Earlier this month, Planning Commissioner Anthony Perl is joining urban leaders from over 150 countries in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for World Urban Forum 9 (WUF9). The World Urban Forum is a non-legislative technical forum convened by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) held since 2002.
Here are some of Commissioners Perl’s closing impressions of the event and next steps for the VCPC.
As the World Urban Forum entered its home stretch, many participants’ attention turned to matters of governance. For cities to make real progress in advancing the New Urban Agenda, it was clear that new modes of civic engagement would be needed. Throughout the week in Kuala Lumpur, I had been vividly reminded that the world’s urban crises were not occurring because solutions were lacking, but instead resulted from some combination of inertia, intransigence, and impotence within established governing arrangements.
What would it take to realize the novel and exciting ideas about how to make cities safer, more resilient, more inclusive, and more sustainable that had been shared during the ninth World Urban Forum?
Redesigning Local Government
At a roundtable on innovative governance, provocative measures were put forward to redesign local government. Mr. Pascal Smet, the Belgian Minister of Mobility and Culture in Brussels regional government, suggested that after a couple of centuries of liberal democracy, citizens in his country now suffered from democracy fatigue. He thus proposed that it was time to refuel urban democracy, noting that during his career in government, trust had become more influential than the truth. He explained that public support for politicians and their programs was no longer based on any objective evaluation of plans and proposals, but rather depended on the personal attributes that voters recognized in their public officials.
In other words, if citizens felt that they could trust an official (or a candidate), it did not matter whether the projects being put forward by that government were based upon factual analysis. Alternative facts would be more influential than real evidence, if the public trusted the people promoting such fantasy. And while demagogues are as old as politics itself, Minister Smet suggested that they had recently been on a winning streak. He then proposed a radically retro solution to reboot urban democracy.
An ancient remedy to the risk that demagogues would destroy democracy was the practice of “sortition” – also known as demarchy, where citizens are randomly selected to fill a public office. The practice continues to this day in jury selection, but could be expanded to populate other municipal government positions. Minister Smet suggested introducing a mix of elected and selected councilors to boost public confidence that the policies and programs being advanced were more closely aligned with the public interest.
A more focused role for a randomly selected public interest representative in municipal government would be that of public auditor or ombudsman. This official would have complete access to public records and could question both elected representatives and bureaucrats about policies and programs. Such a democratic innovation could help rebuild trust in local government, perhaps more effectively than British Columbia’s Office of the Auditor General for Local Government, which has struggled to establish its legitimacy since being created in 2012. Changing local governing arrangements from within could thus enhance efforts at implementing the New Urban Agenda.
An “outside in” perspective on boosting local governance capacity was offered by Transparency International, which has identified cities as magnets that draw in corrupting forces from across the globe. According to Dieter Zinnbauer, who has served as chief editor of Transparency International’s Global Corruption Report, the New Urban Agenda’s aspiration of building “Cities for All” could not succeed if trans-national criminals and money launderers were included in that definition of “all”.
Unfortunately, Vancouver was highlighted as a city where “dirty” global funds are being attracted due to lax and ineffective regulations that allow it to be hidden in the local economy, particularly in urban real estate. While London and New York also made the list of cities attracting dirty money, Vancouver appears to experience an outsized influence from the magnitude of these illicit funds relative to the size of the legitimate local economy.
Transparency International called for measures that would reveal, and thus deter, the infusion of dirty money into cities. Among these prescriptions was full disclosure of the beneficial ownership structure of all urban land and buildings. Vancouver currently lacks this measure, demonstrated by Transparency International’s 2016 finding that titles to 46 of the 100 most expensive homes in Vancouver were held by shell companies, nominees such as students and housewives, and opaque trusts.
The housing market distortions of such capital flows have become apparent in our unprecedented unaffordability, but there is also evidence that these funds support other destructive activities such as the trade in fentanyl laced opioids. Fixing Vancouver’s housing crisis will thus require major re-engineering of financial and property ownership regulations. Such changes would also enhance the capacity for implementing a safe, inclusive, resilient and sustainable city.
The Kuala Lumpur Declaration
Concluding expressions of what needs to be done have been an important legacy of UN gatherings on cities since the first Habitat conference produced the Vancouver Declaration in 1976. At each session of this conference, UN Habitat staff had been listening and gathering participants’ input on the questions and issues being discussed. Daily email and twitter bulletins also invited participants’ input on how to advance the New Urban Agenda. After a week of deliberations, the ideas and aspirations were distilled into WUF9’s own manifesto – the Kuala Lumpur Declaration.
Among the Declaration’s “key enablers” of positive transformation needed to advance the New Urban Agenda, three attributes stood out at me as offering guidance for the Vancouver City Planning Commission’s work:
- Strengthening the role of subnational and local governments, urban governance systems that ensure continuous dialogue among different levels of government and participation of all actors, and increasing multilevel and cross-sectoral coordination, transparency and accountability.
- Encouraging sharing of creative solutions and innovative practices which enable a shift in mindset necessary to drive change.
- Building inclusive partnerships and strengthening age and gender responsive environments to ensure meaningful participation and engagement at all levels.
The VCPC will be holding a invitational workshop in mid-April to further consider the legacy from WUF9, and how it can inform our planned 2018 summit being planned for late November. If you have found these vignettes and observations from the World Urban Forum of interest, please contact us to explore how to ground the VCPC’s work in these and other global urban insights.