What is the point of the World Urban Forum?

Aseem Inam:  This blog post is going to be longer than usual, but I think you’ll find it interesting, so bear with me.

The recently concluded World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia was absolutely the gathering of urbanists this year in the world.  The cross-section was remarkable:  politicians [e.g. ministers, mayors], policy makers [e.g. international, national and local bureaucrats], corporations [e.g. businesses capitalizing on the rapidly urbanizing world], academics [e.g. researchers, professors, students], non-profits [e.g. activists and advocacy organizations], and citizens [e.g. local residents and school children from Medellin].  It was quite an experience to give a talk or be part of a panel that included this rich cross-section, which led to truly fascinating dialogues.

There were three principal highlights for me.

One highlight was the buzz generated by our URBAN@NEWSCHOOL team.  The university had a booth near the entrance of the main pavilion, plus we had regular presentations at the booth about faculty research, student work, and academic programs.  This constant activity attracted lots of people, to whom we distributed material about urban initiatives in strategic design, public policy, international affairs, liberal arts, and the social sciences.  People were genuinely interested in all the exciting things that we are doing globally as well as at our campus in Manhattan.

A second highlight was talking about my book, Designing Urban Transformation, in the Urban Library.  The hall was packed to the point of being standing-room-only.  Even though many audience members were not native English speakers, I made it a point to communicate clearly and slowly verbally combined with images and simple text in my slide presentation.  The question and answer session was excellent, and spilled over into the hallway after the formal session was over.  I was touched that people not only found the ideas in the book to be valuable, but also saw how these ideas could help illuminate and address concrete challenges in their own cities and countries.

A third highlight was running into people from all over the world who knew me or knew about my work, including people from Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, Greece, India, Italy, Korea, UK, USA, Vietnam, and other countries.  Of course, I was also able to interact with many others from other countries.  This is more than about just building a professional network; instead, it is about nurturing a community of practice, which is a deeper and long-term set of interactive and collaborative relationships in which people not only share similar interests but also similar values towards cities.

What then is the larger point of the World Urban Forum?  Actually, there are several points.

One is to escape the authoritative “know-it-all” attitude that some academics and practitioners adopt towards cities and to instead genuinely learn from one another.  For example, I found it enlightening to learn about women’s housing cooperatives in Central America, about how disaster assistance efforts in Haiti can lead to community development, how a systematic attempt at universal standards in transit-oriented development actually reveals deep contextual differences, and how a decades-long movement of informal workers in India has led to not only major shifts in urban policy at the national level but also to a growing international movement of research and solidarity in informal urbanisms.

Another point is to actually immerse oneself in the buzz and excitement of such a momentous gathering.  I was guilty of being jaded by the many booths and presenters that mouth predictable platitudes about “sustainable cities,” “resilient cities,” “smart cities,” and so forth, without much to show for it in terms of action and impact.  Yet, there was also genuine debate and dialogue, and it was particularly inspiring to see how some had accomplished so much with so little access to power and resources, at least in the beginning [e.g. Self Employed Women’s Association, J/P Haitian Relief Organization, We Effect - Swedish Cooperative Centre].

A crucial point is to get to know another city first-hand, in this case, Medellin.  Medellin has become the “it” city of late, the darling of urbanists all over the world.  There has been considerable publicity about its supposed turnaround from a center of drugs and violence to a city of significant investments in public facilities and spaces.  What I saw was extremely impressive:  the fact that public investments were targeted primarily to some of the poorest neighborhoods combined with a high quality of design and development is truly unique.  For example, the Metrocable system that connects the barrio informale of Santo Domingo Savio with the Acevedo metro station, which enables residents to more easily access social, political and economic opportunities in other parts of the city.  And it seems to run quite well.

There are legitimate critiques to be made of the World Urban Forum:  lots of important-looking officials generating lots of hot air with important-sounding declarations, international bureaucrats going through the motions of studies and proposals, and a sprawling set of spaces at the Forum in Plaza Mayor that sometimes felt too loose and detached.  There was also a striking disconnect in the choice of the keynote speakers.  On the one hand 84% of the world population and 97 out of the 100 fastest growing cities are in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and around 50% of the world's population is female.  On the other hand, the keynote speakers at the Forum were dominated by white males from North America and Western Europe.  This mirrors how current geographical and intellectual centers of knowledge and action regarding the future of cities do not always reflect actual on-the-ground realities, contexts and experiences of the vast majority of the world.

Overall, though, the World Urban Forum was a wonderful opportunity to learn, connect, communicate, debate, and create on a truly global stage.  I returned to New York City from Medellin mentally and intellectually reinvigorated.  AI

The Metrocable from Acevedo metro station up to the hills of the low-income neighborhood of Santo Domingo Savio.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

The Metrocable from Acevedo metro station up to the hills of the low-income neighborhood of Santo Domingo Savio.  Source:  Aseem Inam.