Last month, a major global summit that only takes place every 20 years - the UN's Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development, otherwise known as Habitat III - took place in Quito, Ecuador under the motto 'Inclusive Cities, Shared Development'. Held in a country in the Global South for the first time ever, what exactly did this promised inclusion look like from the ground?
Habitat III is a major global summit that offers the international community an opportunity to come together to discuss the issues posed by current trends in urbanisation. The first was held in Canada back in the 70s, the second in Turkey in 1996. With Latin America currently the world's most urbanised region, it seemed like a timely decision when the United Nations announced that this time around the conference was to to be held in Quito, Ecuador. Having lived in the Ecuadorian capital for the last six months - a city which, like many Latin American metropolises, is rife with visible examples of urban inequality such as unequal income distribution, poor public transport and high levels of environmental contamination - I was interested to see how things would unfold.
© Habitat III sign at the entrance to the main conference site
Even before Habitat III had started, there was criticism of the organisation of the event: reports of people queuing for up to five hours just to register and receive their entry pass, the fact that all of the events were to be held on weekdays with entry closed at 6pm (meaning that locals with conventional working hours had no way of attending), and the fact that a huge majority of the conferences were held only in English. But with official statistics reporting a total of 16,500 local visitors along with another 10,000 international guests, it doesn't sound as if the local turnout was that bad at all.
© Habitat III participants shelter from the sun outside the main pavilion
And in an attempt to increase participation among the general public, the organisers took the event's message out to the streets, with small, interactive, urban Habitat III events dotted throughout the city. The park where the main pavilion was located housed a photo exhibition, new bike lanes were opened up - as well as some streets being closed in the evenings to allow cyclists to get around more easily - and there was even the installation of a permanent open-access urban library known as an Andoteca (a combination of the verb "andar" to walk, and "biblioteca", meaning library) in the middle of a park in central Quito. For a few days at least, quality of life in central Quito changed for the better, and it looks as if at least in some respects, it's going to stay that way.
© Five Andotecas (public libraries) in Gabriela Mistral Park, Quito
But the event was subject to criticism for other reasons too, namely due to a perceived lack of genuine inclusion and participation on behalf of local minority groups, who saw Habitat III instead as elitist and exclusive. They organised another, much more low-key, grassroots event called "Voces de la Resistencia" (Voices of the Resistance). As well as holding a similar 3-day event full of conferences and film screenings, they organised a number of demonstrations near the Habitat III site, which despite being peaceful were attended by several heavily-armoured and armed police troops. This "alternative Habitat III" had much more of a regional focus, and all conferences were held in Spanish or Portuguese, with a focus on recent events such as the negative social affects of the Olympic Games on favelas in Rio, the planned destruction of Quito's Bolaños neighbourhood in order to place a motorway right through their lands, and the role of indigenous groups affected by climate change.
© Indigenous women from Ecuador and Chile discuss climate change at "Voces de la Resistencia"
But while some of their criticisms of the official event could be seen as being justified - such as the fact that many of the events weren't offered with a Spanish translation, and truly "controversial" local issues weren't being aired - according to the United Nations official report, Habitat III had the strongest participation of civil society, stakeholders and local government officials in the history of United Nations Conferences. And a number of events did give space to voices and opinions from historically-marginalised groups - such as the Women's Stakeholders Roundtable and a conference dedicated to indigenous groups, featuring speakers from Guatemala, Honduras, Canada and the US, among others.
© Official Habitat III panel for indigenous groups
At the closing plenary of the conference, the United Nations adopted and accepted the terms of the New Urban Agenda, a new framework that hopes to set the world on a course towards sustainable urban development. The Habitat III Secretary General summed up the plan saying, “The New Urban Agenda is an ambitious agenda which aims at paving the way towards making cities and human settlements more inclusive, ensuring that everyone can benefit from urbanisation, and paying particular attention to those in those in vulnerable situations." While the conference itself may not have been able to make people who find themselves in the aforementioned "vulnerable situations" feel included, only time will tell whether the agenda itself will be successfully implemented and by transforming cities, maybe be able to transform the world.
© Participants in the audience at Habitat III