After UN Habitat, the Key to the City is Not With the People
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Rocio Bastidas has insisted in 186 meetings over ten years of sweat and hair pulling that her neighborhood be kept people-friendly. She has a full-body laugh, short-cropped hair—a daring style in Ecuador—and an ability to immediately embrace a stranger as a long-time friend or keep them at arm’s length if she senses  conflict down the line. The top floor of her lodge-like house is lined with chairs to host any breed of popular meeting that touches on the future of her barrio, La Floresta in Quito.

Rocio Bastidas is a long-time organizer against gentrification and a vocal opponent of the corporate interests in the Habitat conference, hosted in her backyard.

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One characteristic unites her and her organizer friends: “We are characterized by being happy in everything that we do—peace, good humor, happiness.”

A 15-minute walk to the west, world technocrats, bureaucrats and vendors plant their stalls for a four-day conference to “Decide the Future of Cities Together,” according to the words printed on their complementary tote bags. The U.N.-led event, Habitat III, was 20 years in the making.

Naturally, Bastidas helped organize a parallel conference. As the spokesperson of one of the handful “alternative Habitat” events, she sat down to discuss both their collective vision and her own agenda in La Floresta and other self-organized barrios of Quito.

The questions had to end within an hour, because she had a meeting scheduled with an engineer who wanted to unveil a new piece of software at the Habitat conference. She insisted the interview continue into the meeting.  

Milton Rivadeneira  presented himself as a representative of a local university and the program, Geo Ciudadano, as a tool of commercial interest. He was visibly nervous as he spoke to the five Floresta residents, leaning back in their chairs and listening closely to prepare the right questions.

The idea behind the program was little more than overlaid satellite maps with metrics determined by the user: for prospective business owners, foot traffic and ease of circulation; for residents—the crux of his presentation—theft, car accidents, frequented shops, etc. It could then be used either to find the most lucrative spot to open up a business or to accumulate local knowledge in a digital map.

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Rivadeneira  requested the meeting to propose that La Floresta be used as an example in the “official” Habitat presentation of a community using the maps for their own benefit. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he said, that could bring them international attention. The “app for decision making,” as it was called in the “Habitat III Village” event, was already a completed academic thesis—by a colleague not present—and ready for sale to any interested buyers.

Bastidas didn’t have to leave her home/conference room to witness the gist of Habitat. Geo Ciudadano was no different than any product offered at the conference: pre-packaged, with a hasty and almost reluctant demand for grassroots input and, more importantly, with significant commercial potential. This includes the  Urban Agenda, the conference’s culminating document advertised as the blueprint for the world’s cities for the next 20 years.

Much of the language in the text is padded with terms on inclusivity and consensus, but the talks and meetings to discuss how to implement the plan made their own objectives and methods clear.

For the first year, the private sector was a part of the conversation. A “stakeholders roundtable” devoted to businesses and industries occupied the hall’s largest room, with representatives from a majority of countries. Speakers were consultants, managed business councils and ran partnerships—like the World Resources Institute and the World Economic Forum—sponsored and advised by the likes of Caterpillar, Shell, Dow Chemical, Walmart, Citi, Goldman Sachs, Google and Facebook.

 

They congratulated the U.N. for inviting them and acknowledged that the private sector funds a significant majority of projects and buildings in the world’s cities. They repeated that profit is the best way to ensure an idea is scalable, a big point for a conference with global sight. They emphasized that the private sector is more farsighted than governments, which change with every election cycle. They reminded the public that projects are more successful—that is, lucrative—if planners first consult civil society and attempt to speak in a common language.

The agenda cements their role in the 20-year rollout. The text reads that “international financial organizations could play a strategic role,” that the agenda means the “implementation of financial vehicles that can entice institutional investors, development financial institutions and the public sector to collaborate” and that actors should “help include peripheral, intermediate or secondary cities to avoid leaving them behind from the mainstream of development.”

Other non-private groups, with records of imposing their development agenda and under-developing the countries they mean to help, featured prominently across the program: the World Bank popped up consistently, as did multinational corporate foundations and investors. Each insisted they have a seat at the table if cities are to benefit from what they have to offer. In exhibition centers and in the halls, suited participants exchanged business cards to spread their seeds across other cities.

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City planners and developers were not alone; the United States, among others, recognized that their interest in Habitat went beyond public policy and sent a director from Citi, from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and several from the State Department specialized in intelligence, security and geography. In one telling number, the Habitat conference mobilized 6,500 security personnel from around the world to guard the valuable assets inside its doors.

“There’s a series of falseness there,” said Bastidas about the stiffness of the event. Anyone could enter the conference area, but they had to wait hours in the sun to pass security and then could not participate in any of the talks. Plus, all the texts and key-decisions were made before-hand.

That was the premise for starting Bastidas’ parallel event, Resistencia Habitat III, which drew people from over 30 countries.

“We’re on the other side of the world vision, we are obligated to defend ourselves against multinationals,” said Bastidas. “We don’t have to ask permission from anybody.”

She and the others in the room later convened with a neighborhood board to evaluate Geo Ciudadano. They voted not to be a case study in the Habitat presentation, not to have their name associated with a project whose eventual use could spiral out of their specific vision. Rivadeneira  and his partner still presented the project, named in the Habitat III Village as a “community originated model.”

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