In Quito this week, the world is meeting to discuss the future of its cities

The 'La Compania' church, in the historical centre of Quito, is illuminated during a light show held to open the UN's Habitat III Conference. Image: Getty.

As the global population grows from seven to nearly ten billion by 2050, we will need to build the equivalent of a city of 1m people every five days to house them.

The world already has ten cities with more than 20m inhabitants, including Tokyo (37m), Beijing (21m), Jakarta (30m) and New Delhi (25m). Out of the 7bn people in the world, 6.7bn live with pollution above WHO clean air standards.

And by 2050, around 12m people from 23 cities in East Asia alone will be at risk from coastal inundation. Planning for climate change will be critical to minimise risk to these areas.

These are just some of the stark facts about our global urban future.

With these issues in mind, up to 50,000 participants have gathered in Quito this week to discuss a New Urban Agenda at Habitat III – the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development.

The adoption of the agenda will set standards for sustainable development with a strong emphasis on social inclusion, cultural diversity, urban prosperity, urban governance, urban spatial development, and integrated urban planning including climate change.

From Paris to Quito

The Paris agreement on climate change will come into effect in November 2016. Cities will be at the heart of achieving its aim to limit global warming to less than 2°C. Planning for a low-carbon and resilient urban future is now our greatest global challenge. It is critical to achieving emission reduction targets and planning cities for climate change.

After all, cities produce 76 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions and account for 75 per cent of energy use worldwide.

The focus is now on implementing the Paris agreement; that is where the New Urban Agenda, proposed for agreement at UN Habitat III, comes into play. Key issues being discussed include affordable housing, urban transport, gender equity, empowerment of women and girls, poverty, and hunger in all its forms. Involving communities in the future and design of cities is essential. Better urban governance of our growing cities and urban regions is a core theme.

Observing the range of activities here at Habitat III, it is impressive to see the significant engagement of the private sector as well as governments and NGOs. This mix of partnerships is vital if we are to make positive change in the planning of our cities. Global companies are present as well as local consultancies. They can clearly see there is a market for them in more sustainable futures: that brings great hope for the future.

The scientists are less happy, and are seeking greater engagement in future discussions. The latest issue of Nature comments that “scientists must have a say in the future of cities”, and argues that they should have been more involved in the Habitat III processes. Clearly, better connecting scientists with planners with communities is important in finding sustainable solutions.

A key component in improving city planning is sharing knowledge and expertise. Cities are often connected through global urban networks such as C40, a network of megacities advocating for action on climate change, and the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.

Another important strategy being presented is improving the sharing of knowledge and expertise between “like climate regions”. It is equally important to improve communication of the major urban challenges with wider audiences. Researchers with the United Nations University have also developed an art strategy as part of the preparatory process for Habitat III, with the intention of stimulating thought and discussion on health and well-being in cities.

The overall message from UN Habitat III is that the sustainable planning and design of our cities and human settlements is fundamental to improving the health and well being of our urban communities and acting on climate change. Through that, we tackle the stark facts of urban pollution, our response to climate change, and the future liveability of our cities.


Our moment to act

We are living in a unique time for cities, with multiple UN agendas coming together at once: the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris climate agreement, Sendai Framework for Risk Reduction and the Small Island Developing States Partnerships Framework.

National urban policies are seen as crucial to implementation of all these agreements. As the New Urban Agenda states:

the persistence of multiple forms of poverty, growing inequalities, and environmental degradation remain among the major obstacles to sustainable development worldwide.

Through better urban governance, we can make significant inroads to address the ongoing barriers to achieving more sustainable cities. The proposed agenda particularly highlights transportation and mobility as a priority to support action.

Habitat III offers an opportunity to raise global understanding of the enormous challenges facing cities, and a platform for nations to collaborate in developing more sustainable urban futures. This will require considerable effort from everyone.The Conversation

Barbara Norman is chair of urban and regional planning at the University of CanberraJohn Colin Reid is a visual artist, attached to Australian National University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.