Putting cities on the United Nation’s agenda: An alternative way of ordering the world

Published 5 November 2018
By Miha Marcenko

The United Nations headquarters in New York City (USA). © Wikimedia.

Mayors from around the world had the possibility to promote their vision of global governance over housing at a special session on the right to adequate housing held on the fringes of a major United Nations (UN) event on sustainable development. In their vision, municipal governments play a visible and crucial role in dealing with the global housing crisis. This session manifested a possibility of a different ordering of our world where states and markets are no longer the only ones governing our futures. In addition, it showed how agile the international institutional world is and how far ideas to promote greater municipal autonomy have travelled.

The UN hosted a High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in New York in July 2018, which brought together representatives of states and UN institutions. The discussion was focused on the progress made with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the latest UN Agenda for sustainable development. One of the goals in this agenda (SDG 11) is to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. A special focus within SDG 11 is put on resolving housing crises burdening people in numerous cities around the globe.

Held within the framework of this event, 240 city and local governments gathered at the first Forum of Local and Regional Governments. The assembled mayors were there to express their views and share experiences with the international community on the progress of localisation of the global Agenda for Sustainable Development.

In a Special Session hosted by the UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Adequate Housing, a group of mayors presented a Declaration on Cities for Adequate Housing. In it, they emphasised the common housing issues cities around the world face, such as socio-spatial segregation, the growth of informal settlements, financialisation, and real estate speculation. As interpreted by the United Cities and Local Governments, who co-organised the session, the Declaration concretely raises the question of linking the international, national and local agendas, and puts forward a global call to action: a mobilisation of multi-stakeholder, united networks resolved to declare the central role of cities and their representatives to enforce this fundamental right: the right to housing and to the city.

It is easy to view this Special Session as a fringe event organised on the sides of the main gathering dedicated to states and their representatives. After all, the High-Level Political Forum was organised to present the accomplishments and challenges of state elites when they try to organise and manage the world in a sustainable way. In addition, the High-Level Political Forum setting was at the Headquarters of the United Nations, the interstate institution, which - created through international law - is there to help govern the world in a way agreed by states. Viewed from such a position, the Special Session brought a bit of colour and nothing more to those eventful days in July.

One can, however, also choose a different perspective and view the Special Session as a highlight in its own right. It is intriguing to have a session organised jointly by an international institution (the UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Adequate Housing) and a transnational intercity organisation (United Cities and Local Governments) with the support of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It is even more intriguing to have these international institutions promote and endorse an approach towards housing that demands more public authority in the hands of municipal governments and not states. Indeed, the Declaration presented by mayors does challenge the power of the state-elites within cities and in the international arena. Besides, to have all of this taking place so close to the main event celebrating and solidifying the existing global order!

As such, the Special Session on the Right to Adequate Housing can be seen as a manifestation of a peculiar discursive space within and beyond international institutional structure and international legal discourses of international human rights law and sustainable development. The Session allowed for the human rights approach to housing and the fight against the commodification of housing to be intertwined with the right to the city striving to give urban inhabitants the power to decide on the development of their cities. At the same time, the timing and the place of the Session connected the struggle within cities to a wider – global – struggle for greater autonomy of municipal governments. Greater autonomy towards the global market-focused approach to development and a struggle for decentralisation of states eventually leading to a greater role of municipal governments in global governance.

The session moreover allowed actors participating therein to play multiple roles. Municipal governments acted at the same time as activists representing the concerned civil society outraged by the commodification of housing. They further acted as heads of public authorities trying to govern their cities in a humane manner. They also acted as aspiring global actors challenging certain status quo of state-centred and market-based order and demanding a seat at the table where decisions affecting their cities are made.

International institutions, on the other hand, also played several roles. They behaved as activists outraged by how housing is treated around the world. In addition, they acted as representatives of institutions whose task is to promote global order based on international human rights law. Finally, they acted as enablers of an event that gives voices to mayors who want to disrupt ways in which global governance is led.

Thus, one can decide to view the Special Session on the Right to Adequate Housing as an important and unique discursive space within and beyond international institutional structure and international legal discourses. If so, the international normative world suddenly becomes an exciting place full of potential to change and challenge the ordering of our world.