Drawing some 10,000 participants from over 100 countries, the Third Session of the World Urban Forum closed on Friday paving the way for a new drive forward on the international urban agenda in a world of rapidly growing cities.
Just as the Habitat I Conference in Vancouver in 1976 placed local community concerns on the international agenda and highlighted the critical importance of inclusiveness, the Forum in Vancouver, 30 years later, lived up to its promise of moving ideas to action. The meeting and its glittering closing ceremony symbolized inclusiveness, with balanced participation from public, private and civil society sectors. Compared to previous sessions of the Forum, there was a notable increase in private sector participation.
This time, it was from Vancouver that a new message resonated: the urban population of developing countries is set to double from 2 to 4 billion in the next 30 years. In the same time span, the developed world's urban population is projected to rise by only 11 percent.
This means, said Ms. Katherine Sierra, Vice-President and Network Head, Infrastructure, World Bank, and Enrique Peñalosa, the former Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, now serving as Visiting Scholar at New York University, that the magnitude of urban population growth confronting developing countries is about ten times that of the developed world.
" In short, these 2 billion new urban inhabitants will require the equivalent of planning, financing, and servicing facilities for a new city of 1 million people, every week for the next 30 years ," Ms. Sierra said.
"Imagine," said Mr. Peñalosa, "that means a new city each week the size of Vancouver."
Vancouver 2006 also brought governments and municipalities closer to grassroots women's organizations, youth groups, the representatives of slum dwellers and other non-governmental organizations than ever before at such an international meeting, building on the precedent set by UN-HABITAT for more inclusive international meetings.
"In this interdependent world, opportunity and deprivation are interlinked," Mr. Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General of the United Nations said in his message to the conference.
The quest for innovative ideas and practical solutions was underscored in the six Dialogues, 13 Roundtables and more than 160 Networking Events. Ministers, mayors, academics, community-based organizations, federations of non-governmental organizations, and the private sector shared their insights and experiences on what would improve the quality of life in the world's growing cities. The inclusive approach followed at the Forum is a model for cities. Some are already following this model while others would benefit from doing so.
Professor H. Peter Oberlander, the Senior Advisor to Canada' s Commissioner General for the conference said: "With the next session in Nanjing in 2008, we have to ensure that the wonderful momentum built up during this week in Vancouver is maintained, that we keep the connectivity."
Key points of agreement to emerge from the Third Session of the World Urban Forum in Vanouver 2006 were:
- The need for all urban players – citizens, local governments, state and provincial governments, national governments, the private sector and civil society organizations – to work harder to solve urban problems and challenges. There was widespread agreement that they all must do their part, rather than simply transfer responsibility to others.
- That risk-taking and the pursuit of innovation must characterise municipal leadership if cities are to achieve sustainable development. Vancouver's example in taking the lead in such areas as air and water quality, public transit and planning was mentioned often in this context.
- Agreement that appropriate engagements, partnerships and relationships need to be built in an inclusive manner to better understand challenges and develop practical solutions. Participants from many parts of the world presented examples that can serve as guideposts for these strategies.
- The importance of transparency and accountability. Citizens need to be informed of challenges and steps taken by governments to address them. Transparency goes hand-in-hand with accountability, which speeds up the process of enhancing actions that work and curtailing those that do not work.
The highlights of the meeting were:
- Coming to terms with the Urban Age in which planning to provide decent urban services for the new urban millennium is vital.
- From exclusion to engagement: All partners showed a willingness to build effective coalitions to address the needs of the urban poor. The Forum witnessed a dramatic and fundamental shift in the willingness of governments and local authorities to engage with all urban actors to improve the quality of life of people, their communities and cities. In several keynote addresses and in various dialogues, government representatives showed a keen interest in being actively engaged with civil society organizations and their representatives, and in supporting initiatives that improved housing and access to basic services. Most governments represented in Vancouver 2006 cited the need to engage with and support community initiatives to improve the living conditions of the poorest and most vulnerable groups, and to improve the urban environment.
- Meeting the financing challenge of slum upgrading and sustainable infrastructure development. The Forum recognised the critical need for increased financial resources to attain the slum upgrading target of the Millennium Declaration. It further recognised that the challenge is to shift from relying on international development finance to tapping local capital markets. In this context, the Forum acknowledged the need for international donors to play a catalytic role in building the capacity and improving the credit-worthiness of cities, and to package such assistance with seed capital, as piloted by UN-HABITAT's Slum Upgrading Facility, in line with paragraph 56(m) of the 2005 Millennium Summit Outcome which calls for investments in pro-poor housing and urban infrastructure.
- Re-inventing planning: applying new paradigms for sustainable urban development. The Forum placed a strong emphasis on planning as a tool for urban development and environmental management, and as a means of preventing future slum growth. This view was accepted not just by government officials and urban planners themselves but also by civil society groups that wanted planning to be more inclusive, transparent and ethical. The Forum stressed the important role of planners as agents of change and underlined the importance of sustainability as the backbone of new forms of planning.
A number of observations were made at the Forum, some of which are described below:
- "Beautiful speeches, awful reality" – The Millennium Development Goals are not having an impact on the ground in many countries. The commitments made by governments at the Millennium Summit in 2000 and the adoption of national poverty reduction strategies in several countries have not necessarily resulted in improved living conditions among the urban poor. For instance, the increasing incidence of forced evictions goes against the Millennium Development Goals aimed at reducing poverty. Participants felt that there was still a wide discrepancy between what governments said and what they did, and this discrepancy needed to be addressed if the Millennium Development Goals are to be met in cities.
- Converging approaches to sustainable urban development policies between developed and developing nations. The traditional North-South divide was not evident at this Forum, as countries from both developed and developing countries seemed united in the view that sustainability – and its link to poverty – was a major challenge facing all cities. There was, however, recognition that each region faced particular challenges that were best addressed by a more systematic exchange of best practices and good urban policies among all stakeholders at the local, national and international levels.
- Particular emphasis was placed on the needs of women, youth and people with disabilities. The Forum was marked by a strong participation of women and youth. It was recognised that youth represented a large proportion of people living in cities and their participation in large numbers infused a welcome energy in the deliberations. Youth representatives encouraged participants of the Forum to adopt strategies bearing the specific needs of youth in mind and to engage youth in decisions affecting their lives. The Forum further recognised the ongoing investment and resource contribution of grassroots women to the sustainability of cities and communities.
- The emerging reality of public-private partnerships. The Forum recognised that cities are largely the product of private investment. The strong presence of the private sector and its active participation in the Forum underscored their interest in engaging in the quest for sustainable cities.
- The success of the Third Session of the World Urban Forum lay not just in what was discussed but in what was learned. Participants were keen to share ideas, network and forge new alliances through both formal and informal meetings with partners, and viewed the Forum not as a place where declarations and plans of action were endorsed but where experiences were shared.
On the way forward, the spirit and enthusiasm evinced at the Forum in formal sessions and in the interstices showed that every participant was committed to the basic theme of the Forum on turning Ideas into Action. Hundreds of actionable ideas were proposed, described and exchanged.
Guidelines and policies for decentralisation and the empowerment of local authorities are required to enable them to engage civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders in transforming their respective cities, as Vancouver did in the follow-up to the first Habitat Conference in 1976.
All spheres of government need to prioritize the urban agenda in their respective plans and policies. UN-HABITAT will take the WUF III outcomes to its Governing Council and, through it, to the UN General Assembly, with a call for a strengthened role of the United Nation system and international agencies in meeting the urban sustainability challenge.
See photo gallery