The UN Habitat Conference on Human Settlements, Vancouver, June 1976, and how it gave the world 40 years of inspiration.
•Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.– Margaret Mead (she was there too)
May 31 2016 marks the 40th birthday of the opening of Habitat ’76, as it was known in Vancouver. Its official name was the United Nations Habitat Conference on Human Settlements and it ran from May 31-June 11, 1976. It was the first mega-event to hit Vancouver since the arrival of the railway.
In 1976 the majority of the world’s population was not yet living in urban centres, but it was clear even then that a crowded urban future was already on the horizon (it was correctly predicted at the conference that city dwellers would outnumber rural in thirty years, a milestone that was in fact passed in 2007, thirty-one years later). At the famous UN Conference on the Environment of 1972 in Stockholm, it was evident that while progress was being made on questions of energy, pollution and biodiversity, the human component of sustainable development had been left out, and that we needed to think globally about the condition and functioning of our human settlements – in terms of both ecology and social justice. The marriage of those two concerns would come to be known as sustainable development. Habitat ’76 would be the first large international gathering on the topic of sustainable settlements, and thousands of governmental delegates and non-governmental participants descended on Vancouver to attend. It was the largest UN conference that had ever been held.
I was a child volunteer for the Habitat conference, and like many schoolchildren in Vancouver who participated in it, Habitat was a pivotal experience. It defined for me not just what Vancouver could be and do, and what was possible in cities in general, but also my role as a citizen in a local and global context. I never forgot it. I can still hear Buckminster Fuller saying, as he stood outside on a simple wooden platform by Jericho Beach, “You can’t throw anything out. Because there is no ‘out’.”In 2009 during the lead-up to the Vancouver Olympics, I was reminded of Habitat over and over because in contrast to Habitat’s DIY scrappiness, the preparation for the Olympics had a hierarchical, top-down organizational structure and corporate feel. I began to lose patience with all the hype about the world coming to Vancouver; it was as if the world had never done that before. Expo 86 was periodically mentioned as a sort of dress rehearsal for the Olympics, but Habitat ’76 seemed to be excised from the city’s mental map. Nobody I mentioned it to had ever heard of it. I decided to write an article about this amnesia, but when I went online to find images and historical articles on it, I came up with virtually nothing—even on the UN’s website. It was as if the event had actually been deleted from history. I eventually found a single magazine article, and to my excitement it captured what I remembered of Habitat. It was by Joseph Roberts in this very magazine, and it was an interview of one of Habitat’s key organizers, Alan Clapp. Thanks to that Common Ground piece, I was quickly able to find a phone number for Alan Clapp. I immediately picked up the phone, half-expecting the number to be defunct. To my shock Al answered and I stuttered out that he didn’t know me but that I wanted to write about Habitat. He said, without a pause, “I’ve been waiting for this phone call for thirty-four years.” All of this had happened in a span of less than fifteen minutes. I went to Victoria to see Al, we became friends and he loaned me his personal Habitat archive. The article I had planned to write on Habitat quickly became a book. Looking back I’m not sure whether this book would have come into being at all had I not that found that June 2006 Common Ground article.
The themes of the Habitat conference were largely framed by one of the founders of the field of sustainable development, the renowned UK economist Barbara Ward. Ward had written the theme book for the Stockholm conference, Only One Earth, which was probably the first major book on sustainable development. Despite being stricken with cancer she also wrote the theme book for Habitat ’76, Home of Man. Ward was joined in the early conference planning by famed anthropologist Margaret Mead and architect and thinker Buckminster Fuller. Bucky, Mead and Ward also spoke at the conference along with Mother Teresa, the utopian architect Paolo Soleri, Margaret and Pierre Trudeau and countless other major figures in public policy, housing activism, architecture, the arts, public health, ecology, economics and planning. Habitat was, to its credit and detriment, a conference about everything. Settlements are, after all, the locus of most human needs and activity.The official conference took over the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and a number of downtown hotels. But non-governmental groups gathered at their own event, a parallel people’s conference called Habitat Forum. The Forum was held at Jericho Beach Park at a site constructed around five vintage Moderne (late art deco) hangars. The design and construction work had been carried out by a small and motley crew and 11,000 volunteers, all led by Al Clapp, the former broadcaster and now civic gadfly and counterculture events organizer. Clapp and his crew of hippies and artisans converted the disused hangars into a beautiful village with hand-milled seating structures made from salvaged wood and handmade banners from salvaged fabrics— an early feat of reuse and recycling. Hangar 3, which stood where the sailboat yard of the Jericho Sailing Centre stands now, was covered in a stunning mural custom-designed for the Forum by renowned First Nations artist Bill Reid.
At the Forum, a carnivalesque atmosphere coexisted fairly harmoniously with grave discussion. Slum organizers and activists and policymakers from around the world raised pressing issues from land claims to water-borne illness to land title in informal settlements to community participation to children’s rights. The informality of the site’s design was deliberate, meant to facilitate social interaction, break down barriers and discourage formal behaviours, and by all accounts it succeeded. Hangar 7, the social centre, featured what was then “the world’s longest standup bar” designed and built largely by master carpenter Ian Ridgway from salvaged yellow cedar. In fact, delegates from the downtown conference could often be seen at the bar, having escaped from downtown via the shuttle or the Habitat Ferry which arrived directly at Jericho Wharf.
Many of them said later that some of the most fruitful discussions they had in Vancouver were not in windowless Vancouver hotel conference rooms but in the drafty old hangars at the beach. Connections made at Habitat persist today, as almost everyone I have interviewed has told me.The conference produced a document called The Vancouver Declaration. It was an achievement that holds up even today, if you can ignore some of the outdated language. Because of a tense geopolitical struggle between the global north and south that was played out over the issue of the PLO-Israel conflict, and a double-cross by the Americans at the nth hour, consensus on the declaration was not achieved, though it was passed late at night on June 11 by a majority vote. (It’s a fascinating story, but you’ll have to read the book.) Despite this setback, the world’s nations took home with them the declaration and its implementation plan, “64 Recommendations for National Action.” Jim MacNeil was the Commissioner-General of the Canadian Habitat Secretariat. A brilliant policy writer, Jim had come out of the Tommy Douglas government in Saskatchewan and written Canada’s very first environmental policy in the late 1960s—from scratch. I asked Jim last year whether he thought the Vancouver Declaration seemed radical during the conference, because it certainly seemed so by 2015 standards. He said that even by 1976 standards it was pretty radical, but that if it had been heeded, we would not be seeing the current housing crisis in Canadian and international cities. “It’s indecent what’s happening in Canadian cities now,” he remarked to me once.
In what sometimes looks like foreshadowing, all five hangars had come down by the end of 1979 despite sustained citizen efforts to convince the Parks Board and City Hall to save them. Joseph Roberts tells me that he was involved in an attempt to occupy the hangars that involved hacksawing through a chain on the door to liberate the hanger but the police showed up and dispersed the protestors. The beautiful theatre decorated with the Bill Reid mural (Hangar 3) was demolished first. Both the Plenary Hall (Hangar 5) and Hangar 6 (which had been filled with beautiful wooden meeting rooms) were dismantled for parts. Efforts continued to try to save the two larger remaining hangars, which were set back from the seashore (Hangar 8, Exhibition Hall and Hangar 7, the bar and social centre). But the two hangars were mysteriously arsoned a month apart, on two especially foggy days in October and November of 1979 when the beach was deserted. [That year Margaret Thatcher was elected.] The Vancouver Declaration had affirmed the right of citizens to public space and their built heritage, but the hangars came down anyway.
This year in Vancouver people seem to be marking the anniversary of Expo 86, but Habitat ’76 is still shrouded in amnesia. Expo ’86 gave us Concord Pacific and condo development; Habitat had a different, subtler influence on the culture and politics of Vancouver. (It also helped lead to the construction of Granville Island, but that’s another story.) It’s a seeming paradox that despite the lack of public awareness of Habitat, there are thousands of Vancouverites and alumni around the world for whom Habitat ’76 is not merely a vivid memory but the single event that most altered or even set their life’s trajectory.UN-Habitat, as it is now called, has a mandate to “promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all.” The UN designates the first Monday of October every year as World Habitat Day. Habitat III will take place shortly after in mid-October 2016 in Quito, Ecuador. It remains to be seen if UN-Habitat has the will to incorporate in its new declaration the ambitious principles and action plans that were set out in Vancouver in 1976 and reaffirmed in Istanbul in 1996.
More important it is to be hoped that it try to implement those plans this time, because as Margaret Trudeau said in her key speech at Habitat Forum, “we don’t want promises; we want commitment. We want action.” The conflict within the UN (and governments), as always, is between those who focus on rights – the ideas of The Right to the City and of housing as a human right – and those who focus primarily on private sector solutions and financing in a deregulated environment. As anyone in Vancouver knows, leaving housing and city-building to the private sector has had disastrous consequences. It is shameful that the city that hosted Habitat, and for which the Vancouver Declaration is named, continues to preach sustainability goals but suffers from the second worst unaffordability in the world and the highest urban child poverty in the country.
When I set out to write this book, I was prepared to have my rosy childhood view of Habitat ’76 corrected by the adults who attended. But I was unable to find a single person, from Iraq to England to India to Chile, who didn’t say that that conference was a defining moment in their lives and careers. As one activist from South America told me, “the strands all existed before Habitat, but that’s they were all woven together.” And most of them mention that we were right in 1976—about everything from solar energy to stemming property speculation to the fact that by the end of the twentieth century more deaths would be caused by lack of clean drinking water than war. We seem to have taken a forty-year detour, and are in many ways back where we started. Let’s hope Habitat III stays true to Habitat I and puts the rights of people over capital in human settlements.
Lindsay Brown is a Vancouver designer, civic pot-stirrer, and an art and design critic. She founded and runs the artisanal textile company Ouno Design and its blog, and was co-founder of the Vancouver Not Vegas coalition which halted the expansion of a mega-casino in downtown Vancouver in 2011. Her book Habitat ’76 will be out with Black Dog Publishing in Fall 2016.
Info at http://habitat76.ca