The Urban Team just returned from Brazil where we attended the UN-Habitat World Urban Forum V. This year's theme was The Right to the City: Bridging the Urban Divide. With over half of the world's population living in cities, this global conversation on urban development commanded attention.
The U.S. Delegation, led by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, included a wide breadth of senior Administration leadership. The White House Office of Urban Affairs' participation was particularly well received as a symbol of President Obama's commitment to addressing the challenges and opportunities of an urbanized reality.
The event, which attracted over 9,000 people and leaders from over 160 countries, allowed for a collective examination of the question, “How do we use this ‘urban-growth moment' to plan for future generations and improve the quality of urban living today?” Each participant's answer was informed by his or her particular world urban view. Several consistent themes emerged, including: the need for comprehensive planning and standards for sustainable development, mobility as a tool of social and economic opportunity, the need for governments to consciously develop policies that promote inclusion, collaboration across levels of government, private and non-profit sectors, and civic society; and the need for industry and land use to adapt to economic, environmental and demographic shifts.
Throughout the conference, participants explored ways to apply climate change innovations and energy efficiency tools to the increased demand for housing and demands on infrastructure resulting from urbanization. During a webcast at the U.S. exhibition booth, Director Adolfo Carrion explained, “We are working to ensure that investments in infrastructure and land use are responsible and supportive of our future generations.”
HUD Deputy Secretary Ron Sims highlighted the Sustainable Communities Partnership among HUD, DOT, and EPA as a cross-cutting national approach to investing in sustainability during a dialogue on the Energy and Climate Change Partnership for the Americas. Indeed, in a bilateral meeting, the Secretary of Urban Development for Mexico expressed interest in our Sustainable Communities Partnership principles because her office is implementing similar guidelines for "Integrated Sustainable Urban Development."
The Forum also addressed the ways in which former industrial cities are grappling with economic transition, land use, and the challenges of attracting new industries. Rio de Janeiro, itself a former textile and manufacturing town, is developing strategic plans for use of vacant factory space while struggling to resolve housing challenges, and preserve the culture of the city. Professor Marco Ponti, of the Politecnico in Milan, Italy, explained that many “rusty” European cities, as he referred to them, are experiencing a concentration of services and high housing prices in the urban core, which has displaced low-income residents to the outskirts of the city. He urged leaders in European cities to create more affordable housing, encourage greater density, and give careful consideration to the unintended consequences of transit plans that may further marginalize the working poor.
Urban Policy Director Derek Douglas shared the experience of American cities in economic transition. For example, Youngstown, Ohio recently developed a citywide land use plan in response to decades of industrial decline and an alarming vacant property rate. "[The White House Office of] Urban Affairs and the Domestic Policy Council are working very closely with agencies across the Federal Government to develop integrated interventions and policies that will support capacity building, long-term strategic planning, and provide technical assistance to cities suffering from economic distress," Douglas said.
The World Urban Forum provided six days of in-depth, quality exchanges on a myriad of issues that will serve to inform the work of the Obama Administration and the work of other leaders across the globe. It demonstrated that stakeholders worldwide are responding to the phenomenon of increased urbanization with open minds, a desire to share best practices, and a commitment to developing the best places possible in an increasingly urban world.
Alaina C. Beverly is Associate Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs