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City Lights Not So Bright

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Issue: 38 Section: Accounts Geography: West Vancouver

June 29, 2006

City Lights Not So Bright

Discussing the future of slums in the opulent setting of the World Urban Forum in Vancouver

by Jen Peirce, Ben Sichel

The next Forum should be the World Urban Poor Forum" suggested Jockin Arputham, president of the National Slum Dwellers Federation in India, to a room full of people in business attire. photo: Dey Alexander
Thousands of people from over one hundred countries lined up around several city blocks to attend the Third World Urban Forum, UN-Habitat's biennial conference on urban issues, held in Vancouver from June 19 to 23. With a view of the upscale Coal Harbour skyline to the West, and the struggling streets of the Downtown Eastside mere blocks in the other direction, the Forum attempted to address the daunting challenges of urbanization. Bringing together a cross-section of government officials, NGOs, business people, media, and the general public, the spectrum of positions presented was so diverse that the eventual declarations were more about the urgency of building livable cities than about what urban sustainability might actually look like.

Cities will soon be home to the majority of the world's people, and as some delegates bluntly stated, most will live in slums, where finding water and toilets is a greater concern than designing city bike paths. UN-Habitat estimates that the urban population in the global South will double to four billion in the next thirty years. Already, a third of people in cities live in slum conditions. Looking back on a decade of international urban policy, South African Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu described the situation as "an indifference which dehumanizes."

Organizers of the forum seemed to make a concerted effort to encourage wide participation. Registration was free and open to anyone with access to the internet, and even those who showed up unregistered were rarely turned away. Grassroots civil-society organizations seemed to be well-represented, including a fair number from the Global South. And, initiatives such as the World Youth Forum (held prior to the WUF in order to prepare young people to participate – and the Habitat Jam) an on-line discussion where thousands of slumdwellers from around the world exchanged ideas – succeeded in bringing some marginalized voices to the Forum.

Lack of accessibility was still a problem for many, however. Translation services were spotty, and often unavailable in smaller presentations, leaving those without a good command of English wanting. Indigenous peoples in particular spoke out against under representation and tokenism at the Forum, with a declaration calling for an end to corporate "development aggression" in cities and the degradation and theft of ancestral land.

Amid the sea of suits, jargon and business cards, the Forum did feature some sobering, down-to-earth talk of urban issues. Delegates from marginalized communities made a clear demand to be included and not to be "represented" by government or NGO officials. At a rally of housing activists outside the Convention Centre, speakers from Canada and India reminded the Forum that government cutbacks in social housing funding and initiatives to "clean up" slum areas have pushed many vulnerable people further into poverty.

Mariama Sow of Senegal, speaking on behalf of "civil society" at the Forum's closing ceremony, caused some discomfort in the room when she blamed "rich countries," with their unfair trade practices and closed borders, as the "true culprits" for the underdevelopment of the majority world. Sow noted that, despite many inspiring stories presented at the Forum, social problems in urban areas are for the most part getting worse, not better. Even the Forum's own final report chastised governments around the world for not acting on their promises of poverty reduction.

Occasionally in smaller sessions, donors and local project staff asked questions of one another, and people working on common issues in distant countries shared experiences. Some speakers challenged the Forum to redefine notions such as "unemployment" and "participatory development" to fit the realities of the urban poor, who survive within the informal economy with no access to basic services.

With references to the idealism and unattained ambitions of the first UN-Habitat gathering in Vancouver in 1976, delegates made vague calls for "new partnerships" between sectors, while community activists spoke vividly of the miserable conditions of urban poverty. Donor agency officials and grassroots activists agreed that more political pressure is needed to make urban issues a priority, yet few discussions directly addressed the power structures that impede real progress.

Overall, there seemed to be a lack of presence of the people most affected by rampant urbanization, from both the global North and South. "The next Forum should be the World Urban Poor Forum" suggested Jockin Arputham, president of the National Slum Dwellers Federation in India, to a room full of people in business attire. "I want you all to come, but as observers. Then you will be frustrated because you can't participate."

Indeed, the idea of the next biennial gathering being held in an urban slum, perhaps in Africa, was floated around many conversations at the Forum (the 2008 World Urban Forum is actually being planned for Nanjing, China). The opulence of the setting and receptions at the Vancouver forum contrasted uncomfortably with talk of improving the lives of slumdwellers around the world.

Anna Lucy Bengochea of Honduras called for wider inclusion and participation of marginalized peoples as the solution for urban ills.

"If they pay attention to us and include [women and indigenous peoples] as equals" she said, "we will achieve the Millennium Development Goals and more!"

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