Habitat III – Regional Meeting Europe, Prague

The N-aerus / Cities Alliance side event on Wednesday, 16th of March 2016 during the European Regional Meeting towards Habitat III in Prague centered around the question if cities in Europe can learn from the Global South. The Network Association of European Researchers on Urbanisation in the South (N-AERUS) brought scholars and practitioners together to critically reflect on the provision of one global agenda for all urban areas.

The key note from Valerie Clerc indicated that informal settlements are indeed offering some crucial solutions for sustainable and compact cities.  This thought-provoking introduction let the panelists into discussing the various connotations and appearances of informal settlements. It was agreed that informality is far more than the result of urban poverty; Javier Martinez pointed out as example that many gated communities are actually constructed without legal permits.

The long-standing recognition of the advantages of incremental housing, as well as the assumed better social cohesion in densely built, car-free neigbhourhoods of informal settlements, however can be understood as lessons to be learnt from the South. Notwithstanding, Sukanya Krishnamurthy also warned about romanticizing informal settlements and clarified that informality is certainly more than just the urban form but also includes all kinds of social and economic aspects. However, poverty resulting in marginalization and lacking opportunities is genuinely a problem that cannot be solved only at city-level.

Voices from the audience also specified that there are no “good urban poor” and that within all social strata, the city remains a battlefield. The question was raised about the level of conflict that makes urban development unsustainable. As the panelists indicated that the refugee camps might turn into the new poor settlements within Europe, potential answers were discussed in the light of smart city approaches in Europe and the availability of global urban knowledge. Existing standards and formal regulations were brought to the table that – while impossible to fully apply –  eventually lead many stakeholders, dwellers as well as businesses, into informality. Rather than continuing to try formalizing the informal, it was concluded to find new ways for informalizing some of the formal sector.

As the city is a process and not a product, it depends in the end on the smartness of the stakeholders that manage these processes and how they can synergize rather than fight over their approaches. European cities have been opening up lately to more “informal” approaches such as the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) City, self-organization and easing some bureaucratic procedures. However, as Alexander Jachnow pointed out, city governments and administrations need to develop into learning institutions, flexible and capable enough to manage current transformations, beyond the dichotomy of the formal vs. the informal. Els Keunen concluded that though we would not promote common global solutions to the complexity of urban problems, we should at least establish one common set of values, ethical, social and economic ones, that should be globally followed and that can lead the management of urban development in future.

The European Regional Meeting is meant to inform the development of the New Urban Agenda and continued until Friday, 18th of March.

Our sincere appreciation to IHS Rotterdam for sharing the newsfeed on the Side Event (20.03.2016): http://www.ihs.nl/news_events/news/news_detail/article/82143-insights-from-the-side-event-at-the-european-regional-meeting-towards-habitat-iii/