Nowadays, it is estimated that more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas. In the medium term, this figure will rise to three quarters. The World Urban Forum was created in order to analyse and respond to opportunities and challenges linked to the urban development process in the 21st century. This process, promoted by the phenomenon of globalisation, is characterised by its complexity and involves significant questions such as the role of cities as cultural crossroads, spaces of inclusion or exclusion and, finally, as a framework for the construction of open and pluralist societies.
The Second World Urban Forum, held from 13 to 17 September, was organised by UN-HABITAT, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, directed by Ana Tibaijuka, from Tanzania. It was organised in three main sessions: thematic dialogues, dialogues between partners and parallel dialogues or networking events. The panels were composed mainly of United Nations civil servants; representatives of the different levels of international public administration, such as local, regional and community governments; and private sector representatives.
Moreover, the World Urban Forum also included a session called “Barcelona Session”, during which the conclusions of all of the dialogues held during the Universal Forum of Cultures, Barcelona 2004, included in “Cities: living together”, were presented.
In this block of sessions, all of which lasted for a minimum of half a day, the following issues were discussed: Urban Poverty, Urban Resources, Urban Sustainability, Urban Services, Urban Disasters and Reconstruction.
- Urban Poverty
The session took up a whole day of the dialogue and provided the opportunity for a number of participating speakers to discuss the situation regarding slums, which are present in the majority of big cities in developing countries. The panellists, therefore, put forward proposals, best practices and ideas, with the objective of eradicating slums or at least improving their condition. Thus, the speakers agreed to highlight the importance of gathering and disseminating reliable data, such as the names, geographical distribution, living conditions, etc., on the slums, since this information helps to illustrate “urban poverty” in frameworks such as national and international dialogues on development. Whilst recognising the improvements achieved in the living conditions of the slum inhabitants over the past few years, there was consensus on the fact that there remains a great deal to be done. At the same time, it was considered that any effort to improve the conditions of the slums must seek solutions on a local scale, in all cases giving a leading role to the inhabitants of the settlements. It is therefore necessary to avoid any project or improvement action involving the inhabitants as solely passive beneficiaries. Along the same lines, and as a result of the multiple experiences that were presented, the speakers also advocated leaving aside pilot projects and best practices to focus on good policies. With regard to housing rehabilitation policies, their priority has to be that the inhabitants remain in their original dwelling, leaving transfer as a last resort. Finally, the speakers asked the international community not to include, as part of the debt of developing countries, all those investments that seek the fulfilment of the Millennium Objectives.
- Urban Resources
The main issues focused on in this dialogue were, on the one hand, attainability, the mitigation of risks and the mortgage financing system for urban poverty and, on the other hand, the development of partnership strategies between the public and private sector which see people as their main resource. Part of the session was devoted to illustrating that the urban poor are bankable and have credit history when it comes to requesting and returning loans to micro-credit institutions. Therefore, formal retail banking and housing finance systems need to adapt some of these lessons in order to devise appropriate products to reach the urban poor. However, the panellists admitted to the existence of risks associated to financing the poor. What is required, according to the experts, is an appropriate risk sharing mechanism in which all parties share the risks, and thereby reduce the cost of the housing finance loan. In this sense, many panellists considered that there was adequate liquidity in the financial sector in the developing countries which would allow them to develop innovative and creative solutions required to tap these resources for urban poverty.
The main impediment to such solutions is, according to most of the speakers, the lack of political commitment at the national level for secure tenure, adequate infrastructure provision by municipal governments, and credit guarantee and risk sharing mechanisms to make lending rates affordable to the poor.
It was also highlighted throughout the session that the poor constitute an important resource in order to improve slums and they should be an essential partner in any improvement project in their area.
- Urban Sustainability
The main purpose of the dialogue was to debate how a culture of partnership could help make sustainable urban development meaningful, and how it could contribute to making a vision attainable through more resources and action, better implementation and impact. The session discussed sustainable urbanisation as a process of challenges and responses that could be considered under the heading of improving urban governance.
Therefore, there were a number of speakers who highlighted that, often, the problem of urban sustainability came from focusing too much on the environment and not enough on the more political and social aspects. For this reason, the speakers were in agreement when they highlighted an initiative such as the Local Agenda 21, as it could be converted into a mechanism to increase partnerships on all levels. Nevertheless, they also noted that the task of developing partnerships required skills, comprehension and an attitude of cooperation on all levels. As to the aspects of urban sustainability more closely related to the environment, the experts believed that, on a city level, eco-budgets could be an essential tool to enable local authorities to manage the environment as a resource for sustainable development in a transparent manner. Along the same lines, the fact that mayors ought to participate in the processes of preparation of budgets on a state level was highlighted. Finally, bearing in mind that any attempt to limit the growth of the so-called mega-cities would fail, the challenge lay in managing cities in accordance with the interests of their inhabitants and the earth in general.
- Urban Services
The purpose of the session was to address the issue of private sector participation and its role in providing water and sanitation to the urban poor. In particular, the focus of the dialogue was to address whether and how the private sector could be made to be more sensitive to the needs of the poor. In accordance with this, the speakers recognised that private sector involvement in the water and sanitation sector had changed over the past few years, moving from full-scale privatisation to a variety of more flexible private and public sector partnerships. However, experts pointed out that, contrary to what was commonly thought, the private sector in water provision did not always refer to multinational companies but also encompassed local domestic companies, small scale vendors and community-based organisations. Experts from the private and the public sector agreed that effective private sector participation could succeed in serving the poor only if a pro-poor governance framework took place. Finally, several experiences from the dialogue session bear witness to the importance of issues such as transparency, access to information, free choice, confidence and democracy when creating a governance framework that aims to ensure that the needs of the poor in terms of water and sanitation are met.
- Urban Disasters and Reconstruction
This session’s starting point was focused on the analysis of the changing nature of conflict and natural disasters. This fact requires the incorporation of a new vision concerning traditional approaches to aid. The speakers stressed the need to decentralise responsibility in terms of prevention and offer help in the event of natural disasters or conflicts. This is an essential issue in order to ensure risk reduction and a sustainable, balanced and adequate vulnerability. In the experts’ opinion, the creation of a preventive culture implies adopting a multidimensional point of view, which embraces in the process all sectors and agents at a national and local scale. Other aspects contributing to sustainable public security include accumulating reliable city data; moving the debate on disaster reduction in the least favoured areas to networks of local authorities; and, finally, coordinating a city recovery fund run jointly with local government and civil society. In all of the cases mentioned, experts believe that it is imperative to understand that any crisis, particularly if it is armed conflict, creates displacement, and that there is a need for sustainable strategies based on the rights to shelter, belonging, and the protection of the most vulnerable, in order to provide an immediate response.
In this block of sessions, all of which lasted for a minimum of half a day, the following issues were discussed: Urban Cultures, Urban Realities, Urban Governance and Urban Renaissance.
- Urban Cultures
Culture suggests, according to the UN-HABITAT definition, a society’s capacity to survive and to adapt to change. Within cities, culture represents the ideas, practices, sites and symbols of what has been called the “symbolic economy”. In this sense, culture is increasingly being used to shape urban development strategies in the face of global competition on the one hand and local tensions on the other. Therefore, as the experts stated, values and ethics are fundamental determinants of culture and should be included in any debate on globalisation and urban culture. Moreover, culture should be seen as a field of action and as a pro-active activity in which values and ethics are transformed into action within the city. Under no circumstances, the speakers pointed out, should there be an attempt to set limits to the diversity within cities: whilst highlighting what brings together urban residents culturally, urban governance should recognise diversity in all of its forms. The panellists shared the view that participation in urban governance was a reflection of the importance of diversity, including cultural diversity, within cities and should be used to the fullest extent possible as a way of enhancing urbanisation. Concerning diversity, if urban planning is to be able to address diversity within cities, the experts involved should intensify their efforts to become more inclusive and multi-disciplinary. Most of the speakers stressed that, whilst there was a danger of culture within cities becoming too commodified, it should be recognised that culture has economic value and that this value was important in building cities. With regard to the relation between culture and politics, it was considered that both were closely connected and inseparable. Therefore, since culture involves deeply felt emotions of belonging and history, there should be no attempt to depoliticise it.
- Urban Realities
This dialogue was organised with the aim of sharing the experience of implementing six different projects, all of them characterised by their commitment to social justice and improved governance. From the cases presented (Morocco, Brazil, China, South Africa, Philippines and Spain), it became evident that innovative planning instruments and methodologies based on broad-based stakeholder participation were crucial in order to address the growing urban challenges. The speakers highlighted the importance of supporting instruments and methodologies with participatory formulations and the implementation of such policies on the one hand, and continuous monitoring and review systems on the other. Moreover, all institutional responsibilities and links between agents must be well defined. Finally, before getting to the implementation stage, the people involved in this process need to have been trained, and the proper tools for implementation need to have been developed and continuously reviewed in order to match the changing realities at all times.
- Urban Governance
The main issue discussed at the Urban Governance session focused on the involvement of civil society. Positive and negative aspects of inclusion were mentioned, as well as its scope and boundaries, and finally how inclusion could actually contribute to local governance. As the speakers stated, there is a danger that inclusiveness may be often used as an idea lacking in content by politicians in order to achieve their own ends. In this sense, participants stressed that inclusion does not imply the abdication of responsibility by formal structures of government. Experts pointed out that engaging the most marginalised communities in decision-making was the most significant issue related to inclusion, and should be accorded top priority by national and local governments and civil society organisations, as well as the donor community. Panellists concluded by saying that transparency in decision-making processes was a key factor in order to foster inclusiveness.
- Urban Renaissance
The session was structured taking as a starting point the direct link between urban renaissance, understood as the improvement in quality of living in municipalities and cities, and the promotion of decentralisation as a means for achieving these objectives in a globalisation context. Afterwards, it was stated that effective decentralisation had the potential to help countries and involve communities, including the urban poor, in moving towards sustainable development in the establishment of a fair society. There was a call to intermediate authorities of public administration, such as autonomous communities, regions, counties, departments and provinces, in order to examine and value the possibility of providing support to cities using funds from international institutions, in addition to national budgetary allocations. Furthermore, there was a call for more emphasis to be placed on the needs and priorities of local citizens as opposed to on the cities and local authorities. In accordance with this priority, panellists stressed that the process of strengthening local authorities should also take into consideration the day-to-day needs of today’s citizens.
Parallel dialogues / Networking events
Structured in six big themes (city management, finance, housing and infrastructure, sustainability, and risk inclusiveness), almost 90 parallel dialogues were added to the main sessions of the World Urban Forum (thematic dialogues and partner dialogues), sharing experiences, projects and best practices. Among all of these, the following were highlighted:
- Public-Private Partnerships (PPP)
The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe presented its findings on the role of PPPs in urban regeneration. PPPs function as a concession-based financing technique that puts together the best of both public and private sectors. They have contributed to renovating cities, improving the access of services to citizens and generating employment opportunities.
- Global networks for local government capacity-building
This session’s participants, who were all from local governments, agreed that networks were an invaluable way of building relationships among professionals so that they may gain the creativity and courage required to make a meaningful difference to their community. In any case, for a network to be successful, it is important to fulfil the following requirements: the objectives have to be clear, the members have to be committed and involved and, lastly, networks should avoid the temptation of wanting to “do it all”.
- Urban space and security policies
Researchers devoted this dialogue to looking into the link between urban space and urban security, exchanging and discussing best practices as well as presenting research methodologies. From several studies presented on the impact of crime on urban areas, participants concluded by highlighting the importance of facilitating and sharing the results of their work to enable politicians to draw up more adequate strategies.
- Civil or Civic Defence – the role of national and local governments in peace building
The session provided representatives of areas in which armed conflict has taken place or is currently occurring (Philippines, Iraq and Palestine) with the opportunity to discuss the role of local authorities in these situations. All of them stressed the fact that recovery and development depended, to a large extent, on decentralisation.
- Rental Housing: An Essential Option for the Urban Poor
The various panellists stressed that few countries in the world had policies aimed at promoting rental housing. Based on this fact, speakers questioned the reasons for this failure. The participants agreed that rental housing had first to be placed on the national and local governments’ housing agenda as a mechanism for the eradication of urban poverty.
Barcelona Session – Forum 2004 Dialogue Conclusions from the theme block entitled “Cities, living together”
Apart from presenting the dialogue conclusions of the theme block “Cities, living together” which previously took place at the Universal Forum of Cultures, Barcelona 2004, this session dealt with the need to analyse the main issues related to new urban challenges and the need to look at the future of an eminently urban world. Therefore, the experts believed that cities needed to be compact, and not dispersed, in order to facilitate the offer of and access to services. In order to achieve all these goals, speakers stressed the need for three high impact groups, scientists, politicians and the media, to be well coordinated. With regard to the sustainability of the urban future, tourism was identified as the key toll to be paid to conserve cultural and historical heritage. In this regard, fair tourism should be promoted as a tool for development. The experts concluded by saying that the 21st century would be devoted to metropolitan areas, understood as spaces of local participation and global strategy development. The concept of “super municipality”, which entails decentralisation at the same time gives autonomy, identity and individuality to cities. So the challenge for professionals is to understand what the people want and translate it into sustainable plans. Experts highlighted that, in order to achieve this, there would need to be a desirable mix of experts, knowledge and citizens. Information should be given to the people, given that power lies in information. If they are well informed, citizens can stop almost any project that does not fit in with their vision of their city. Finally, in answer to the question “Given that the future is outside the terms of the elected officials, how do we ensure that elected officials with limited terms fund long-term solutions?”, the study of processes was proposed for which “more of the same should not be produced” in relation to the values that are transmitted to children, even in meeting the most basic daily needs such as health, education, and shelter.