Joan Clos: The Problem Isn’t Architecture, It’s Urban Design

Metropolis’s Avinash Rajagopal asks Dr. Joan Clos, executive director of UN-Habitat, for his insight into successful affordable housing policy and the “New Urban Agenda,” a blueprint for urbanization in the 21st century.

Last October, representatives from all the member states of the United Nations, from parliamentarians to nonprofits working with women and youth, convened in Quito, Ecuador at Habitat III to discuss sustainable urbanization. The result of their deliberations is the New Urban Agenda, a blueprint for urbanization in the 21st century. Dr. Joan Clos, the executive director of UN-Habitat, led the framing of that agenda and will be the primary advocate for its implementation around the world. As part of that effort, Dr Clos and the president of RIBA, Jane Duncan, have organized a day-long conference in London (starting today, as part of RIBA International Week) to engage architects and urbanists in the dialogue around the New Urban Agenda. Metropolis’s Avinash Rajagopal spoke with Dr. Clos ahead of the conference about affordable housing, UN-Habitat’s agenda, and the role of architects in ensuring sustainable housing for all.

Avinash Rajagopal: At our magazine, we’ve always looked at Barcelona as an example of equitable development. The city took advantage of the Olympics, but at the same time, longtime residents remained housing-secure, which has not been the case in many other cities in the world. Are there any cities that are role models now in terms of maintaining and providing housing stock?

Joan Clos: It’s a difficult question to answer in a simple manner, because successful affordable housing policies are always an outcome of a good coordination between a national housing policy and then local implementation. You need a strong national housing policy, which can help to develop financial mechanisms for addressing affordability, because affordability cannot be guaranteed only by the market. Supply and demand are not sufficient to guarantee affordability, especially in successful cities. If you leave the market alone, it’s going to be a spiral of prices.

Strong affordability policies have two components. One is income redistribution, usually paid for by the redistribution funds of the budget, which are usually national funds. Then you need another component, which is the local design of the solution. How do you make sure that there are no gated communities, that they are not segregated, that there are no massive poor housing schemes, these kinds of things?

These are mostly in the hands of local authorities. In order to be successful, you need a good relationship between both. This is the difficulty, because in many places you can have a very committed local authority that puts affordable housing at the center. But if you don’t have the financial mechanisms to support that, it’s not going to work.

One good example, which is marvelous in theory, is Singapore. Singapore is a paradigmatic example of housing affordability and mixed use and integration, but not many cities in the world will be ready to support the kind of political design that is behind those achievements.

Another country that has been successful in providing affordable housing at a massive scale is China. A huge example of success, but again, not everybody is going to be willing to accept the political design of the housing modality in China.

There are other interesting examples. Ethiopia has a very interesting public housing policy, especially in the capital, in Addis. One needs to be aware that Addis has a special fiscal government: Addis retains the municipal budget of all the public income of their economic activities. That means that the local authority of Addis collects, and keeps for itself, income taxes and cooperative taxes.

Street in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Courtesy Flickr User Stefan Geens

Another example is Morocco. Morocco has been very successful in addressing the issue with a special tax that is totally allocated to providing affordable housing—it cannot be used for any other issue.

AR: You said that successful cities especially find housing affordability a challenge. I live in New York City, one of the most prosperous cities in the world, and yet we have a homelessness problem many times worse than many other cities in the world.

JC: In successful cities you have a lot of pressure on the market. You need stronger public policy to protect housing affordability.

For example, in New York, Mayor de Blasio has provided for an increase of buildable space provided that it is allocated to affordable housing. This is a very special commitment. In Manhattan, what are the figures? I think 30 or 25% of the total housing is public housing, isn’t it? This is a very impressive figure. It’s quite an achievement.

Besides that, apart from Manhattan, I think that New York’s density in the five boroughs is low, by my standard. The city has a huge potential to increase the supply of affordable housing in the five boroughs.

AR: One of the things that the New Urban Agenda points towards is the tension between public space and buildable space. We need to have efficient and equitable public space, just as we need to increase buildable space. How can cities strike a balance between that in your estimation, or within the understanding of the New Urban Agenda?

JC: This is one of the main points of the New Urban Agenda that we need to reinvent. We’ve been planning within the fashion of neoliberalism for the last 30 years, and the role of the regulatory functions of urban design has diminished, and the market has increased its say in terms of urban development. One of the outcomes that this has generated, as we can demonstrate in many studies, is sprawl. Sprawl is probably the clearest proof that the market alone is not a good urban planner—I don’t want to say it’s not a good urban planner. It’s not a good urban designer.

We need to reinvent urban design. This is a responsibility that falls on the public sector. The private sector doesn’t need to know about that. It is not its function to do urban design. The problem is that a truly equitable private/public partnership (PPP), which I favor, needs to be strong. A PPP is not a true partnership if one dominates over the other. This is what has happened. This is why affordability is lagging behind in many parts of the world. It has been a weakening of urban design with the hope that the market will allocate the resources in an efficient manner, and we will have enough public space.

It’s interesting to see how the market is not able to generate public space, even when public space is crucial to increase the value of buildable space.What creates the value of the buildable plots is the quality of the public space, you know?

If you live in Manhattan, you know why the plots of Manhattan are valuable. There’s no need to remember that in Manhattan there is 50% more public space than built space. Many, many urban developers, and many politicians in the world, they don’t understand the linkage between public space and property value. This is something that the New Urban Agenda is trying to clarify. This is why The Highline is winning, you know? The city has changed. The world has changed. This linkage between the private value of buildable space and the public provision of public space or common space is crucial. In fact, it’s a win/win game, where the outcome is more than the addition of the two sides. Many people approach the game as if it were a zero sum game. This is why it doesn’t work in many parts of the world.

AR: One of the key features of the New Urban Agenda is that it recognizes social issues of gender, age, race, all of these, as essential parts of the urban agenda. Can you talk a little bit about that social aspect?

JC: Yes, it’s so consubstantial with urbanization that it’s even difficult to single it out. Urbanization is a social endeavor. I am surprised when I listen to some mantra like, “We want a city for the people.” Of course. What is a city for, if not the people? For their pets?  

Joan Clos, executive director of UN-Habitat and former mayor of Rio de Janiero. Image courtesy RIBA

I find it so obvious that urbanization is not just for the people, it is done by the people. It’s so clear that most of the social advances of humanity are done in cities, you know? From the stock market, political parties, a liberation movements… All of these things, all of them are creations of urbanization. Politics, as we understand it in the modern sense, comes out of the city, out of the polis. What is important is that social innovations tend to happen in cities.

Let’s talk about social innovations. What are the relevant social innovations in human society? If you analyze that with a little bit of care, you will see that most of them, nearly all of them emerge in the city. Why? Because in the city, there’s interaction, information interchange, where all these new social  avenues are explored. Once you cease to be a hunter-gatherer, the social creativity multiplies exponentially. This has been one of the contributions of urbanization to human culture.
AR: What mission would you give to architects and designers? What should they be doing to drive urbanization that is sustainable and equitable?

JC: Sustainable, equitable, provocative, efficient, with as few externalities as possible, and with the biggest positive outcomes possible, eh?

I think that the architects, of course they play a very huge part of it. Beginning with the design of the public realm, but also the design of buildings. I think that this is a huge and relevant role. The problem is that the architect needs a good boss, needs a good contractor, both for the public realm, and for the builder’s realm. If you talk with an architect, they are always very unhappy and stressed when they have a contractor who doesn’t have clear ideas of what they want to do.

I think that the problem that we have nowadays is not with architects. The architects, they are very well-trained. This profession, which in the modern sense is only something like 150 years old, has contributed a lot and is going to contribute much more in the future—the future is very bright for them. The problem is not architecture. The problem is urban design. Urban design is more complex than architecture because it requires a public government system which democratically arranges the consensus and makes the prescriptions that create a good urban setting. This is what is lacking.

If you liked this article, you should read “The Quito Papers: A New Manifesto for Urban Planning in the 21st Century.”

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