etc.

So it’s actually occupying Quito during the four days of Habitat III.