The World Urban Forum: Ideas on the Future of the World's Cities

Article excerpt

THE LIVES OF AT LEAST 100 MILLION slum dwellers will radically improve by 2020 if the promise of Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 7--to ensure environmental sustainability--is kept. The mere thought of it is very encouraging, but the work that remains is daunting.

In a massive show of solidarity, over 10,000 academics, non-governmental agencies, urban planners, local authorities and community organizations met in Vancouver, Canada to take part in the third session of the World Urban Forum (WUF III). Their focus--"Our Future: Sustainable Cities: Turning Ideas into Action"--is a rallying call for the international community to swiftly invest in sustainable urban development.

From 19 to 23 June 2006, participants debated, networked and strategized against the proliferation of urban slums. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) and the Government of Canada hosted WUF III--a gathering that included over 150 events on the themes of urban growth and management, partnership, finance and social inclusion and cohesion, ranging from a Global Youth Forum that included a hip-hop concert designed to attract the youth and students, to exhibits of posters, paintings, films, publications and architectural models--all related, one way or another, to the need for urban development. In addition, a showcase presented state-of-the-art sustainable urbanization projects, case studies and cultural events from a number of countries.

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A series of dialogues and round-table meetings was held throughout the week for dignitaries and key partners. The plenary session was opened with a keynote speech by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and ended with the tabling and presentation of a report on key areas. Open dialogue sessions and over 160 networking events touched on a variety of pertinent issues, such as city energy sources, sustainable transport, adequate housing and achieving the MDGs. Experts acknowledged that cities drive national economies, generate development, create markets and offer more facilities. As a result, the health of urban dwellers is better, educational attainment is higher and per capita income is greater than those living in rural settings. However, recent data show that this progress is undercut by pollution, habitat insecurity, disease, extreme poverty and social inequalities.

In the State of the World's Cities Report 2006/7, UN-HABITAT presented for the first time disaggregated data comparing slums to rural areas and higher-income city neighbourhoods. The report reveals that the slum poor die young, access to education remains a myth for the majority of slum dwellers, and in several low-income countries four out of ten slum children are malnourished. In response to its findings, government ministers, academics and city planning experts during the round-table meetings focused on "how to manage cities better" for the benefit of the urban populations and the environment.

Another topic that received considerable attention at the forum was the propagation of "megacities". UN-HABITAT reported that there were 19 cities with a population of over 10 million in 2000 and it is expected to increase to 23 cities by 2015. The disadvantages of urbanization are most pronounced within megacities in the developing world--Lagos, Dhaka, Buenos Aires, Calcutta and Jakarta have all made the list. This environmental strain has been well-documented. The problem of pollution also gained the attention of scientists at the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which has undertaken a field study called "Megacity Impact of Regional and Global Environments" (MIRAGE) that will investigate the impact of megacity air pollution on human health and the climate.

Urban outdoor air pollution kills 3 million people each year, while 1 million children die from indoor pollution, with the burning of biomass fuel--firewood, charcoal, crop residues and animal dung--as the primary cause. …