Every two years UN-HABITAT hosts the World Urban Forum (WUF), a conference where thousands of people from all over the world come together to discuss the problems plaguing the cities of the present and future with the hopes of coming a little closer to figuring out what on earth to do about them.
Open to anyone, the conference is a mixture of UN officials, government agencies, city leaders, academics, NGOs, civic organizations, people working in the private sector, and, of course, journalists. And this year I will be one of them.
An abridged background summary of the overarching idea of the WUF from UN-HABITAT reads as follows:
Cities and human beings are both the agents of progress and the beneficiaries of it. They are the means and the ends in achieving prosperity. As they contribute to prosperity they prosper in turn.
Of course, prosperity means different things for different people. For some it may be eating a cooked meal every evening; for others it may be to own a business worth millions; for some it may be expanding choices in every aspect of life, or having decent property in an adequate environment.
Unfortunately progress has not been evenly spread and prosperity has not been given for everyone. The process of urbanization and its intended benefits has not been without its share of problems: poverty, proliferation of slums and squatter settlements, inadequate infrastructure, poor access to social services and environmental degradation among others are rampant in many parts of the world. Yet, it is not right for any human being to live in such circumstances. The inequality that urbanization fosters is the Achilles’ heel of prosperity.
The World Urban Forum seeks to discuss and find ways to make it easier for everyone to share the improvement in living standards, overall economic welfare and personal fulfillment that urbanization offers. The pursuit of prosperity is not a luxury; it is neither a waste nor a new form of consumption per se; it is a form of justice and a search for equality.
This discussion takes place through a series of four major dialogues, and dozens of workshops, training sessions, and networking events around the themes of those dialogues. This year the dialogue topics are: Urban Planning: Institutions and Regulations, Including the Improvement of Quality of Life; Equity and Prosperity: Distribution of Wealth and Opportunities; Productive Cities: Competitive and Innovative Cities; and Urban Mobility, Energy and Environment.
With such broadly defined themes, I have to admit that it was with a certain amount of skepticism that I signed myself up to attend the conference.
But over the past week or so, I have been very encouraged by the dialogues already happening on the WUF’s online discussion forum.
They’re based loosely around the four major themes, and open to any offshoot of the themes through separation into various different discussion threads. So far I have found them surprisingly on topic, and productive. The moderators do a fantastic job of siphoning the various ideas and comments into the appropriate channels, and keeping the discussions focused and moving forward. They’re also responsible for collating the information (main topics that were of concern to people in the discussions, what people are relating to the most, etc.) into a report that will influence the live events, round tables, and so on at the WUF itself.
Top contributors in each of the four major subjects also have a chance to win travel expenses to attend the WUF, which happens the first week of September this year in Naples, Italy.
I’m going to be keeping a close eye on the online dialogues over the next several weeks, and joining in as much as I can. I really encourage you to do the same; I’m impressed with the quality of the contributions so far and have been learning a great deal.
And of course, stay tuned for my live updates from the conference this fall, and drop me a line if you’re going to be there as well!
Photo: Residential housing in Mexico, 2007, © UN-HABITAT.