Report on the World Urban Forum III, World Urban Forum, Vancouver, Canada World Urban Forum (June 19-23, 2006)

by Simon Fung

The World Urban Forum III (WUF III) began with an impressive opening ceremony with speeches from world leaders and musical performances.  The focus of the Forum was on addressing MDG #7, Target 11: to achieve significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.  Over the course of the week, a variety of strategies related to eliminating slums—providing housing, sufficient space, secure tenure, safe water, and waste management—were discussed.

I attended the networking sessions on subjects ranging from youth in cities, to human settlements and aging.  The most interesting sessions were those in which speakers combined discussion on the process of improving slums with actual examples of how the theoretical process might be implemented.  During one session, for example, Habitat for Humanity illustrated the interconnectedness of housing and poverty by discussing the organization’s service expansion to housing micro-financing.

As I was interested in better understanding the relationship between the person and the space around him, I was pleased to find several real life examples relating to this.  In the session on “urban conflict resolution through planning and design,” speakers described how the right mix and spacing of low- and high-income housing can alleviate slum conditions, and how the urban planning of “mediating spaces” between a Kenyan neighborhood and a wildlife park was used to turn the green space into a thriving community park.

It was also encouraging to hear many speakers discuss development as an integral process that addressed not only physical and immediate needs.  Dr. Branislava Saveljic-Balac, who studies slum conditions in Yugoslavia, defined slums as poor neighborhoods which are physically, socially, and emotionally unhealthy.  Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia talked about how the measure of success of cities is happiness, which is served by meeting the human needs of work, community, beauty, contact with nature, and equality.  Indeed, slum alleviation cannot be sustainable—a term used frequently throughout the Forum—without attention to these needs.

What I found most surprising (and frustrating) about WUF III was how often the procedures of slum upgrading and city management were described without any sign of actual implementation practise or experience.  People around me were falling asleep when experts and officials declared the need for effective fund management, community-government partnership, support from local government, renewed commitment, etc.  Frustration with this language was heightened by the extravagance of the entire Forum.  Many youth I talked to had this same impression of disappointment and failed opportunity.

During the closing ceremonies Pierre Sané, Assistant Director-General of UNESCO remarked that the strength of the Forum was in its capacity to stimulate networking and the sharing of experiences.  In the absence of followed-up on commitments from governments, concrete declarations, or observable impact of WUF III on slum conditions, I would tend to agree.

Simon Fung is an extern with the World Youth Alliance North America.  He writes from our New York office, monitoring key international discussions on Habitat and HIV/AIDS.