The Forum opened on Monday 19 June in Vancouver with calls by an array of world figures to improve the lives of the slum dwellers, and provide better financial and political support to local governments as our planet becomes irreversibly an urban world.
Setting the tone of the world's premier international meeting on the state of the world's growing cities, now home to half of humankind, Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada said in his opening keynote address:
"While policy makers do influence the fates of their cities – for good and ill – the reality is that healthy cities are found in healthy neighbourhoods," he said.
Prime Minister Harper was one of 15 speakers at the opening plenary marking the 30th anniversary of the first Habitat Conference, held in Vancouver in 1976.
The Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka, said that the period lasting 100 years from 1950 to 2050 would be remembered by future generations as the one that led to the greatest social, cultural, economic and environmental transformation in history – that of the urbanization of humanity. She emphasized that because the future of the human species and of sustainability was tied to the city, the UN General Assembly had decided to establish the World Urban Forum as a means of engaging and learning from all social actors to further the Habitat Agenda and the Millennium Development Goals.
The Executive Director noted that when the United Nations was born in 1945, environmental and urban problems were not on the agenda of most governments and that it was not until the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm and the 1976 Habitat I conference in Vancouver that key actors came together to seek consensus on how to govern our cities more effectively and to pursue policies to make cities more sustainable.
In a message read on behalf of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Kofi Annan, by Ms. Inga Bjork-Klevby, Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, the audience of nearly 4,000 people listened in silence as he outlined the darker side of rapid urbanisation in the world.
He said more than half the urban populations in the developing world now live in slums, with little or no access to decent housing, clean water, basic sanitation, regular jobs or steady income. Such was the despair, he said, that families were forced to choose whether to send their children to school or whether to use them to fetch water.
Mr. Enrique Ortiz of Habitat International Coalition noted that the first Habitat Conference was not only a vibrant and creative encounter, it also constituted a significant milestone in the raising global awareness of human settlements problems in both urban and rural areas, and the strategies to address them.