The Second World Urban Forum opened in Barcelona on Monday with warnings from world leaders and mayors that rapid urbanization was one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in the new Millennium.
Speaker after speaker at the opening plenary called for more backing for local authorities from the United Nations system and governments. They called for a renewed drive for decentralization. And all expressed concern that millions of people in cities around the world still lacked access to safe water and sanitation, health care, education, shelter, security of tenure.
In a highlight of the opening plenary, UN-HABITAT´s Executive Director, Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka bestowed the UN-HABITAT´s Scroll of Honour Special Citation for Post Conflict Reconstruction on Lebanese Prime Minister, Mr. Rafic Hariri, for showing visionary leadership in helping rebuild his country after a devastating 16-year civil war.
Organisers said that over 5,000 people had come to the conference in the glittering forum convention hall on the city´s newly refurbished waterfront. The delegates included several internationally renowned leaders and over 600 mayors from around the world.
“All of us have reason to thank the organizers and people of Barcelona for this initiative in the interest of the international community,” said the former Soviet leader, Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev. “This forum an important contribution to strengthening peace, tolerance and sustainable development. I was happy to respond to the invitation from UN-HABITAT, now that the urban population of world will soon exceed rural population.”
Addressing the congress in Russian through an interpreter, Mr. Gorbachev said the theme of the conference, Cities: crossroads of cultures, inclusiveness and integration? was an important question because the world could not continue to solve problems the way it used to.
“Urbanisation is bringing problems of concern to us all,” said Mr. Gorbachev, who signed a Cooperation Agreement with UN-HABITAT´s Executive Director, Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka on a rights-based approach to water management in human settlements.
“Four years ago, when world leaders adopted the Millennium Declaration, it seemed they recognized the urgency of the problems,” he said. “But all of us today are concerned that many leaders having taken that step, have not shown the political will to implement them and take on the obligations they assumed. We have to be frank – we cannot leave the millennium commitments to the same fate as Rio document of 1992.”
In opening remarks, the outgoing Chair of the World Urban Forum, South Africa´s former housing minister, Ms. Sankie D. Mthembi-Mahanyele, said the large numbers of delegates and leaders in Barcelona showed how critical growing urbanization had become. She introduced the new Chair, Spain´s Minister of Housing, Ms. Maria Antonia Trujillo saying the urbanization of poverty was particularly acute in the developing world.
But in a more optimistic note, Mr. Joan Clos, Mayor of Barcelona and President of the United Nations Advisory Committee of Local Authorities (UNACLA), said at least the wish of world mayors in 1996 at the Habitat II conference in Istanbul to be able to speak with a united voice had now come true with the formation in January this year of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG).
Mayors now had their own world-wide body based in Barcelona. He noted that in many countries local governments were unelected, lacked financial independence, were unable to raise their own finances and thus unable to make full use of their authority. The new UCLG wanted to develop local administrative independence around the world. Citing a European Union treaty providing local authorities with necessary independence, and also adopted in Canada, he said UCLG now sought a respective international treaty recognized by the United Nations.
Mr. Pieter van Geel, State Secretary for Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment of The Netherlands, told delegates urban poverty was not affecting cities alone any longer. Rapid urban expansion was putting more pressure on the countryside and on ecosystems – causing deforestation, flooding, and other problems. He said the problems of water and sanitation provision and the way they interconnect was of prime importance.
Finland´s former president, Mr. Martti Ahtisaari, said the international community had to do more to help with proper training and interventions to increase capacity building.
In a message read out on his behalf, UN Secretary-General, Mr. Kofi Annan said: “Cities are recognized as national engines of economic growth. But they are much more. Cities are also the crucible for cultural fusion. Standing astride every intersection on the global network of trade and migration, the world’s cities must become shining examples of inclusiveness and equity as called for in the Millennium Declaration. Otherwise, they will remain potential flashpoints of conflict and reservoirs of poverty – barriers to humanity’s further development.”
Mrs. Tibaijuka said the question mark in the theme of the conference implied that the world still had not yet arrived at an effective strategy to make cities work for everyone. She lauded Prime Minister Hariri of Lebanon and the people of Lebanon, recipients of UN-HABITAT´s Scroll of Honour Special Citation for Post Conflict Reconstruction: “I congratulate the Prime Minister for his outstanding and visionary leadership in the post-conflict reconstruction of his country. I also congratulate the Lebanese people without whom success could not have been made.