Thirty thousand attendees’ cell phones buzzed with the United Nations Habitat III Secretariat’s message, announcing the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, promising more “sustainable, inclusive and resilient,” cities across the world. Concluding  six days of intense discussions, the urban world’s most influential leaders, from mayors to civil society representatives; non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and urban development experts; academics and urban journalist, including 10,000 international participants representing 167 countries, were left with mixed reactions as vicennial event came to a close.

“We have analyzed and discussed the challenges that our cities are facing and have [agreed] on a common roadmap for the 20 years to come,” Joan Clos, the Executive Director of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), told the closing plenary of the conference. According to the official statement issued by the United Nation News Center, the action-oriented outcome document, known as the New Urban Agenda, enshrined now in the ‘Quito Declaration on Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements for All,’ should be seen as an extension of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, agreed by 193 Member States of the UN in September 2015. That Agenda’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognized the power of cities and towns, which will be home to up to 70%of the world population by 2050, as the units of sustainable growth in the future.

Speaking on one of the New Urban Agenda’s most defining themes, inclusivity, which had approximately 130 sessions dedicated to it, Clos, who also served as the Secretary-General of the Conference, ensured that “the New Urban Agenda is an ambitious agenda which aims at paving the way towards making cities and human settlements more inclusive.”

In a session hosted by LSE Cities, entitled Conflicts of an Urban Age, academic panelists shared the necessity of building inclusive cities and transforming existing ones to be more welcoming for all.“Every day the world expands to what equals the size of 43,000American Football fields, and that holds true from now until 2030,”stated Karen Sato, Professor of Geography and Urbanization Science at Yale University. “Inclusivity is not an option; it is not a luxury any more.”

Of course, we can’t talk about inclusive cities without mentioning the increasingly-popular social movement, ‘The Right to the City’. A slogan-turned-social-movement, notably championed by British geographer David Harvey, the phrase first appeared in 1968 in Henri Lefebvre’s book Le Droit à la Ville. Harvey called it “the exercise of a collective power to reshape the process of urbanization.” Now, as Harvey and many modern urbanists realize, that “right” is mostly restricted to a small political and economic elite who shape cities after their own desires.

The Right to The City was a present topic in most of the sessions tackling inclusivity, with attendees even wearing shirts with the slogan in many languages and enthusiasts of the concept participating in most discussions with panelists on this topic. The Global Platform for the Right to the City, which is the open forum for stakeholders that work on these issues, was created to advance debates on the definition and implementation of the Right to the City. They issued statements of high hopes on the outcomes of Habitat llI, but also major concerns over the “apparent reduction of the Habitat Agenda to a solely urban focus.”

Nevertheless, some of the official national delegations to Habitat lll are clearly putting inclusivity on top of their local agenda.  This was evident in the talks of Barcelona’s first female mayor Ada Colau who went above and beyond what the New Urban Agenda prescribed, saying: “all people should have equal access to public services, to housing, to public space; all should be able to participate in shaping places that include everyone.”

However, growing frustration from inside and matched outside the well-protected venue, with many organizations, business and social groups feeling left out of the process of forming the agenda and the suggested procedure to implement it. In fact, 40 groups announced their running of a more inclusive conference, dubbed ‘The Alternative Habitat’, with events across Ecuador, some mere walking distance from Casa de la Cultura, the Habitat III’s main venue which was surrounded with fences, security and long lines – what many saw as symbols of exclusivity. In fact, one group called the People’s Social Forum Resistance to Habitat III is mobilizing activists the weekend following the adoption of the New Urban Agenda in the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil.

Protests against the New Urban Agenda came from some groups on the grounds of neoliberal ideology which notes the exclusion of indigenous communities and lack of stress on nature and human rights. To advance what they consider a commitment to true inclusivity, The Alternative Habitat groups have gone as far as creating the ‘New Inhabitants Agenda’ – an alternative, human-centric manifesto which aims to fill the gaps they see in the official Habitat III document.

*Never miss a story like this - subscribe to our weekly highlights and stay up-to-date