Housing as a Verb: A Critique of Habitat III’s New Urban Agenda


Sara Bissen interviewed writer and researcher Robert Neuwirth in November 2016 on the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), held in Quito October 17−20, 2016. The text in which the interview refers to is the Draft Outcome Document of the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III). Quito: United Nations General Assembly A/CONF.226/4.

Originally published in the epistemology of design issue of the Journal of Biourbanism Volume V, 1&2/2016

SB: Following Habitat I in 1976 held in Vancouver, and Habitat II in 1996 held in Istanbul, what do you think about the most recent Habitat III in 2016 held in Quito—now that the New Urban Agenda has been adopted?

RN: I wasn’t at any of these three conferences. But I do have some questions about the mindset behind them. At around the same time as the first Habitat gathering, John F. C. Turner wrote that we have to think of housing as a verb—not as a commodity but as an activity. Yet all three of these global conferences got stuck on the commodity nature of housing and urban development. And they didn’t pay enough attention to the active way in which squatters were building whole neighborhoods while the technocrats stood by and did nothing.

Back in 1996, as a local reporter covering housing in NYC, I wanted to go to Istanbul to report on Habitat II. I had been in the city the year before and knew something about the gecekondu (built overnight) communities. And I was irked that the UN bureaucrats were going to sit in the hotels overlooking the Bosphorus talking about housing when what they really needed to do was take a ferry and a bus and visit the people who were actually building it. Though I couldn’t get any news organization to send me to Istanbul in 1996, I was determined to get to those outlying neighborhoods all over the world where people, in stern disregard of the bureaucrats, were building their own future. It took me five years to develop the courage to quit my job and do it. And that was the start of my work on Shadow Cities (Neuwirth, 2005).

SB: As a first point, let’s talk about #107 from the New Urban Agenda (United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), 2016, p. 15).

107. We will encourage the development of policies, tools, mechanisms and financing models promoting access to a wide range of affordable, sustainable housing options, including rental and other tenure options, as well as cooperative solutions such as co-housing, community land trusts and other forms of collective tenure that would address the evolving needs of persons and communities, in order to improve the supply of housing (especially for low-income groups), prevent segregation and arbitrary forced evictions and displacements, and provide dignified and adequate reallocation. This will include support to incremental housing and self-build schemes, with special attention to programmes for upgrading slums and informal settlements.

RN: Here, the New Urban Agenda seems to once again have made the technocratic turn Turner criticized back in the early 70s. “Policies, tools, mechanisms and financing models” are, of course, terms that a New York or London or Brussels nonprofit could understand. And I’ve got nothing against activists in highly developed cities working on these things. But for the mass of urban residents—the billion squatters I wrote about in Shadow Cities—the New Urban Agenda offers only the pale promise of “special attention” to what it calls “programmes for upgrading slums”.

So what does this mean? Well, generally speaking, upgrading programs concentrate on getting people out of shanties and into more stable and long-lasting conventional buildings. But this ignores an important reality. When I was living in Kibera as I was working on Shadow Cities, I made a point of asking everyone I met what they wanted for their community. And the answer was never “a better house”. Though everyone knew they were living in degraded conditions, thanks to the absentee landlords and sclerotic land tenure scheme enforced by the provincial administration, bricks and mortar were not their main concern. Rather, they wanted toilets instead of latrines. Or paved roads. Or streetlights. Or access to municipal water. Or electricity. Or sanitation and sewers.

And when I heard what they wanted, I thought of the people I had previously met in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. They, too, wanted these things. And they got some of them by stealing them. They stole electricity from the municipal power grid and water from municipal mains.

This taught me an important lesson. People know they can build homes. They will rebuild them one wall at a time, one brick at a time if necessary, to make them more permanent. The process may take a lifetime.

But they also know they can’t make large infrastructure outlays. Yet it’s the infrastructure that will save lives more than the structure. In South Africa alone, there are 4,000 shack fires every year in which hundreds of people die—and the majority of these fires are caused because the authorities have made it impossible for people living in shack communities to get legal electrical service. So they heat and cook and do their schoolwork and studies using candles and charcoal and kerosene stoves and lanterns. And when someone accidentally knocks one over, it generally causes a fire. The World Health Organization has also estimated that 4 million people die each year from being choked to death because they are cooking indoors over open flames without adequate ventilation. And another 2 million people die every year of water-borne diseases.

This is why theft of water and electricity is so important—because it saves lives.

The UN’s endorsement of upgrading misunderstands this fundamental reality. The only way forward is to work with communities on their own self-defined agendas.

Additionally, the UN misunderstands the multifaceted role a home can play in people’s lives. Many people work out of their homes. Some cut windows into their shacks and sell groceries. Others light charcoal fires just outside their homes and sell what they cook. Still others set up impromptu tailor shops. None of this is allowed in so-called upgraded buildings. Upgrading may offer an arguably better home, but it may also deny people the possibility of doing the work they need to do to pay for it.

SB: Then, here is #111 (p. 15) that states:

111. We will promote the development of adequate and enforceable regulations in the housing sector, including, as applicable, resilient building codes, standards, development permits, land use by-laws and ordinances, and planning regulations; combating and preventing speculation, displacement, homelessness and arbitrary forced evictions; and ensuring sustainability, quality, affordability, health, safety, accessibility, energy and resource efficiency, and resilience. We will also promote differentiated analysis of housing supply and demand based on high-quality, timely and reliable disaggregated data at the national, subnational and local levels, considering specific social, economic, environmental and cultural dimensions.

What does “arbitrary” mean in this context, in relation to “forced evictions”?

RN: Habitat I and II were unequivocal. They both called for an end to all “forced evictions”. The New Urban Agenda only calls for preventing “arbitrary” forced evictions. The change may seem small but it’s actually crucial. While Habitat was going on, the government in Lagos, Nigeria started evicting waterfront shantytowns, most of which had been people’s homes for decades, and the French government descended on The Jungle, the informal refugee encampment in Calais. Neither of these actions was in any way arbitrary. Indeed, the authorities claimed they had solid and compelling reasons for moving forward. So they were not in violation of the New Urban Agenda. The people who wrote the New Urban Agenda simply failed to understand that no evictions are ever arbitrary. Every eviction has a reason. Otherwise they wouldn’t be worth the hassle. So that seemingly innocuous one-word change defanged the UN from ever speaking out against evictions anywhere.

SB: For #110 (p. 15), what is the Agenda really saying here?

110. We will support efforts to define and reinforce inclusive and transparent monitoring systems for reducing the proportion of people living in slums and informal settlements, taking into account the experiences gained from previous efforts to improve the living conditions of slum and informal-settlement dwellers.

What would you say this improvement is based on? Did they do so well in the past?

RN: Here, the UN is doubling down on a fictional claim it made four years ago. Back in 2012, the UN claimed a grand victory on the Millennium Development Goals. In particular, UN-Habitat claimed that it had improved the lives of 100 million slum-dwellers. The proof the UN offered was only an inference: “the share of slum dwellers in urban areas declined from 39 per cent in 2000 to 33 per cent in 2012, improving the lives of at least 100 million people”. Yet there were over 100 million more people living in shantytowns in 2012 than there were in 2000. How could these two things—a vast increase in the number of people living in shantytowns and a vast decrease in the percentage of people living in shantytowns—both be true? And why might the decrease in the percentage of people living in shantytowns be due to anything the UN had done? The organization couldn’t say. In the absence of any real knowledge, the most likely story is that the UN simply changed the definition of shantytown and slum communities so that some that counted in the 2000 statistics no longer counted in 2012. And that seems to be exactly what happened. The UN changed the definition of what constitutes a slum in 2008—for instance, weakening the standard on clean water from “access to safe water” to the more porous “access to improved drinking water”, a category that, according to UN-Habitat documents, includes “bottled water” (Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme–UN-Habitat, n.d., p. 3), which everyone has access to as long as they have money. Other standards were also watered down. In 2000, for instance, any community relying on pit latrines as toilets was considered a slum. But in 2005, the UN changed the definition so that pit latrines with a slab (a covering with a hole that you can squat over) now qualify as “improved sanitation”. As David Satterthwaite has suggested: “The very large understatement of the deficiencies in provision for water and sanitation also means that the statistics on the extent of slum populations provided by UN-Habitat are too low, because ‘improved’ provision for water and sanitation are two of the four criteria used to define ‘slum’ households. The estimation of the world’s ‘slum’ population would be much higher if more appropriate standards were set on water and sanitation provision in urban areas” (Satterthwaite, 2016, pp. 114−115).

And this was most likely how, without being able to point to a single community having been improved or a single life transformed, the UN was able to announce a wonderful but purely illusory victory.

Finally, it’s important to note that the New Urban Agenda ratifies this same approach. It does not promise to reduce the number of people living in slums. Rather, it only proposes to reduce “the proportion of people living in slums”. In other words, the New Urban Agenda allows the UN to continue doing exactly what it did in 2012. It can continue lying with statistics.

SB: At point #23 (p. 6) we find the Quito implementation plan for the New Urban Agenda that says:

23. We resolve to implement the New Urban Agenda as a key instrument for enabling national, subnational and local governments and all relevant stakeholders to achieve sustainable urban development.

Despite the fact that this document is void of indicators and specific project plans for implementation, there are over 150 points (#23–175, pp. 6–22) on the plan for implementation, effective implementation, the means of implementation, and follow-up.1 This shows that how these commitments are going to be used as a “key instrument” is important. We don’t have the specifics of the how, yet the how is there. The Agenda talks about implementation, but what in fact are they implementing? What are the criteria for how?

RN: The verbiage about implementation is grandiose, but let’s not forget: the New Urban Agenda is non-binding. Any nations that sign onto it are doing so voluntarily and there will be no penalty for breaking the commitments in the document. Some of those who participated in Habitat III have suggested to me that the document is mostly a blueprint that local groups can use to shame their municipal, regional, and national governments over the coming decades. But, given how the document gutted the provision against forced evictions, it’s hard to see how the New Urban Agenda gives squatters much to work with. On the other hand, cities in the developed world may be able to use the New Urban Agenda’s endorsement of trendy urbanist notions of placemaking and tactical urbanism and the importance of public space. It’s sad that this document approved with such fanfare in Quito will quite possibly have greater impact in cities like Chicago and Quebec and Copenhagen, cities that are already quite privileged in the ways in which they have developed.

SB: Noting #35 (p. 7):

35. We commit ourselves to promoting, at the appropriate level of government, including subnational and local government, increased security of tenure for all, recognizing the plurality of tenure types, and to developing fit-for-purpose and age-, gender- and environment-responsive solutions within the continuum of land and property rights, with particular attention to security of land tenure for women as key to their empowerment, including through effective administrative systems.

Based on the nuances of the concept of property that you had found in squatter communities around the world—as presented in Shadow Cities—what do you think about this point?

RN: “fit-for-purpose… solutions within the continuum of land and property rights” is an awful slogan to rally around. I have no idea what it means.

Look, security of tenure is absolutely crucial. But it is not at its heart a legal concept. In layman’s terms it simply means staying power: the idea that you won’t be summarily evicted and the sense, ephemeral though it may be, that your community is, at least for the reasonably foreseeable future, not going to be destroyed.

That’s true security of tenure. It doesn’t require any tortured legal codification.

I have long argued that water is secure tenure and electricity is secure tenure and sewers are secure tenure. By this I mean that the provision of infrastructure is the best pragmatic metric of security of tenure. When people have roads and water pipes and sewers and sanitation, it’s hard to argue their communities are unsafe and unhealthy and deserve to be smashed to the ground.

SB: In a way, the document assumes the city is static. How can the static characteristic of this particular New Urban Agenda deal with the world’s crises? What does this mean for the importance of the “ruderal”?2 Taking into consideration, if possible—rural, migration, and urban decay.

RN: The best cities, of course, are in continual stages of becoming. This does not mean that developers are on the march erecting taller and taller paeans to wealth. Rather, it means that successive waves of new arrivals are being knit into the urban fabric and are developing new dynamics that merge with older patterns.

To accommodate this, cities need their ruderal spaces. Not planned out parks or gardens or paved public spaces or plazas. But actual empty parcels and lots. These things are key. Cities are not only about development.

Years ago, when I was a community organizer fighting against the luxury redevelopment of Times Square, I discovered that the Environmental Impact Statement produced for the government- sponsored project defined all parks and community gardens and empty lots in the surrounding area as “underdeveloped property”.

It’s in just this way that we create waste ground—not in reality but as an idea. We dump this idea on certain parcels. And then we define those parcels as wasted, unnecessary, surplus, ready for exploitation.

The smart city, the planned city, the garden city, even the global city all need waste spaces. To absorb run off, whether of melting snow or the monsoon or simply the human need to stare at a rock outcropping or marvel at a tree that has somehow grown tall against the chaotic sprawl of skyscrapers or factories or shantytowns. To accommodate new arrivals—whether human migrants from the hinterlands or weedy species that need places to sprout. To save us from our own endless consumption of land and resources. To show us our own limits.

SB: What do you think of this year’s focus on “the right to the city”?

In Shadow Cities (p. 311), you wrote:

The world’s squatters give some reality to Henri Lefebvre’s loose concept of “the right to the city.” They are excluded, so they take. But they are not seizing an abstract right, they are taking an actual place: a place to lay their heads. This act—to challenge society’s denial of place by taking one of your own—is an assertion of being in a world that routinely denies people the dignity and the validity inherent in a home.

Of the New Urban Agenda, Our shared vision #11 (p. 4) states:

11. We share a vision of cities for all, referring to the equal use and enjoyment of cities and human settlements, seeking to promote inclusivity and ensure that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, without discrimination of any kind, are able to inhabit and produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements to foster prosperity and quality of life for all. We note the efforts of some national and local governments to enshrine this vision, referred to as “right to the city”, in their legislation, political declarations and charters.

Today, what are your thoughts on the right to the city?

RN: What I wrote a decade ago remains valid. But the New Urban Agenda once again adopts technocratic language when it suggests that the right to the city can be promoted by legalistic efforts of national and local governments.

Henri Lefebvre, who coined the phrase, was suggesting something more radical: a move by people themselves to assert their place in the city. This is no mere charter or agenda or statement of principles. Rather, it requires action. For generations, the world’s squatters adopted silence as a survival strategy. The idea was that if they hid out in the hills and kept their heads down, they could keep their homes. This worked for many years. But silence will no longer work. The world’s billion squatters now have to emerge. This will be difficult. But it is only through their emergence that anything like “the right to the city” can be actualized.

SB: Overall, do you think one may suspect that the purpose of the Agenda is to serve as justification for UN-Habitat and Habitat III existence? In fact, #170 (p. 22) states, after reaffirming its relevant General Assembly resolutions, that “we reiterate the importance of the Nairobi headquarters location of UN-Habitat”. Considering Nairobi’s Kibera was where you once lived, could you talk more about the slums that exist next to the home of Habitat?

RN: I’m certainly in favor of UN offices being spread all over the world and I think it’s appropriate that the UN’s agency that thinks about cities and rapid urbanization be located in Africa. But let’s be honest: UN-Habitat’s headquarters is not in a publicly accessible office building downtown. It is on its own lush campus in a wealthy suburban-style suburb known as Gigiri. Spiritually, it’s just as far away from mud hut communities like Kibera and Korogocho and Mathare as it would be if it were in New York or Geneva. And its efforts to involve itself in actions in those communities have been abject failures.

In Shadow Cities, I used a fragment from Franz Kafka to start my chapter on UN-Habitat: “a cage went in search of a bird”. Habitat is an agency designed along the Western technocratic model. Its personnel are well-meaning, but their actions are limited by what the UN Member States will permit. UN-Habitat has never been permitted to be as radical and experimental as some of its staffers would like.

SB: Creative urban concepts are embedded throughout the Agenda, but they seem either already inherent to informal settlements themselves, or not central to the most pressing housing concerns.

These include concepts such as an “urban paradigm shift” (#15 under Our principles and commitments, p. 5), “smart-city approach” (#66 under Environmentally sustainable and resilient urban development, p. 11), “well-designed networks of safe, accessible, green and quality streets and other public spaces that are accessible to all” as #100 (p. 14) plus #109 (p. 15) even more “accessible, green and quality public spaces” but this time specifically in relation to slums and informal settlements (both under Planning and managing urban spatial development), and “walking and cycling” #114(a) (p. 16) (under the same section).

Based on your experience, how valid are such notions in the Habitat discussion when there are slums without the basic infrastructure that the general public tends to take for granted?

RN: The New Urban Agenda supports trendy notions of “placemaking” and “tactical urbanism” and “public space” without understanding that these labels actually describe the natural way that people create their communities. Every shantytown or street market is a place that engages in tactical urbanism and tries to maximize public space and create a true destination even as it is super- dense and, because of lack of infrastructure, sometimes super-decrepit. The real “urban paradigm shift” needed is to recognize that squatter communities and street markets are legitimate parts of the city.

SB: Point #1 (p. 1) in the Note by the Secretariat, the General Assembly “reaffirmed its decision” that Habitat III “was to result in a concise, focused, forward-looking and action- oriented document, which should reinvigorate the global commitment to and support for housing and sustainable urban development and the implementation of the New Urban Agenda”.

What do you think about the result of this document?

RN: At a recent conference, I got a bit of pushback from some NGO-types that the Habitat document really exists for local people to try to use it as a lever to spur municipal action. Maybe so. But then, instead of 22 pages, it should have been one page, and instead of being non-binding it should have been compulsory. Perhaps something like this:

1 More specifically, #126 (p. 17) under Means of implementation sounds like a disclaimer where the entire world must align in order for the New Urban Agenda to work: “126. We recognize that the implementation of the New Urban Agenda requires an enabling environment and a wide range of means of implementation, including access to science, technology, and innovation and enhanced knowledge-sharing on mutually agreed terms, as well as capacity development and mobilization of financial resources, taking into account the commitment of developed and developing countries, and tapping into all available traditional and innovative sources at the global, regional, national, subnational and local levels, as well as enhanced international cooperation and partnerships among governments at all levels, the private sector, civil society, the United Nations system and other actors, based on the principles of equality, non- discrimination, accountability, respect for human rights and solidarity, especially with those who are the poorest and most vulnerable”. Point #128 (pp. 17−18) aims “to generate evidence-based and practical guidance for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda and the urban dimension of the Sustainable Development Goals”, and #161 under Follow-up and review (p. 21) further stresses deliverable implementation, “ensuring coherence at the national, regional and global levels, in order to track progress, assess impact and ensure the Agenda’s effective and timely implementation, accountability to our citizens, and transparency, in an inclusive manner”.

2 Ruderal, meaning a reality connected to “waste ground and refuse” as defined by Neuwirth (2016, p. 23).

3 “System D” refers to the ingenuous and improvised stealth economy typically performed outside the official economy by débrouillard (resourceful) people, as defined by Neuwirth. It has been estimated that two-thirds of the world’s labor will be working in System D by 2020 (Neuwirth, 2011, pp. 17–19).


Neuwirth, R. (2005). Shadow cities: A billion squatters, a new urban world. New York: Routledge.

Neuwirth, R. (2011). Stealth of nations: The global rise of the informal economy. New York: Pantheon.

Neuwirth, R. (2016). 1067 Pacific St., Brooklyn: In the ruderal city. Journal of Biourbanism, 4(1&2/2015), 19−24.

Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme (PSUP–UN-Habitat). (n.d.). Slum almanac 2015/2016: Tracking improvement in the lives of slum dwellers. Nairobi: UN-Habitat. Retrieved from http://www.worldurbancampaign.org/sites/default/files/subsites/resources/Slum%20Almana c%202015-2016%20EN_16.02_web_0.pdf

Satterthwaite, D. (2016, April). Missing the Millennium Development Goal targets for water and sanitation in urban areas. Environment & Urbanization, 28(1), 99–118. doi:10.1177/0956247816628435.

Turner, J. F. C. (1976). Housing by people: Towards autonomy in building environments. London: Marion Boyars.

UN-Habitat, Habitat III. (2016). The New Urban Agenda. Retrieved from https://habitat3.org/the- new-urban-agenda/

United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), October 17−20, 2016. Draft Outcome Document of the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III). Quito: United Nations General Assembly A/CONF.226/4. “New Urban Agenda: Quito Declaration on Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements for All” September 29, 2016. Retrieved from https://www2.habitat3.org/bit cache/99d99fbd0824de50214e99f864459d8081a9be00?vid=591155&disposition=inline&op =view