FORUM OF RESEARCHERS
ON HUMAN SETTLEMENTS
The Role of Research in the Context
of the Habitat Agenda
Director for scientific research, CERFE
Table of contents
The special session of the General Assembly of the UN (Istanbul+5), scheduled for July 2001, represents an important occasion in the process of the definition of global policies in the matter of human settlements.
It actually represents the first, sound opportunity to verify outcomes and achievements of the Istanbul World Summit on human settlements (City Summit), from different points of view:
from the cultural point of view, for what concerns, above all, the new conception of human settlements and their relations with the whole set of development processes;
from the strategic point of view, for what concerns, in particular, the establishment of a common perception, among the different stakeholders (international agencies, governments, municipalities, civil society organizations) of the problems to be tackled and the approaches to adopt (summarized in some key-notions, such as that of governance and that of partnership);
from the political point of view, for what concerns the strengthening and the improvement of partnership mechanisms between public and private actors and the interaction among transnational, national and local policies;
from the operational point of view, finally, especially for what concerns the level of implementation of the Habitat Agenda in the different national contexts.
The issue brought to the general attention appears to be particularly important. It actually requires to understand to what degree the Istanbul World Summit has represented a "point of no return" and, thus, the initial date to identify the "before" and the "after" for the interpretation of phenomena related to habitat and policies for human settlements.
This issue directly calls upon the research community. As a matter of fact, theories and results stemming from research constitute the major source - even though it is sometimes overlooked - of representations and strategies for action (as it is strongly emphasized, on the other hand, by the Habitat Agenda itself). At the same time, however, representations and strategies for action tend in turn to produce new demands for knowledge that affect the direction taken by research.
It is on the basis of these considerations that it was regarded as urgent to launch, within the Forum of Researchers on Human Settlements, a debate on the post-City Summit, in the perspective of Istanbul+5.
This document is to be understood, therefore, as a contribution to start up this reflection, linking together issues of different nature (political, scientific, institutional), that sometimes may even seem to be disconnected and that, anyway, will necessarily converge in the deliberations of Istanbul+5. Its aim is, then, to put forward a range of issues and nodal points and not to narrow a priori the range of discussion, being persuaded that other issues will be added during the E-Conference.
The text is articulated in three parts:
a first part (the pars destruens, as it were), trying to outline the most critical points of the path followed after the Istanbul Summit;
a second part (pars costruens), aimed at identifying some contents that should probably be relaunched in the perspective of Istanbul+5 and at suggesting some initiatives that, in this framework, could mark the activities of the FRHS;
a third part, finally, aimed at proposing a research path on the future of the city that, even beyond the Istanbul+5 Conference, could facilitate a deeper understanding of the stakes, that are both political and cognitive, linked to the political perspective opened by the Istanbul Summit.
If we observe the path followed so far, through the two Sessions of the Commission of Human Settlements that have been held after the Summit (the 16th, celebrated in 1996, and the 17th, held in Nairobi in May, 1999), it is possible to grasp some at least potential "critical
points". It is true that many things can change from now up to the celebration of the Istanbul+5 Conference. It is also necessary to mention some important initiatives devoted to give concrete form to the outcomes of the Summit, such as, for instance, the Global Urban Observatory or the UNCHS Best Practices Data Base. Such initiatives will be of importance also in the future of our reflection. Nevertheless, taking into account the issues and orientations emerged as a whole, we find it necessary to point out some critical remarks.
It can be detected a tendency to question the centrality of the city as a crucial factor for the development of the planet; a centrality that was instead strongly stressed in the Istanbul Summit (that was not called City Summit by chance). As a consequence, it seems that the idea of a "mainstreaming" of the city with respect to the whole set of development policies is being abandoned.
Compared to what has been asserted during the Summit, it can also be noted the orientation to reduce the role of the city as an instrument to fight poverty and social exclusion, giving room to merely negative interpretations of the city, as a place in which poverty effects, instead of being put under control, tend even to be magnified.
The deep reconsideration of urban governance mechanisms, accomplished in Istanbul, that led to stress the issue of partnership among the multiplicity of actors that operate in the urban scene, was not properly followed up. The attention seems to have focused, rather than on partnership policies, almost exclusively on the issue of administrative decentralization, thus reducing the purport of the formulations emerged in Istanbul. Moreover, the guidelines that have been set for the drawing up of the national reports to be presented at the Istanbul+5 Conference, seem to handle the issue of urban governance as a sectorial one, virtually marginalizing it.
It needs to be remarked the gap between the collaborative perspective, ripened during the Istanbul Summit, between the UN system and its lay partners (that is to say, bodies that are different from governments), and the practice that followed the Summit itself. In this framework, the way is now paved for a strategic relation between science and politics - which is, by the way, at the roots of the establishment of the FRHS - and that, on the contrary, doesn't seem to have been adequately considered in the two Sessions of the Commission of Human Settlements that have been held after the Summit. It must be reminded, in this regard, that in the Habitat Agenda research is mentioned at least 60 times, in connection with a multiplicity of issues, such as building technologies, capacity building, development of local communities' capacities, environment, training and dissemination, planning, land administration, technologies maintenance, not renewable resources, drinkable water supply, and transport systems.
The issue of supporting informal urban economy, extensively discussed in Istanbul, did not received afterwards enough space. In this way, the risk is to lose the nexus between city and development, which was one of the cornerstones of the Summit.
The institutional mechanisms adopted in Istanbul, that gave way to the sustantial inclusion of actors different from governments in the decision-making arena (through the direct involvement of a number of Networks, such as those of Local Authorities, NGOs, academic community, foundations or enterprises) have not been adequately developed in the two Sessions of the Commission of Human Settlements.
It can also be pointed out a virtual marginalization of the Habitat Agenda as a whole, both at the national and at the international level. Governments that can exhibit significative results in the implementation of the Habitat Agenda are few, and the Habitat Agenda itself doesn't seem to have been taken into due account in the projects carried out by many international development agencies. It is, moreover, important to stress that, according to a number of observers, the mechanisms to monitor the evaluation and implementation of the Habitat Agenda, arranged by UNCHS and the World Bank, are still incomplete.
The extensive debate carried out during the Summit on the new tools for integrated city planning does not seem to have had an adequate follow-up. It can be recorded, thus, the risk of returning to traditional planning mechanisms, that tend to dangerously ignore important aspects of the urban dynamics.
Issues that have been brought to the attention so far have a deep relation with the research activity. It would therefore be a serious mistake, or at least a missed opportunity, not to start a discussion, in the perspective of Istanbul+5, on theoretical and interpretative nodal points connected with urban phenomena, and on the contribution of researchers to the develoment of urban policies.
A first step, that could be decisive to relaunch a deeper interaction between science and politics, is inevitably represented by a resumption of the key-issues of the Habitat Agenda.
To this intent, it appears to be useful to try and identify, though concisely, the four thematic axis that, to our advice, should be brought back to the core of the discussion.
First of all, the Habitat Agenda presents a new analysis of the potential that the urban dimension entails, especially in the perspective of the relation between urbanization and globalization. The hypothesis proposed in Istanbul is, in particular, that of a sustainable city, capable of acting as an engine to foster the planet's economic, social and cultural growth, though maintaining a high degree of compatibility with the environment.
Stemming from this perspective is a new vision of the city, greatly different from the past, conceiving it mainly as a place of opportunities and social redemption and, thus, as a resource, despite the serious problems affecting urban areas.
Second, the Habitat Agenda has paved the way to the definition of new strategic guidelines for urban management, built on three basic concepts, such as that of governance, that of partnership, and that of enabling environment. Taken together, these strategic guidelines show a realistic way to test and implement more effective and democratic modalities of urban management, recognizing the main trends that characterize the administration of contemporary cities (such as the growing interaction among public and private actors, the increasing weight of civil society, the more and more relevant role of private actors, both profit and non profit, as providers of welfare services, etc.).
It should also be useful to go back to the contribution of the Habitat Agenda for what concerns the design and implementation of urban policies. The Habitat Agenda, actually, lays particular emphasis on policies that, in the first place, are able to deal with reality, using and improving what is already existing, rather than trying to invent something new. That's why attention is cast on the improvement strategy (upgrading what already exists), the indirect approach (where public actors do not intervene directly to solve a specific problem, but promote the intervention of those actors that are already addressing that problem), the idea of an integrated city planning, aimed at identifying and making the most use of the social, economic and cultural potential existing on the territory. That's also why so much interest is devoted to monitoring and evaluation instruments and, more in general, to all those instruments that allow a better understanding of the impact of urban policies on reality.
The Habitat Agenda, finally, offers a more advanced representation, with respect to those prevailing in the past, of the relationships between the urban and the rural environment. The city and the country are no longer conceived as to be in opposition or in competition with one another. They are rather viewed as being two social and economic contexts in mutual connection, so that the city is open to the potentialities of the rural world and vice versa, thus creating new forms of interaction which, so to speak, are not zero sum games, but can bring advantages for both.
As it is easy to notice, the remarks we made are mainly focused on the implementation of the Habitat Agenda, viewed in the perspective of the Istanbul+5 Conference, to be held in 2001.
However, a second path can be followed for approaching this important event, that is an analysis of the urban issues, no longer focused on the past or the present, but above all oriented to discuss the role and weight of the city as it could be in the next future. This involves making an effort aimed at identifying the main trends and processes which will be dominant, even though they have not yet fully emerged.
This is not a mere intellectual exercise; rather, it appears to be a necessary step for a better understanding of the possible contribution the research can provide, just starting from the next steps marking the path toward Istanbul+5.
Therefore, in this final part of the paper, it could be useful to outline a possible approach to the city in order at least to complete, if not to go beyond, the positions on urban settlements expressed by the Habitat Agenda.
The starting point of our reasoning is the simple observation of an elementary fact, that is the increase in the world population (included that of developing countries) living in urban settlements.
This means that the main knotty problems of the world social and economic development emerge in the city. In this perspective, the city - understood, not a as a mere physical entity, but as a pole decisively affecting the rural areas - can be viewed as the "empirical place" where all the macro-processes related to development mutually interact.
This "empirical concentration" has diversified and contraddictory effects, which often appear to entail a complex tangle of problems and sufferings, but also of resources and opportunities.
Perhaps exactly because of this systematic contact between problems and opportunities, urban settlements seem to be the most favourable environment for the establinshment of increasingly effective forms of control on social and economic risks. In the city, for example, one can remark:
* the highest trend toward a reduction of birth rates;
* the reduction of some endemical deseases, especially among the poorest social groups, largely spread in the rural areas;
* the strongest trends towards more participatory and democratic forms of governance;
* the strongest increase in autonomy, social weight and capacity of action of women.
All in all, the city seems to function as a powerful factor of acceleration of the the most significant processes of transition involving contemporary societies (demographic transition, epidemiological transition, political transition, anthropological or gender transition, etc.). Consequently, the city becomes the best context for devising and successfully testing new policies and means of action.
These characters of the urban settlements are still a controversial matter. This is mainly due to the lack of knowledge pertaining many dynamics at the roots of the urban life. For this reason, to a certain extent, the city could be viewed as a black box, whose inputs and outputs are known, while the inner machinery is not.
These arguments provide us with an important suggestion of epistemological nature. Actually, they let us think that the urban dimension represents today a favourable point of observation - we can say the "euristic place" - in order to perceive, study and interpret the main trends of change affecting the World as a whole.
At the same time, these arguments give us a "theoretical key" for interpreting the city. As a matter of fact, they seem to show that the city, at least in a future projection, works as a sort of technology - already active, anyway, in other historical, also very ancient periods - used for perceiving, circumscribing, controlling and progressively reducing the most relevant risk factors threatening the community. This orientation appears to be typical of societies close to the extreme upper boundaries of modernity or already entering the so called "post-modernity". Actually this capacity of the city is much more based on the the mobilization of individuals and social or economic actors as well as their mutual links rather than on the hierarchical, blind, excluding and discriminating machinery which was dominant in the past.
The relevance of the role played by the city lies in its capacity to control poverty, which represents the critical point for world development.
Less and less identifiable with a mere condition of material deprivation, poverty - especially extreme poverty - appears principally to be a factor impeding the actual mobilization of the capacities available in the community, since it freezes the cognitive and operational energy of the individuals, hinders the establishment of the most elementary organizational and collective structures and threathens the existing social fabric. This is the reason why poverty - at least in its most serious forms - can be rightly interpreted as a sort of social pathology, since it makes social actors - otherwise proactive and potentially autonomous - completelely dependent from external variables.
Today, poverty eradication, also thanks to the effort made by the United Nations, is less and less an utopia. Rather, it is becoming to be viewed as a objective which can be technically attained in a historical perspective. At the same time, we are increasingly aware - also on the basis of past failures - that poverty is not a consequence of the lack of development, rather a decisive barrier against development, just because it threatens the human capital and makes society incapable to fully mobilize its human resources and social energy.
Therefore, understanding the link between city, development and human capital could be a crucial step for eradicating poverty. Actually, if the city is a technology able to mobilize human resources and to channel them towards common goals, it is also the most powerful tool available for fighting poverty.
The reasoning presented in the previous points concerns mainly the research level. Moreover, undoubtedly it entails two other paths of analysis - which cannot be fully developed here - respectively related to the political level and the professional or vocational level of the researchers working on urban issues.
From the point of view of the political action, understanding the city as we suggested could be helpful for coping with the need of a political synthesis which is still lacking. Indeed, the cycle of World Summits - implemented in the period 1992-1997 and aimed at defining the World Political Agenda for the new millennium - necessarily followed a sectoral approach. In this way, specific sets of questions - to a certain extent only conventionally distinguished the one from the other - were identified, such as environmental issues, social issues, human rights or, precisely, human settlements.
Nevertheless, whoever followed attentively the entire process can easily remark the presence of many overlaps among sets of questions, the existence of recurrent issues cross-cutting all the Summits or the
presence of ties among the various sets of questions so strong to make it difficult to drawn clearcut boundaries between them. Hence the need for a political "synthesis". The city, as "empirical place" and "euristic place" of the development process, could offer a concrete foundation for becoming the "political place" where this synthesis of issues and political agendas can be established.
From the vocational and professional point of view, it is to point out that the researchers on human settlements are asked to somehow rethink their identity. Partially, this is due to the fact that, in the framework we described, studying the city goes far beyond the specialized horizon, for involving the theoretical mainstream of the various disciplines. On the other hand, studying the city involves the ethical dimension of the researcher, since the future of the urban settlements is directly linked with the possibility of eradicating poverty, by taking advantage of the "natural" potentials of the city. Therefore, an increase in the knowledge of the city could mean also an increase in the opportunities for the city to fully express these potentials.