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The worldwide value of planning – thoughts from the World Urban Forum

17 April 2014

Michael Harris

Last week Medellín in Colombia hosted the seventh UN-Habitat World Urban Forum (WUF) on the theme of ‘Urban Equity in Development – Cities for Life’. Gayle Wootton, Research Officer on the RTPI’s Centenary Year Planning Horizons programme, and I attended on behalf of the Institute. As befits the location and theme, the Forum focused on the challenges facing cities in the developing world, but it also held important lessons for developed world nations as well – including recognising the value of planning and its role in creating cities that work for all their residents.

...cities are where we most need to confront the issues that are critical to human wellbeing – from inequality and unemployment, housing and health, to social cohesion and safety, mobility and sustainability.

WUF is held every two years to consider urban development issues. The Medellín Forum was reportedly the best attended by some distance – nearly 25,000 people registered from 164 countries. A proportion of these
may have only visited the exhibition area, including a good number of Medellín residents and students. The RTPI had a presence in the exhibition with our international partners in the Global Planners Network. This year’s Forum was especially important in the run-up to Habitat III, the UN conference on housing and sustainable urban development to be held in 2016, which will shape post-2015 sustainable development goals and possibly a ‘New Urban Agenda’ for the 21st century.

As many speakers at the conference argued, cities are where we most need to confront the issues that are critical to human wellbeing – from inequality and unemployment, housing and health, to social cohesion and safety, mobility and sustainability. By 2030 six out of 10 people will live in cities, and more than 90 per cent of the growth in the urban population will happen in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean (UN-Habitat’s remit includes ‘villages, towns, and cities of all sizes’, but for understandable reasons in terms of presenters at WUF it was the large and rapidly-growing cities that tended to be the focus of most attention).

Medellín certainly felt like the right city to host this year’s Forum. The former ‘murder capital of the world’ in the days of the drug cartels of the 1980s and 1990s, Colombia’s second industrial city has experienced an ‘urban transformation’ (a phrase used by many speakers at the Forum) in which planning has played a major role, to the extent that last year Medellín was named the ‘most innovative city in the world’ and is regarded by some as a model for ‘urban resilience’. The Metro de Medellín, a new Bus Rapid Transport service and the MetroCable (a cable car serving residents of the poorest districts) have become the pride of the city and were showcased strongly at the Forum. Plaza Mayor, a complex for conferences and exhibitions where the Forum was held, has clearly been designed to showcase Colombia to the world.

Some commentators have expressed scepticism about the ‘Medellín miracle’ however. There was a heavy police presence on the streets (presumably to protect Forum participants and present the city as safe and hospitable), and yet a very different Medellín could be found only a couple of metro stops away from the Plaza Mayor, as we later discovered. Other aspects of Colombia’s turnaround were also not acknowledged at the Forum (at least, not officially).

Here are my three main reflections on what was talked about at the Forum.

First, in the context of rapidly growing cities, planning matters. It is regarded as central to just, sustainable and successful cities – as noted amongst others by Nobel Laureate in Economics Joseph Stiglitz in a keynote presentation – in a way that is far less typical and explicit in the developed world. The majority of participants and presenters were from Latin America, and Latin American cities are engaging with critical issues in urban development, in part because of the scale of the issues they face. Further, there was very little sense that attendees are looking to the developed world for answers. Indeed, in recognition of the issues faced in the developing world and perhaps with respect to the great work that some Latin American cities have been doing, some presenters from the US and Europe (for example, Dr Joan Clos, Executive Director of UN-Habitat) argued the need to ‘rip up the rule book’ of urban planning and design and forge a new agenda for city planning more suited to where most of the world actually lives. In some countries of course, there is a lack of basic planning infrastructure and major governance issues (stability, corruption etc) limit the extent to which planning can play a greater role in supporting equitable development. In such cases, the absence of planning and urban development policy more broadly was sorely noted.

Second, ‘planning’ is not just planning, and is not limited to planners. This was a broader notion of planning, starting with city visioning, and it holds lessons for many developed nations (including perhaps the over-specialisation of some planners in the developed world). It wasn’t always clear, and didn’t always matter, whether presenters were planners by education or job title in a formal sense or not, but they were certainly ‘doing planning’ in a wider and more strategic meaning and this was benefiting their cities and communities. ‘Planning’ was presented as a connected and connecting endeavour. This was integrated urban policy and practice, led by ‘urbanistas’ working across many sectors, from housing and transport, to the environment and social policy. Examples we saw included Roslynn Greef, head of development planning in Johannesburg, South Africa, who presented the new spatial plan for the city based on the concept of ‘corridors of freedom’, and José Morales of the Metropolitan Council of Quito, Ecuador, who described the city’s Urban Green Grid to connect communities via green spaces for environmental and health benefits but also improved mobility and accessibility for residents by linking to Metro expansion plans.

The conditions experienced in many developing world cities might make this greater prominence and breadth of planning a necessity, but developed nations have their own social and environmental problems that planning in this broader sense also needs to respond to. I presented at the conference on the significant health inequalities in the UK at a session organised by the Canadian Institute of Planners, and the role that planning can play in creating healthy communities, as well as our Planning Horizons work more broadly at a GPN session which included the American Planning Association.

Third, many of the projects we heard about have happened remarkably quickly – Medellín’s Metrocable for example took just two years. Many of the local and national government policymakers stressed the need to move rapidly, often within their own short political cycles (typically four years). At the same time, and even though the effects can be seen quite soon, it is recognised that urban transformation is a matter for generations, and that cities can rise and fall based on the quality, determination and imagination of their political leadership.

I left the World Urban Forum with some doubts and criticisms however. It’s not clear to those relatively unfamiliar with UN-Habitat and the development goals process how significant the discussions at the conference are, which is to say, whether they will substantively inform development goals and policymaking at national or international levels.

Futher, with some exceptions, the bigger the session the more abstract and rhetorical and presentations seemed to be, neglecting much of the detail (and evidence) that’s crucial to doing anything useful as a result. The greater detail and value was to be found in presentations from public sector representatives regarding specific projects (from local government, planning departments, mayors' offices etc); these case studies of urban policy and practice from the Forum will be very useful to city-level policymakers and practitioners. Meanwhile, the presentations from various corporates tended to be marketing-led rather than meaningful, and reflected a rich world context that sat uneasily with some of the more fundamental problems faced by cities in the developing world.

It was also disappointing that the most senior policymakers seemed to be largely kept away from many of the voices they needed to hear, typified by the strongly critical (in the good sense) roundtable session of civil society organisations being held at the same time as the national government ministers’ closed session. Having attended many previous WUFs, the view from civil society organisations seemed to be very much ‘here we go again’.

In general there was lots at the Forum on the need to engage with communities, going well beyond traditional limited forms of participation or consultation. Rather, many participants called for genuine co-production and co-responsibility between government and communities in urban development – a ‘contract’ between public administrations and citizens - and that the ‘right to the city’ won’t be realised unless the ways in which policies are generated are open and democratic ("nothing about us without us", as the saying went).

Given this, I was surprised to discover that a ‘Medellín Declaration’ had been issued after the Forum – I'm not sure how many participants had a hand in developing it, since there were few plenary sessions that I was aware of that could have provided participants the chance to help shape it. Nonetheless, I’d agree that, as stated in the Declaration, “The framework of the Post 2015 Development Agenda is an opportunity to reaffirm the universal relevance of well planned and managed cities as real drivers for change.”

Worldwide Value of Planning - coverOverall, participating in the Forum was very useful for the RTPI’sinternational role and presence, especially in learning from the developing world. The Forum also emphasised for us that, however it may sometimes be characterised here at home, globally there is a strong recognition of the worldwide value of planning in its broadest, most visionary sense, and its role in creating liveable, healthy, sustainable cities.

About Michael Harris

Dr Michael Harris is Deputy Head of Policy and Research at the Royal Town Planning Institute, where he leads on the RTPI’s research activities. Previously he was a senior associate at the new economics foundation (nef) think tank, and Director of Public and Social Innovation at Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts). He has also worked in local government and academia. Michael has an on-going interest in localism, health and wellbeing, and community engagement.