World Urban Forum (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 7-13 February 2018)

Here follows a piece I wrote for IRGLUS news, reflecting on my attendance of the World Urban Forum:

The 9th World Urban Forum, the international community’s premier urban conference, took place in Kuala Lumpur from 7-13 February 2018. The first such forum since the adoption of the New Urban Agenda (‘NUA’) at the similarly prestigious Habitat III conference held in Quito in 2016, the Forum was logically dedicated to the NUA’s implementation.

Eclectic, hectic and humid Kuala Lumpur, at once emblematic of urbanisation’s triumphs and its challenges, was an apt background for the event, while its many attractions and truly exquisite street food provided ample distractions from the programme.

The event itself was predictably overwhelming. With a record-breaking 25 000 delegates, both the programme and the venue were packed. For seven days in a row, a plethora of plenary sessions, high-level roundtables, academic sessions, networking events, training events and side events took place, constantly and simultaneously, across four floors of the massive Kuala Lumpur convention centre, with as much high-level talk happening in the hurried walks between venues as during the sessions themselves.

 As the official summary bulletin of the event attests, every conceivable topic related to the NUA and the Sustainable Development Goals (‘SDGs’) was covered, with national, regional and local governments, international organisations, social movements, NGOs, think-tanks, research organisations, as well as individual academics, urban practitioners and government officials of every ilk, all contributing.

As often happens at such massive events, many of the high-level sessions offered little opportunity for actual reflection, with rows of extremely important people near-mechanically moving across well-lit stages and intimidatingly large backdrop video screens, each to recite a 4-minute-or-less national/regional/local/multinational/institutional commitment to the NUA and the SDGs.

This tone of abstract commitment predictably filtered through to the text of the Kuala Lumpur Declaration, adopted at some point towards the end of proceedings and seemingly made up entirely of action verbs (“strengthening”, “encouraging”, “building”, “adapting”, “deploying”, “recognizing” and so forth) strung together with adjectives (such as “integrated”, “inclusive”, “coordinated”, “collaborative”, “creative”, and “innovative”), with “challenges” feeling like its lone meaningful noun.

The meatier discussion took place in the smaller, less star-studded sessions and events, of which, fortunately, there were many. These offered plenty food for thought and many actual examples, considerations or suggestions of attempts to make sense of the challenges and opportunities of cities, in relation to the various worthy targets that they must aim to achieve. 

It is also in these sessions (and, it felt, only there) that the law featured, as backbone to systems of urban governance, as mediator of urban conflict, as grantor of urban rights and as building block of sustainable and resilient cities.

I noticed that the legally inclined participants, including a number of IRGLUS members, tended to congregate in the same sessions, almost forming a (albeit multi-streamed and quite diverse) conference within a conference.

I decided early on to navigate the overbearing conference programme by following members of UN Habitat’s excellent urban law and legislation unit and their affiliates through the range of sessions and events in which they participated. Inevitably, these sessions yielded worthy and thought-provoking discussion over the need for, and the quality and characteristics of, good urban laws, processes and systems. 

Overall, I was often struck by how absent the provisions of the NUA (itself the product of an event of similar scale and nature, and accordingly rightly open to the criticism of proclaiming everything and nothing at the same time) was from the discussion over its implementation, with most delegates seemingly regarding it as a long-winded elaboration of SDG 11, and instead focusing their efforts and deliberations over its implementation on the much more concrete, and therefore perhaps inevitably superior, SDGs.

Regardless of which is the chicken and which the egg, achievement of the NUA and (almost all of) the SDGs is clearly intertwined, so this is not itself problematic. But maybe it does point to the need for better delineated and workable plans and targets, instead of further ambitious commitments, in striving towards resilient, inclusive and sustainable cities for all.

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