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A case for the cynics or wide-eyed Pollyannas

Comparison holds no water, says former UN director



On day two of the third World Urban Forum, held in the cavernous Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre, the fire marshall said that’s it, no more people. More than 10,000 participants had registered from 100-plus countries for the UN-HABITAT event on urban sustainability, exceeding organizers’ expectations by 40 per cent. (By contrast, 4,000 delegates attended the second World Urban Forum in Barcelona two years ago.)

With 50 per cent of the world's population living in cities, one billion of them in slums and poverty, it seemed, at least from the inside, that everyone is desperate to build a better world and stop our collective freefall towards a dusty, unlivable planet. According to experts, we may have as few as five years to lay the groundwork to turn things around.

For participants, the huge turnout meant tiptoeing around people sitting on floors, or jamming hallways outside packed meeting rooms. For Darshan Johal, it meant far more.

Johal’s perspective on WUF III is qualified and uniquely Canadian. He studied community and regional planning at UBC under planning guru Peter Oberlander. As a university professor in Ghana in the 1960s, he started the "barefoot planners" – student planners who effect improvements such as clean water, latrines, roads, markets and schools.

But it’s Johal’s many former roles with the UN, one of them as Assistant-Secretary-General and Acting Executive Director of the UNCHS (Habitat), and his involvement in the 1976 HABITAT I Conference on Human Settlements in Vancouver that hold the most sway. For this latter event has generated much local commentary, along with confusion and nostalgia.

First, the Habitat Forum at Jericho in 1976 – a counterculture adjunct to HABITAT I held at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre – has been idealized beyond recognition. By contrast, cynics dismissed last week’s forum as a barrage of empty talk by policy wonks. Where were the real people and real change?

But the comparison holds no water, said Johal from his home in Victoria.

"Really, what you have are three distinct events.

"HABITAT I was a formal, official, disciplined intergovernmental conference. It’s like the UN general assembly moved from its New York headquarters to Vancouver. The delegates meet to discuss one agenda item – in ’76 it was human settlements.

"Jericho, on the other hand, was like a marketplace, or festival. It had a whole different atmosphere. Because the government conference was limited, they had to have another more open event where people could speak freely."

Jericho was a lot of fun and captured imaginations. People drank beer, ate food, rubbed shoulders with the likes of Pierre Trudeau and Margaret Mead, heard lectures, and got into a lot of hot conversations that felt like they were changing the world.

But they weren’t.

The real change happened at the "boring" official event downtown where UN delegates adopted the Vancouver Action Plan, including 64 seminal recommendations for national action that focused for the first time on human settlements issues.

As for the third event – last week’s World Urban Forum – it’s a whole different animal, first held in Nairobi in 2002, to do just what happened in Vancouver – gathering together all sorts of people, official and unofficial, powerful and powerless, to share ideas and spawn change. (WUFs are informal advisory happenings, but reports eventually go to the UN General Assembly.)

It was a good mix. I heard slum dwellers, ministers, architects, young people, old people, women activists, UN officials, filmmakers, soccer players, and even some policy wonks. But by far the most important participants were the many mayors and councillors who run our cities.

"That’s the biggest difference between now and 1976," said Johal. "Back then we under-estimated the emerging role of local authorities and civic partners. It was a different world in the mid-1970s – the Soviet bloc still existed and the main focus was on central government."

As so many emphasized at WUF III, the agents for real change are the ones closest to the action. So if you want to know where the hold-ups are, look no further than yourself.

"We all agree what the problems are, and the solutions are also known 30 years later, now let’s concentrate on action," said Johal. "There’s no magic solution. In a way, you learn by doing, just like the barefoot planners."

But with half the people in cities and the world clock ticking, is he hopeful we can turn things around?

In a word, yes, he says, for the key is education and awareness, and look at how many people attended the World Urban Forum.

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