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Global/local learning exchange on contemporary housing struggles: Habitat International Coalition, and Experimentdays Berlin

ThomasDoughty27 October 2017

What is the role of civil society in addressing housing and habitat struggles in today’s globalised world? How can people, activists and organisations from diverse contexts worldwide collaborate and exchange their learning from struggles against the housing adequacy and affordability crises facing cities across the Global South and North? And what can Europe learn from other places?

Spreefeld community garden tour

Habitat International Coalition

These questions are particularly pertinent to a global civil society network such as Habitat International Coalition (HIC). Undertaking a dissertation fellowship with HIC as part of my MSc, I collaborated with HIC and its members – including urbaMonde, BSHF and Habitat en Mouvement – to research the implications of these questions.

From its origins as a Europe-based council in the 1970s, HIC has evolved into a more diverse, southern-focused coalition. Today, its membership covers five continents, forming “the global network for rights related to habitat”. Yet as HIC’s locus has shifted southwards, its European role and identity has become uncertain.

While cities have always been shaped by global flows, neoliberal globalization has pushed the scale and speed with which money, ideas, people and commodities traverse the world to unprecedented levels. The financialization of land and housing – housing’s exchange value as a commodity outranking its use value as a social good – now drives displacement in diverse cities worldwide as cities increasingly clamour to attract global capital.

Added to this is the increasing blurriness and contestation of the world’s categorization into the global north and south. 2010s Europe, shaped by austerity and quantitative easing, bears striking similarities to 1980s/90s Latin America, shaped by the Washington Consensus, with the casualization of labour and withdrawal of state support for low income housing and other social security pillars. Meanwhile, radical shifts in urban theory reject colonial notions of planning ideas travelling solely from north to south in a linear cut-and-paste process. There is growing acknowledgement of urban learning as iterative and multidirectional: all planning ideas are reshaped locally when applied somewhere new. This can be part of the process, creating greater potential for civil society to learn both ways across the north-south “divide”.

So, what is HIC’s actual and potential role in uniting global struggles for equitable, sustainable alternatives between Europe and elsewhere?

It is well placed to facilitate global exchange between diverse members. Rather than seeing the growth of other networks operating in HIC’s thematic space as competition, there is potential for much greater collaboration, to which it can bring its uniquely global and longitudinal perspective. HIC is an integral part of global platforms such as the Right to the City, and the Social Production of Habitat (hosted by urbaMonde, one of its European members) which helps to build such collaboration.

Since HIC’s origins, the digitalisation of global networks has reshaped the nature of peer-to-peer exchange. Many organisations – including HIC and members – house rich digital platforms online, yet these remain siloed, with potential for far greater interconnectivity. This brings additional challenges of overcoming multifaceted language barriers – from the avoidance of technical jargon, to translation (HIC’s strongest, most cohesive region globally is Latin America, in no small part to the shared language of most of its nations). It also requires more equitable access to communication infrastructures, to ensure all regions can benefit and contribute.

Yet technology cannot replace physical, face-to-face meetings. The value of sharing ideas and experiences in person is invaluable: from building the visibility and legitimacy of small scale projects and struggles, to facilitating the exchange of knowledge, skills and ideas.

Experimentdays, Berlin

Spreefeld workshop

Attending the Experimentdays European Collaborative Housing Hub in Berlin on behalf of HIC and UCL, I discovered the benefits of this first-hand. I presented my research, and collaborated in workshops with participants from over 20 European countries: activists, cohousing residents, academics and professionals, united by the pursuit of non-market, non-state provision and management of housing.

Communities in Berlin have long taken advantage of its vacant land and building surpluses, following the fall of the Wall, to pioneer alternative housing projects. Today around 10% of the city’s housing stock is cooperative. This relatively unique context is exemplified in Spreefeld, the housing cooperative where Experimentdays began. Home to over 140 people, together with coworking, social and community spaces, it occupies a central riverside site – something difficult to imagine in today’s London for example.  And yet encouragingly, London was represented at Experimentdays by several exciting projects at different stages.

It was difficult to choose from the inspiring range of workshops being held across the weekend. Exploring approaches to engaging with policymakers with people from a variety of political contexts – from Slovenia to France, UK to Italy – our discussions raised the “chicken and egg” nature of policy change and societal change. Oftentimes policy is catching up with how society is changing, yet policy can also be used to trigger experimentation to mainstream housing practices.

Another workshop raised the challenge of ensuring diversity and inclusivity in collaborative housing movements, and working towards securing affordable housing for everyone. In Berlin as in Europe, cohousing is often pursued by a middle-class educated population – yet greater engagement with minorities, outsiders, and increasingly, refugees is essential to realise common good goals. In Spreefeld, the incorporation of two flats for refugee families as integral to the community, works towards this wider social benefit. Spreefeld also supports the wider community. For example, it provides its “Teepeeland” neighbours – a collective habitat of teepees on city-owned land – with power, water and advocacy, arguing that there is little difference between the two settlements, both developed on the basis of sharing and recycling.

Teepeeland Map

Tours on the final day of ufa fabrik and Schwarzwohnerhaus, which originated as squats in former West and East Berlin respectively, reiterated the unique enabling factors of Berlin’s recent history. Yet also apparent was the universal need to establish ways for cooperatives to transition to new generations, while retaining their initial objectives. And, as was raised several times throughout the weekend, global market forces are steadily catching up with Berlin as elsewhere, and its many activists, movements and cooperatives face a challenge to try to retain their non-market driven approach.

At the end of the final day, I chatted with one of Spreefeld’s refugee residents from Syria, who told me “In Syria, we have always shared our food, our cooking, our childcare and our homes with other families in our community”. Indeed, returning to the question of what Europe can learn from elsewhere – the answer is a lot. What is often seen as pioneering, already has precedence in other places.

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I am grateful to my dissertation supervisor, Alexandre Aspan Frediani, and to HIC and its members who supported my research. I also wish to thank the organisers of Experimentdays, for facilitating such an interesting and inspiring event.
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Thomas Doughty is a recent graduate of the MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development. Coming from an architectural background, he is interested in innovative approaches to sustainable and equitable urban development.

‘Africa Regional Dossier’ highlights some key issues raised by civil society groups in advance of Habitat III

RafaellaSimas Lima20 October 2016

 

For the past year and a half the DPU has worked in collaboration with the international civil society network Habitat International Coalition (HIC) to understand the various preparations and processes leading up to Habitat III, set to take place in Quito, Ecuador, in October. Namely, the intent has been to understand how civil society groups and grassroots movements have been involved (or not) in these processes, that are meant to culminate in the ‘New Urban Agenda’, to be agreed upon by national governments at the Habitat conference.

The first iteration of the DPU-HIC research was to look at the process of Habitat III national report production in eight countries where national report drafts were being prepared. Our research showed that in most cases, civil society participation in the national reporting process was quite limited, representing at best brief consultations, at worst reports undertaken by government institutions or consultants without much outside input. In addition, with a few exceptions, national reports themselves were quite limited in terms of commitments to ‘right to the city’ principles and other rights-based approaches advocated by some several civil society groups.

Alexandre Apsan Frediani speaking at the HIC general assembly meeting

Alexandre Apsan Frediani speaking at the HIC general assembly meeting

As attention shifted from the national level to regional meetings and the development of regional reports, the second project was an attempt to more actively respond to regional processes. Regional reports were developed by the five UN Regional Economic and Social Commissions and UN-Habitat. Like at the national level, the opportunity for civil society input at the regional level again seemed limited, and while regional reports were ostensibly supposed to build on national reports, it is unclear how much this actually happened in practice. Accordingly, the DPU, steered by an advisory committee of civil society networks, grass-roots movements and academics spanning the African continent, helped coordinate an Africa Regional Dossier (full report available here) to highlight key issues requiring more visibility and reframing in the New Urban Agenda, from a civil society vantage point. Beyond a reliance on selected interviews, the Dossier builds on two pan-African civil society gatherings organised in Johannesburg in November/December 2015: the Global Platform on the Right to the City’s regional meeting and the Session of Inhabitants coordinated by the International Alliance of Inhabitants at Africities VII. Meanwhile, HIC coordinated a Latin America response, which is taking the form of an alternative Latin American regional report (forthcoming).

The Africa Regional Dossier is not intended to be a comprehensive report, but serves to highlight a series of key urban issues and propositions articulated by civil society actors in need of further visibility and commitment from national and transnational actors, to be reflected in the New Urban Agenda. The propositional aspects of each issue are summarised as follows:

1) Forced evictions and land grabbing: The urbanisation practices that are driving evictions and land grabbing need to be placed at the centre of struggles around evictions. This implies rethinking the balance between collective rights (including the collective ‘right to occupation’) and individual land rights acquired through land markets. Habitat II commitments to ‘prevent and remedy’ unjustified evictions need to be upheld. There is a need to develop legislative frameworks for legal redress, in order to support community rights in case of evictions that are deemed unavoidable.

2) Land tenure: ‘Land tenure’ should not be limited to private ownership and private land rights. Rather, diverse forms of collective and individual tenure can be recognised and explored as mechanisms to ensure marginalised groups’ access to land.

3) Rural-urban ‘divide’: Re-framing ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ not as a dichotomy but as interconnected parts of the same system, allows for the recognition of diverse urbanisation trajectories. Policy making could reflect this plurality and the linkages between the ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ by emphasising inter-municipal and cross-departmental coordination rather than dealing with ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ as separate categories governed by different authorities.

4) Infrastructure: At the local scale, infrastructure development plans need to recognise and integrate decentralised, low-cost and low-skilled solutions through targeted financial resources and training. Understanding diverse infrastructure provisions within the urban-rural continuum and through a combination of financing sources that connects Africa’s diverse economies is key. This can be facilitated through cross-departmental and cross-boundary coordination among local governments. Additionally, there is an opportunity to view infrastructure and service delivery as providing environmental outcomes, creating employment or economic opportunities, as well as social outcomes, for example, in mobilising youth.

5) Governance and the right to political voice: There is a widespread call amongst African civil society actors to reframe ‘good governance’ through a focus on deepening meaningful democratic practices. This implies ensuring better recognition of different social actors, facilitating increased participation in decision-making structures, and achieving more equitable redistribution of wealth and services. Equally important as involving civil society actors and other stakeholders is recognising unequal power relations among actors, taking steps to address these power imbalances in decision-making fora, and ensuring that more democratic governance leads to equitable outcomes.

6) Economic opportunities: The ‘economy’ can be re-conceptualised within a plural perspective of diverse systems—formal, informal, social, solidarity, etc.—interacting together. The fluidity and adaptability of informal practices can be harnessed while pursuing policies to limit potential exploitative conditions. In addition, viewing employment conditions through a human rights perspective would imply the need for the protection of jobs, especially in the informal sector, and the right to legitimate and decent work. At the same time, a focus on the capacity of local governments could improve their ability to generate revenue through taxation and the capture of value from real estate or infrastructure developments.

7) Security and urban conflict: In order for urban stakeholders to meaningfully address urban security, the varying manifestations of urban conflict and violence must be acknowledged along with the intersecting social, political and economic factors behind such violence. Often, interventions to address urban safety address merely the side effects rather than the root causes of urban violence. Security commitments need to call for building linkages between humanitarian, development and human rights approaches, and the fundamental principles of security and equity.

8) Climate change and environment: Climate change can go beyond concepts of sustainability and resilience, and be re-framed from the perspective of environmental justice. This allows for the links between social justice and climate change to be acknowledged, and for a discussion about the distribution of environmental benefits and hazards, so that the differentiated effects of climate change can be addressed.

In addition to these eight issues, the Africa Regional Dossier argues that the New Urban Agenda should place more emphasis on protecting against the loss of entitlements (for example, those outlined in previous Habitat agendas and human rights conventions), the distribution of resources and opportunities towards a more equitable urban development, and to the roles, responsibilities and capacity of local actors to implement and monitor the agreed agenda. The case studies in the Regional Dossier demonstrate some ways in which civil society groups can partake in such processes.

The regional scope of this Dossier reinforces the need for territorial debates in the process of elaborating international agendas such as the New Urban Agenda. This research also highlighted the lack of opportunities for civil society groups to participate meaningfully in such a process. Lack of transparency and limited access to regional reporting procedures compromised the potential of the agenda-making process to deepen a collective understanding of on-going urban challenges in Africa. This has thus represented a missed opportunity to build commitments from a variety of stakeholders towards a transformative New Urban Agenda.

The process of coordinating the African Regional Dossier demonstrated the appetite of civil society groups to share experiences, deepen their understanding about wider regional processes, and collaboratively build synergies for transnational collective action. We hope that this Dossier, far from being an exhaustive list of key issues, can contribute to the on-going discussions within and around Habitat III, but most importantly, that it can be of use in the building of linkages and collaboration among civil society groups across the Africa region advocating for more just urban development.