Perspectives on Day 2 of the World Urban Forum (WUF9)

This week, 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 impressions from day 2:

The second day of the World Urban Forum offered many opportunities to hear from people who have been hard at work since Habitat III to implement the New Urban Agenda. Many of these presentations were coordinated by AFINUA, the Action Framework for Implementation of the New Urban Agenda. This multilateral cooperation initiative is based on the principal that implementation of the NUA depends on engaged champions at every level of society, and in each nation.

One story worth highlighting showed that building a solid foundation to support the NUA takes time, skill, and dedication. A dialogue on this experience was offered by members of the South African delegation who had spent the year since Quito developing a collaborative implementation framework to advance UN Sustainable Development Goal 11: “Make Cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” They had worked to bridge government and civil society actors—and cross silos within government—to create commitment to an integrated implementation framework which identified and justified roles and responsibilities for all the actors who would need to collaborate in achieving SDG 11.

The South African Local Government Association (comparable to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities) had also developed an accountability and reporting framework to track progress in meeting NUA goals and share the results, within and beyond South Africa. This dialogue drew an enthusiastic response from participants well beyond Africa. It suggested that preparation for advancing the New Urban Agenda requires widespread urban engagement and that the time spent building such a foundation is necessary for achieving success. It also showed that transparency and openness are needed to better carry out the goal of inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities.

Another highlight of WUF9’s second day was the World Assembly on Local and Regional Governments. Mayors and Councilors from five continents gave five-minute talks about their experience with governance dynamics in pursuing the New Urban Agenda. Their vignettes emphasized two themes to which most local elected officials from around the world appeared capable of relating. The first was that people keep real expectations of their local government; they have not given up hope in a Mayor or City Council’s potential to improve human well-being. As the Mayor of Surabaya put it, “city governments are working to answer the daily prayers of the people.

City governments are working to answer the daily prayers of the people.

Another repeated theme was the high level of trust in municipal government (compared to other levels of government) and accountability needed to keep that trust. The Mayor of Sala in Sweden put it, “local elected officials have a higher democratic responsibility because they are closest to the people they represent.” She added that  SDG11 could be achieved only with the support of most citizens, and to gain and retain that civic support, local elected officials would need to spend their political capital on making the New Urban Agenda a policy priority.

Local elected officials have a higher democratic responsibility because they are closest to the people they represent.

When the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre was ringed by military troops in dress uniform after lunchtime, it could mean only one thing: that Malaysia’s Head of State, Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Haji Mohammad Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak, would soon arrive to officially launch WUF9. A full house was anxiously awaiting the opening ceremony in the Kuala Convention Center’s Plenary Hall.

To warm up the crowd before the Prime Minister’s arrival, WUF9 organizers played a pre-recorded message from HRH Prince Charles who spoke about the essential role of city making in advancing sustainable development. Then, Mexico’s Secretary of Agrarian, Land and Urban Development, Rosario Robles, gave an address on her nation’s commitment to the New Urban Agenda. Finally, during the middle of an address by the European Union Commissioner for Regional Policy, Corina Cretu, the Master of Ceremonies announced that Malaysia’s Prime Minister had arrived. He was introduced to a spirited standing ovation that brought the house down.

Once decorum was restored, the new Executive Director of UN Habitat, Maimunah Mohd Sharif, gave her opening address to the assembly. She emphasized the human essence of urbanity by reminding the audience that “Cities attract people from all walks of life; they therefore need to embrace diversity, and make social inclusion a priority.” Prime Minister Razak then took the stage to another standing ovation. He began by saluting the diversity of the WUF9 delegates, noting that participants had come from 185 countries. He then went on to congratulate Ms. Sharif on her recent appointment as Executive Director of UN Habitat, noting her achievements as Mayor of Penang, and emphasizing that the helm of Habitat was in good hands.

“Cities attract people from all walks of life; they therefore need to embrace diversity, and make social inclusion a priority.”

The Prime Minister spoke enthusiastically about how cities were central to Malaysia’s development goal of becoming one of the world’s top 20 nations by 2050. He then discussed a range of social, spatial, and infrastructural initiatives that Malaysia’s national government had launched to support more sustainable urban development. One element of his remarks that stood out was a commitment to expand urban public transit infrastructure to make up for past over-emphasis of the automobile in urban transportation. He admitted that public transport…  was an area that was neglected in the past as too much emphasis was placed on the car industry. But our cities need to be liveable. And they need to be sustainable too.” He then sketched out his government’s commitment to deliver a comprehensive rail based rapid transportation for the Klang Valley, a roughly comparable space to the Fraser Valley, including Vancouver.

“[O]ur cities need to be liveable. And they need to be sustainable too.”

To hear a Head of State from a rapidly and successfully developing nation admit that embracing the automobile to the exclusion of public transport had been a mistake and commit to helping fix the problem that past governments had created was, in itself, an historic moment. I wonder how long it would be before a similar acknowledgement might be forthcoming in North America?

WUF9’s opening suggests that the level of urban awareness among national governments has progressed considerably, albeit unevenly, since WUF3 was held in Vancouver. Then, our Prime Minister at the time talked about an “enlightened urban agenda,” which was followed by Ottawa’s rapid disengagement from most urban initiatives across Canada. The urban transit lines under construction across Kuala Lumpur suggest that a different relationship between talk and activity has emerged in the latest city to host the WUF.


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