UN Habitat world urban forumOver 25,000 delegates have gathered in Medellin, Colombia for the seventh UN Habitats' World Urban Forum Urban Equity in Development - Cities for Life”, where the dominant theme is equality and inclusion.

Speaking at its opening of the public area, Dr Joan Clos, the UN Under-Secretary-General and UN-Habitat Executive Director, told the crowd: “There can be no sustainable development if urbanization is not sustainable."

Referring to the continuing rise in urban population worldwide, he continued: “At the current rates of urban growth, in the next 30 years we could double the urbanization of the past 10,000 years…” he said. “[For this reason] we want a realistic world urban forum, one that addresses reality, in a real city that has real challenges and is facing them.”

The city's Minister for Housing, City and Territory, Felipe Henao Cardona, described how the city of Medellin has already done much to improve the lives of its inhabitants, and called it “an example of a city in transformation and regeneration” and a a potential role model to other cities in the region and the world.

The forum has several themes, including affordable housing, the wealth gap, the need to finance infrastructure and gender inequality all enveloped within the theme of equality or equity (the terms are seen as interchangeable).

On Saturday several delicates took part in the Moravia Gender Exploratory Walk, whose purpose was to promote awareness of the threats faced by many women and girls in vulnerable urban communities, such as domestic violence and sexual assault and the consequent need for the provision of safe public space where women and girls enjoy the same access to urban services.

Last month UN Habitat launched a campaign for equitable urban mobility, urging city authorities to change their mindsets so that they could design modes of transport that are friendly towards women, children and marginalised and vulnerable groups. "Safety and security in public transport and when commuting on foot are issues that disproportionately affect women", asserts the campaign, which also includes a new mobile phone app that enables users to access and upload safety-related information about an area.

Equality is the consistent theme running through the forum this year. The main concept paper prepared for the forum notes that inequality has been growing for decades but has intensified recently. Relatively highly unequal cities have difficulties in optimising the urban advantage.

In cities, the urban poor have less chance of finding a job and their life expectancy is lower. Children are less likely to go to school and their health will be poorer. Facilities predominantly used by the poor tend to be overcrowded and badly managed. The poor in general are also excluded in cultural, social and political terms.

The concept paper makes reference to the Occupy movement, to political unrest around the world in recent years, linking it to inequality. The IMF‘s chief economist, Nobel laureate J. Stiglitz even goes so far as to ascribe the 2008 financial crisis to rising income inequalities in countries around the world.

There is a growing consensus in the international community that equity needs to be clearly integrated into the development agenda.

Countries where there is less of the wealth gap between the richest and the poorest sectors of society experience less crime and more social harmony. Conversely, high levels of inequality do not just hamper economic growth all aspects of human development.

The difference between earning one dollar a day and $10 a day is far greater than the difference between earning $20,000 per year and $200,000 per year in terms of the difference it makes on the quality-of-life.

For this reason, the Asian Development Bank takes the view that if the wealth gap in emerging cities in Asia had not widened over the past 20 years, the area's rapid economic growth would have removed a further 240 million people from extreme poverty.

 urban equityCities for Life

The Forum is hoping to mobilise action around this theme under the banner 'Cities for Life'. This builds upon the work that has been going on in Medellin for the last 15 years. It represents a new social compact to enhance citizenship, a "local and universal concept that puts people at the centre of development, based on the principles of: equity, justice, sustainability, solidarity and respect for humanity".

From a spatial point of view, Cities for Life build, enrich and make life enjoyable for everyone in a city. Planning “Cities for Life” involves rethinking the city from the perspective of the specific needs of people, their life cycles and rhythms, the concept of "good living", identity and diversity.

It starts not from a position of what the authorities think the city ought to be like but from what its inhabitants need it to be like, with all their needs treated equally. It is inclusive and requires a new civic and political culture, the democratisation of science and knowledge.

Video lectures

For those unable to make the conference itself, UN Habitat is making available a series of 15 minute video lectures that comprise the valuable knowledge and experience of noted scholars and experts. Called the Global Urban Lecture series, they are available here and include:

  • ‘Making room for a planet of cities’ by Shlomo (Solly) Angel of the Stern School of Business, New York University;
  • ‘Slums: past, present and future’ by Eugenie Birch of the University of Pennsylvania;
  • Citizen roles in resilient cities’ by Ron Dembo of Zerofootprint;
  • ‘Incremental Housing – The new site & services’ by Reinhard Goethert of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology;
  • ‘Participation in practice’ by Nabeel Hamdi of Oxford Brookes University;
  • ‘Value Capture as a land based tool to finance development’ by Martim Smolka of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.