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Why wasn’t Auckland represented at the World Urban Forum?

Homelessness, high house prices and poor air quality. Many cities are struggling – but what to do about it? Mark Thomas reports from the World Urban Forum.

There’s nothing like a global conference to both gain insight into the really big trends that are happening around the world, and to similarly despair at how slow the progress seems.

The World Urban Forum (WUF9), which I attended recently in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is the world’s biggest (and longest) meeting on urban issues. This one, themed “Cities 2030: Cities for All”, lasted almost seven days, featured 165 countries and 23,000 participants. The biennial event began in 2002, and now helps to achieve the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs).

Almost daily we witness in the media the cacophony of challenges facing urban centres: homelessness, environmental problems and congestion affecting developed cities and, in addition to these, corruption, safety and economic livelihood affecting developing ones. So, 16 years on and, after now nine World Urban Forums, it seems not unreasonable to ask: what has been achieved and how do global conferences help?

Although cities occupy only 2% of the earth by size, they make up 60% of the world’s energy consumption, 70% of the global economy (GDP) and 70% of greenhouse gas emissions and global waste. And they are growing. Fast. In 1900, 14% of the world lived in cities. Today it is 55%, and by 2050 it will be 70%. UN Habitat, the agency which runs the WUF, expects more than 90% of this growth will occur in Africa, Asia and Latin America– most of which is still developing and where urban crises are most numerous.

So, there’s an obvious need to focus on how our cities are developing – and WUF has an obvious bias around developing country issues. Most of the 100 government ministers attending were from these parts of the globe. But plenty of developed countries were there too, discussing their own challenges and pitching solutions – particularly Germany, Japan, the UK and even the US.

New Zealand? Not so much. Except for a Local Government NZ rep, a couple of people from Auckland University (and me) New Zealand was all but invisible at the world’s largest meeting on cities.

We may not have that many cities and none that have a global size (Auckland isn’t even in the top 150 cities by population), but we are in a small global crowd with the ones we have. New Zealand is one of only five countries on earth with more than one city in the top 20 of the world’s most liveable cities. Our contemporaries, Australia, Canada, Germany and Switzerland, were all active WUF participants.

So how’s the progress been?

The most recent update on UN Sustainable Development Goal 11 (Sustainable Cities) said that in most of the cities on earth, polluted air is an unavoidable and major health hazard, and nine-out-of-ten people living in urban centres did not breathe clean air.

With housing, although the proportion of people living in urban slums had declined by 20% since 2000, the actual numbers living in slums had grown from 792 million in 2000 to 880 million in 2014.

A Brookings Institute study in 2017 looked at how much the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) had achieved. These ran for 15 years from 2000 until replaced by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals which have a 2030 achievement horizon. The study concluded the results were mixed.

There had been perhaps the most successful period in improved global health in history, however, the MDG’s promised to actually do better. In other areas the results were much more mixed, particularly global sanitation and environmental sustainability. The report concluded that key observations are missing, many are likely subject to measurement error, and many will likely be revised in coming years.

The 30-year Auckland plan, the update of which has just completed consultation, has suffered similar ‘big plan’ challenges. Adopted by Auckland Council in early 2012, the last official report of progress at the end of 2016 was a bit depressing.

More than 90 targets had been set across seven broad themes (e.g. a well-connected and accessible Auckland). Of those, 35 targets were improving or on track (mainly in the theme with almost half the targets: a fair, safe and healthy Auckland). However, 18 were worse and, astonishingly, 38 had no baseline data and so we had no idea.

I was back for a quick visit to Auckland recently and of course anyone looking around can see progress – but just not necessarily what the big plan said. The inaugural Auckland plan had 13 Strategic Directions. An unlucky number as it turned out, if you wanted to make quicker progress.

What was there to learn at WUF9?

Of the world’s largest economies China had the biggest presence, leading sessions on issues such as future urban mobility, the value of city to city partnerships, and the role of municipal finance (via their One Belt One Road funding initiative of course).

The German Smart City Charter was also considered. Published last year by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, it outlines a standard model for a smart, future-oriented city which is climate-neutral, resource-efficient, responsive and sensitive. 

The Netherlands and Morocco had interesting models of green growth, spatial design and cooperation across sectors, including with citizens, while Singapore highlighted its ethnic integration policy through housing, which prevents stratification by race.

Almost all cities have housing challenges, but few as vast as India who has 1.8 million homeless and is short nearly 19 million houses. Yet popular Prime Minster Modi, who seems certain to win re-election next year, has promised a house for every Indian by 2022 – perhaps Phil Twyford and Phil Goff should give him a call.

For those cities struggling with high house prices and traffic congestion came a different perspective from Bangladesh whose key urban focus was upgrading slums. Also Yemen, who talked about the difficulties implementing urban policies in a war-torn country where cities had been all flattened, or were simply not able to secure finance because it was too difficult to transfer money.

A key strategic focus for the conference was the National Urban Agenda, approved by the UN at the end of 2016. The NUA supports delivery of the SDG’s Cities goal by outlining global standards for how sustainable urban development should be achieved. But it does a lot more than that.

The NUA will literally help to solve world hunger. In fact it will not just “end poverty” it will also “eradicate extreme poverty”. It will deliver full employment and achieve gender equality in all fields and at all levels of leadership and fulfill universal access to safe and affordable drinking water and sanitation. It does not promise to house everyone which is problematic as it does promise to end homeless. It has 29 pages and more than 200 actions. It perfectly illustrates the UN tension: terrific on the ground action, but big challenges aggregating this into a credible way to frame and measure progress.

The OECD has tried to help this by launching at WUF9 the Global State of the National Urban Policy Report. It is a first attempt to assess national urban policy development in 150 countries. It showed only 50% of these countries had clear national urban policies, only 10% are at monitoring and evaluation and 55% do not have a specialised urban agency. Despite the Paris climate agreement being more than two years ago, only 70% of countries have climate change adaptation as part of their plans.

Where to from here?

WUF9 concluded with the launch of the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on Cities 2030 which hearteningly picked up on this feedback. The actionable recommendation is to encourage the formulation of implementation frameworks for the New Urban Agenda at all levels, including monitoring mechanisms.

It is far too full of UN bureacratise (e.g. “promoting and adopting frameworks such as inclusive platforms for stakeholder dialogue; undertaking innovative solutions to promote creativity, monitoring and data collection.”), but it does have only 10 recommendations and three pages in total.

The declaration wants to speed up implementation of the National Urban Agenda. That’s a good thing, but when it is reviewed by the UN in June this year they could help by following Auckland Council’s example with the Auckland Plan rewrite. Although it has received flack from some quarters, to its credit, council has streamlined the whole affair, reducing 13 chapters to six, and 91 targets to 33 measures.

If Auckland had been present at WUF, it could have shared that insight.

WUF9 was an astonishing experience at grass roots level. Plenty of mayors, policy makers, business representatives and activists will have left with great ideas to implement.

But the solution to our urban conundrums will not come from the UN bureaucracy itself. It will come from us being involved. WUF10 is in Adu Dhabi in 2020 – general election year in New Zealand. Progress on cities, particularly Auckland, will likely to be a key election issue.

I wonder who will be there?

Mark Thomas was a member of the Auckland Council for six years and a former mayoral candidate. He now leads a smart cities enterprise based in Singapore.


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