The Quito Papers: An intellectual counterpoint to the New Urban Agenda

By Gregory Scruggs

This story originally appeared in Citiscope and was republished via the Habitat III Journalism Project.

If the shape of 20th-century cities was decided nearly a century ago on a boat in the Mediterranean, the visions for the 21st century — the so-called “century of cities” — may mark its origin in a theatre high in the Andes.

In a sharp rebuke to the Charter of Athens — the 1930s manifesto of modernist architecture that can claim responsibility for today’s isolated tower blocks disconnected from the surrounding city — four leading intellectuals of urbanism on Wednesday announced their vision for cities that are “porous”, “complex”, “synchronous” and “incomplete”.

Their vision is spelled out in a document called the Quito Papers, which was unveiled here the day before the Habitat III summit on urban development wraps up; it reportedly is to be released publicly in December. The discussion took place just before world leaders adopted the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year strategy on sustainable urbanization that is the official Habitat III outcome document. Both documents were in part the brainchild of Habitat III head and former Barcelona mayor Joan Clos, and the Quito Papers and New Urban Agenda will spark inevitable comparisons.

Sociologists Saskia Sassen and Richard Sennett, along with Clos, outlined their new manifesto before a packed audience at Quito’s National Theatre. Moderated by urbanist Ricky Burdett, they were frequently interrupted with applause as the Habitat III crowd imbibed a heady cocktail of ideas about the nature of cities.

The quartet detailed in word and image the pitfalls of the Charter of Athens. The document was crafted by Swiss architect Le Corbusier and a cadre of leading modernist architects — all male, Wednesday night’s participants pointed out — on a boat sailing from Marseilles to Athens during the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM in French) in 1933.

The charter’s calls for high-rise tower blocks surrounded by open space and connected by vehicle-dependent highways came from a belief that such a design would improve public health and alleviate overcrowding. Today that vision is widely reviled, but the influential manifesto did much to shape post-war urban design and planning in North America and Europe.

“My vision is far from the functional, efficient, conflict-free city. I hope the Quito Papers will inspire a much more complex, open, incomplete vision.”

Further, this vision remains de rigueur in the developing world. Burdett showed images of cookie-cutter tower blocks clustered on the outskirts of Luanda, Shanghai, Addis Ababa and Istanbul. With no street life and disconnected from the urban fabric of the rest of the city, “The charter led to a closed system,” Burdett said.

What’s more, the “tower in the park” model has led to a devastating inverse for those shut out from its modernist dreams — informal settlements of self-built housing resulting in cities of vast inequality.

“This is Caracas, but it could be anywhere,” Burdett said, showing an image of uniform tower blocks on one side of a highway and one of the Venezuelan capital’s barrios of shacks on the other. “It freezes in stone, in concrete, in tarmac the differences of social caste and social position. The problem is when the part on the left [the informal neighbourhood] changes, the part on the right [the tower blocks] probably won’t change.”

Speaking to the New Yorker magazine ahead of the new document’s release, Sennett explained, “Our critique is just, very simply, that it’s the wrong utopia.”

The porous city

Instead, Sennett, who is married to Sassen, detailed his contribution to the Quito Papers in three principles.

First, he said, cities should be “complex in a synchronous way”, which is to say, “many things happening at once.” He lauded central Delhi’s Nehru Place as a public space where sari vendors, mobile-phone-repair stalls, sleeping pavement dwellers and a high-tech innovation hub can co-exist. “Disparate elements that don’t fit together neatly creates synergy,” he said.

As a result, cities should remain incomplete — to “begin a process of development, which at the end is not determined,” he said. Instead, designers and planners should provide the building blocks.

Sennett held up the humble warehouse as a model — a structure but little more, whose function is defined by its users. “What we have today in closed cities are anything but shells,” he said. “Their interiors are completely programmed. The substance of what people are going to do is fleshed out, is full, whereas it should be empty.”

He continued with a sociological take on what urban life should be like in the 21st century. “A city is a place of strangers, and they exchange at the edges — there is a membrane-like give and take,” he said. “The biggest challenge is to create cities that are porous.”

But there are powerful forces at work that can prevent such a scenario, warned Sassen. The multibillion-dollar business of global real estate investment buying up large swathes of the urban core, she said, is resulting in “a loss of habitat in cities.”

Citing just one example, she pointed out how the real estate investment trust, or REIT, managing investments for the government of Singapore — well known for its careful urban planning — has purchased a hefty chunk of the U. S. city of Detroit, chiefly in areas inhabited by poor African Americans. “They didn’t say anything, didn’t announce anything. And in 10 years, they will sell,” she said.

Attempts to rein in such speculation were in the news this week, when Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa used his opening and closing Habitat III addresses to announce a renewed effort to pass his “ley de plusvalía”, legislation that would outlaw this type of activity. (Correa’s previous efforts to pass the law have been rebuffed.)

Gated communities

Running throughout the discussion was a tension between the need for smart planning and the danger of over-planning — or, rather, planning versus “design”.

“Plans don’t make cities,” Clos said. “What makes cities is the relationship between ideas, especially the conflict between social interests that co-exist in the city.” As a result, the two-time mayor said, “The city is a political artefact.”

As for his own Barcelona, he said, “Thank god every block wasn’t built like Cerda’s plan,” referring to the 19th-century vision for Barcelona by Idelfonso Cerda. Such uniformity does not yield interesting cities, he argued, despite the current fashion for top-down approaches.

“Master planning is not urban planning,” he said. “Urban planning should be urban design — the design of public space, buildable plots and its interrelation. Master planning is just a zoning exercise … Leave space to society.”

The group reserved special disgust for gated communities. In the United States, Sennett suggested, such neighbourhoods are the “community of choice”. But “they should be illegal,” he declared to rapturous applause.

Clos called such areas neo-medieval. “Now we are building walls to protect ourselves from our neighbours,” he said. “Gated communities are the proof of the failure of modern urbanism.”

Barcelona’s single attempt at a gated community was a commercial failure, Clos said, which he attributed to residents’ preference for the elegantly designed but not overly determined street life of the Catalan capital. “The powerful plan of Barcelona has won the battle against the gated community,” he said.

Ciudad de variables

The day after these four thinkers unveiled their new vision, nearly 170 national governments adopted the New Urban Agenda — the 20-year strategy that Clos has carefully shepherded. How does it sit aside the ambitions of the Quito Papers?

Clos wryly acknowledged that the 24-page document, a final draft of which was agreed in September following four months of negotiations, had yielded to the whims of diplomats. “The New Urban Agenda is an agreed text — there’s no great literary creativity,” he said Wednesday night, to laughter from the audience. “But we have to use it for the value that it has.”

However, the New Urban Agenda is limited in scope, covering only the next two decades. By contrast, the Quito Papers look back over the past century and conclude, in Clos’s words, “All the ideas [about urbanism] of the 20th century are in crisis.” As such, he hopes this new manifesto will serve as the theoretical underpinning of the New Urban Agenda.

The Quito Papers, he told Citiscope, “link very well with the New Urban Agenda … but we need to have the intellectual ideas that frame the processes of urbanization.”

With the wind of this week’s adoption of the agenda in their sails, the quartet proudly stamped their manifesto with the name of an emerging city from the Global South rather than that of a staid European capital. “We have entered into a new epoch, no doubt,” Sassen said. “The Quito Papers are a first step to recognize the necessity of a ciudad de variables [the varied city]. The city is a complex but incomplete system.”

Sennett concluded: “My vision is far from the functional, efficient, conflict-free city. I hope the Quito Papers will inspire a much more complex, open, incomplete vision.”

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