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After Habitat III: a stronger urban future must be based on the right to the city

Innovative and agile cities will be better prepared to deal with the challenges of the next century. This cross-post from Guardian Cities shares thoughts from Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona, a 100RC member city. 100RC engages in content partnerships with several organizations, and cross-posting does not indicate an endorsement or agreement.

 

All the major global challenges – climate change, the economy, inequality, the very future of democracy – will be solved in cities. If nations want to succeed with their policies, we must be counted as serious actors on the global stage.

I believe national governments are hostages to the momentum of the previous century – but that’s not the real world any more. We live in a world that functions by networking, by faster and more agile contact between cities.

Of course, the perfect city does not exist; the democratic city is in permanent conflict and permanent construction. The point is to be really open; to keep innovating, listening to citizens and watching what is done in other cities to make constant improvements.

Cities are able to make politics more cooperative, and not so competitive. Even though different parties rule, we agree on concrete objectives and we cooperate in a very agile way, exchanging experiences and solutions. I think this should inspire politics at all levels.

There is always going to be fear of change – but cities are trying to be positive, telling national leaders: “You can count on us to update your policies to succeed. However, if you don’t include us, you will fail.”

The right to the city

I believe you can’t talk about a just, sustainable, equitable or inclusive city if you don’t speak about the right to the city [a model of urban development that includes all citizens].

The reference to it in the UN’s New Urban Agenda document [ratified at Habitat III in Quito this week] could be more ambitious, in my opinion. But we should also recognise the problems we have overcome just to get this far. Global powers such as the United States and China resisted it completely; they didn’t want the right to the city in the declaration at all.

But thanks to popular mobilisation in Latin America and in some European countries, this political movement has won its place on the agenda – and it is a significant achievement. The resisting member states were forced to put it in; they had to recognise that the vast majority of the population is located in cities – and it’s only going to increase.

But for the right to the city to become real, we have to fight, starting tomorrow, for it to be transformed into concrete policies and regulations.

Cities haven’t “won” yet – but we have developed a more united voice, and the national governments are much more aware that if they want their countries to prosper, they need to count on us.

The problem is, cities are underfunded. In Spain, municipalities only have access to 13% of total public revenues – which is very low when you have to respond immediately to all the daily problems of education, health, mobility and inequality.

Ada Colau and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo (r) leave Barcelona city hall after signing a collaboration agreement between their two cities. Photograph: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

Gender equality

The role of women in political change has been much more prominent at Habitat III than in previous summits. In a speech I made to the World Mayors Assembly, I discussed the feminisation of politics and was struck by the loud applause.

We still live in sexist and patriarchal cities – patriarchy goes hand in hand with the neoliberal city; they are two sides of the same coin. But right now we have an opportunity for those individuals who have traditionally been let down as “second-class citizens” to become the main characters.

It’s not just a question of gender justice; this is an opportunity to improve our democracies. The public is demanding that we – politicians and institutions alike – change our priorities.

Becoming Barcelona’s first female mayor carried an immediate and very political significance. Many women in my city attached huge importance to it – and I have also experienced that here in Quito. In all the conferences I’ve been doing, there have been dozens and dozens of women saying: “It is very important that you are the mayor.”

The 21st century is the century of cities – in part because this is a moment of great political uncertainty at many levels. But within that uncertainty, we see empowered citizens asking to be protagonists, and the city is the place to do this.

That’s why I am optimistic: because I see many people who were not bothered about politics now getting really interested. Whereas previous summits used to be more bureaucratic, at Habitat III we have been having much more of a “citizen discussion”.

The most important tests will come after this summit finishes – when we find out whether all these statements can translate into commitments that create positive solutions for our citizens. Certainly, cities must play a leading role if the UN’s New Urban Agenda is to generate concrete policies that improve our urbanising world.

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