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Cities for Life: World Urban Forum 2014

Explosive globalisation risks leaving behind not only the world’s poor but also its designers, says Alex Warnock-Smith

With over two thirds of the world’s population urbanised, and history’s greatest disparity between the wealthy and the poor, the theme of UN Habitat’s World Urban Forum 7 (WUF7) was ‘Urban Equity in Development − Cities for Life’. Set against the UN’s post 2015 development agenda, the overwhelming claim made by UN Habitat and the international politicians headlining WUF is that cities are the key vehicle for the future of the planet, the transformation of international relations and the destiny of subsequent generations. Compelling and relevant stuff, but where do architects sit within this high-level international politics and why was no one talking about design?

The conference was full of impassioned claims about the urban challenges we face. We need equity in our cities, social integration and sustainable forms of growth. We need to reverse the trends of the last century and close the gap between the rich and the poor. We need to fight corruption, build transparent institutions and construct global civil society. The facts and figures are startling. The lingua franca of the conference − macro-scale economic analysis neatly presented in charts and graphs − portrayed a glum vision of the world’s cities, the grim reality of the social and economic disparity and exploitation we have produced.

Setting the conference in Medellín, one of South America’s most notorious and innovative cities, was a good move. Between the exhausting programme of plenary sessions, networking events, city-changer discussions, dialogues, addresses, exhibitions, forums and film, there were bus trips to the favelas, city walks and cable-car tours, transporting the 28,000 registered participants to some of Medellín’s darkest moments and symbols of hope, to bear witness to the poverty and inequality that is so present in global cities, and the experiments of city authorities to bring about change. Transforming itself from the world’s most dangerous city, with the highest homicide rate on the planet, into a confident and thriving centre in Latin America’s third largest economy, Medellín is testament to what cities can achieve through visionary leadership, tough politics, and experimental urban design.

The last of these three elements could have featured more heavily in the conference. Housing and informality were top of the agenda, being discussed by policy makers and politicians, economists and academics, activists and campaign groups, and WUF provided an ideal opportunity for city makers to share strategies and approaches. There was much talk of slum-upgrading programmes, housing policy and mobility infrastructure, including some seminal debates about the impact of market-driven economics on social housing and the responsibility of the public sector to secure tenure rights.

Leading the discussion in this area was the Brazilian delegation, whose seminal Minha Casa Minha Vida housing programme was analysed in depth. A popular vote-winner, responsible for the construction of approximately three million new homes for the poor and for a significant proportion of Brazil’s GDP, the intricate relations between federal and state subsidies with market-driven economics provided food for thought for those embarking on similar programmes in the global south. Less prevalent was a discussion of the shortcomings of Brazil’s programmes, a critical appraisal of the impact of repeated mass-housing types on the city at large, of appropriate forms of housing typology, block, street, neighbourhood and space, of a consideration of housing as a tool of urbanism, rather than just a product of social strategy or economic policy.

Slums are a prevailing reality dominating the conscience of cities and city makers across the globe − a human disaster at an unprecedented scale. Perhaps what is needed is a conceptual re-thinking of the situation to accompany the statistical analysis and high-level strategic debate. Rather than treating formal and informal cities as separate and parallel entities, seeing slums as an unhappy by-product of the Modern City and a problem to be solved, perhaps we need to address the interconnections between the two systems, treating them as inextricable parts of the same urban whole. Forgive me if this comes across as a conceptual digression, but this was the conversation I felt many people at the conference needed to have. Adding this kind of thinking may have benefited the discussions by bringing a projective dimension to them, critically analysing the accepted norms of city-making and searching for new tools of urbanism and spatial strategy appropriate to move the city on.

“Rather than treating formal and informal cities as separate and parallel entities, seeing slums as an unhappy by-product of the Modern City and a problem to be solved, perhaps we need to address the interconnections between the two systems, treating them as inextricable parts of the same urban whole.”

Both macro and micro scales were present at WUF, but somewhere between the international landscape of meta-data, and the local voices of community activism and bottom-up growth, something got lost − a role for architecture and urbanism to address a missing scale of engagement and interpretation. Perhaps this is the greatest power of design thinking and spatial practice − the ability to synthesise data with perception, to bring together the world of analysis with the experience of dwelling through transformations in space. The UN is not a spatial organisation, and WUFs primary concern was not to talk about design. If the voice of architects and designers was not strong enough within the cacophony, perhaps it is our own fault.

In his closing speech, the Mayor of Medellín set the UN a challenge: they should establish a special partnership between Medellín and cities across the globe to share best practices in achieving equity. This is perhaps his contribution to the post 2015 development agenda − a system of international comparative analysis and inter-urban knowledge exchange, calling on the UN to monitor the transparency and effectiveness of city jurisdictions, and demanding the private sector engage. ‘The most complex and difficult thing we face is corruption’, said the Governor of Antioquia, and the key to any effective form of change is good politics. If architects and urbanists are to play any role in this urban future then we need to raise our game.

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