The Global City Confab: An Intro to the World Urban Forum

A brief history of the World Urban Forum, which is coming to Medellín this April.

Credit: UN-Habitat

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City summitry has a long history at the United Nations, generating household names like the Geneva Convention and the Kyoto Protocol. Urban issues have their own niche at the UN, which by the 1970s recognized cities as integral to the global challenges in development and equity at the organization’s core.

In 1976, urbanists got their own statement, the Vancouver Declaration, following the first UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat I for short). Among its outcomes was the establishment of the Human Settlements Programme, better known as UN-Habitat, two years later. As UN-Habitat secured its place during the 1980s and early 1990s from its headquarters in Nairobi, Habitat II convened 20 years after Vancouver in 1996, this time in Istanbul.

The Habitat Agenda that emerged from this gathering of government officials, private sector representatives, NGOs and academics has defined the agency’s mission ever since as vital in a (then soon-to-be) majority urban world, and was a major impetus behind the development of a more frequent event, the World Urban Forum (WUF).

Unlike the vicennial Habitat conferences — the next of which will take place in a city to be determined come 2016 — WUF is about access, not closed-door negotiations.

Here’s a quick timeline of the six World Urban Forums that have happened so far:

“I think the WUF is one of the most important meetings worldwide because it brings together people concerned with cities from every perspective, whether it’s grassroots performers or corporate investors, academics or city government officials, professional designers or politicians, and so forth,” says Dr. Eugénie Birch, co-chair of the World Urban Campaign and co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research. “It provides an environment for constructive dialogue.”

  • Keeping the idea close to home, the inaugural edition was held in Nairobi in 2002. The organizers gave special attention to informal settlements — UN-Habitat’s home city is notorious for them — and participants from these communities built a model informal dwelling on the plush lawn of the UN’s Gigiri complex.
  • Two years later, WUF2 moved to Barcelona, where Joan Clos was overseeing the Catalan capital’s continued post-industrial, post-Olympic transformation. He must have passed the test, because in 2010 Clos assumed executive directorship of UN-Habitat.
  • In 2006, WUF3 returned to its spiritual home, Vancouver, where 30 years prior UN-Habitat was born. Urban planners were a major presence among the 10,000 attendees given the Canadian Institute of Planners’ role as local organizers, and a concurrent World Planners Conference resulted in the establishment of the Global Planners Network.
  • WUF4 sailed across the Pacific two years later in Nanjing. Nearly postponed because of an earthquake and woefully underattended, according to an attendee who prefers to remain anonymous, the embarrassed Chinese hosts bussed in clueless senior citizens to fill empty seats. They sat contented if bewildered, but glad for the free lunch.
  • By contrast, WUF5 in Rio de Janeiro was a victim of its own success in 2010. A record 21,000 participants streamed into a renovated portside warehouse complex. The facility’s air conditioners were strained by the late summer South American heat and crush of people, which led to some quips of the “World Urban Sauna.” Popular Brazilian president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva gave a rousing invocation, and UN-Habitat’s Anna Tibijuka gave her valedictory address as outgoing executive director. Despite WUF’s pretensions to inclusiveness, a more radical crowd hosted its first biennial Social Urban Forum across the street, a kind of urban offshoot of the World Social Forum.
  • Naples was a late-game substitute for Bahrain in 2012, where the crushing of Arab Spring dissent didn’t square with WUF6’s agenda. In true Neapolitan fashion, local bus drivers and convention center volunteers went on strike, but otherwise the event was a success, asking the right questions if not delivering concrete strategies.

Meanwhile, a month into 2014, the urban world’s attention is turning to WUF7 in Medellín, a darling of the planning community, a Vancouver of the Global South. Stay tuned for Next City’s coverage in the months leading up to, and the week of, World Urban Forum 7.

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Gregory Scruggs is a Seattle-based independent journalist who writes about solutions for cities. He has covered major international forums on urbanization, climate change, and sustainable development where he has interviewed dozens of mayors and high-ranking officials in order to tell powerful stories about humanity’s urban future. He has reported at street level from more than two dozen countries on solutions to hot-button issues facing cities, from housing to transportation to civic engagement to social equity. In 2017, he won a United Nations Correspondents Association award for his coverage of global urbanization and the UN’s Habitat III summit on the future of cities. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

Tags: un-habitatunited nationsmedellinworld urban forum 7

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