Columnist: World Cities Demand: 'Hear Us!'

January 16, 2012
by Neal Peirce

NEW YORK - The world's cities are impatiently demanding that they be heard earlier, and heeded seriously, in the decisions of nations - and at the United Nations.

A top case: preparations for "Rio plus 20," the U.N.'s global conference on sustainability scheduled for next June in Rio de Janeiro. It will mark the 20th anniversary of the historic 1992 Rio conference, attended by 17,000 delegates and observers, including 108 heads of state. They forged the world's first joint environmental accord, which included the start of global climate consultations.

Greater global sustainability starts with "bottom-up approaches," so Rio plus 20 should - in contrast to the 1992 conference - hear local governments out and report on their role, argues United Cities and Local Governments, the umbrella organization of world cities.

New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg presses the point even more forcefully. Speaking at an event at U.N. headquarters on Dec. 15, Bloomberg championed a major role for cities at Rio plus 20, specifically including mayors on national delegations.

Even as national and global efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions have faltered, Bloomberg said, cities across continents have moved aggressively to the "forefront of climate change action." And that matters hugely, he suggested, since burning of carbon fuels by cities not only accounts for an overwhelming 70 percent of global greenhouse emissions but "clogs our city streets, pollutes our air, harms the health and shortens the lives of the people we serve."

The mayor, who also chairs the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, noted New York's pacesetting "PlanNYC" - the "greenprint" for his city's future. But he pointed as well to significant carbon reduction efforts in such cities as Lagos, Buenos Aires, Jakarta, Johannesburg, Hong Kong, Berlin and Seoul.

Yet to achieve full sustainability, Bloomberg argued, cities need far more power, resources, expertise and encouragement from national governments.

Ford Foundation President Luis Ubinas, at the same U.N. forum, insisted there's an even broader agenda: "The growth of cities presents collective opportunity to reduce poverty, to achieve social justice." First, he said, through dense, efficient development - "because density boosts creativity, entrepreneurial energy and creates jobs." Second, through diversity that welcomes all peoples of different races or sexual orientation. And then, expanding the right to secure land tenure - all "city keys to a sustainable planet."

Focused heavily on the environment, Rio plus 20 will likely not embrace such a very broad agenda - even though the U.N.-Habitat organization is urging it to consider asking national governments to embrace urban strategies, to focus on rapid growth of slums (threatening to rise from today's 600 million to 1 billion souls) and to recommend that cities create metropolitanwide growth plans.

This decade could, though, produce another event consciously aimed at a planetwide conversation - a dialogue linking not just cities and their leaders but also citizens of the world's cities as direct participants.

The new event, in 2016, will be called "Habitat III" - officially a successor to earlier U.N.-sponsored conferences on human settlements held in Vancouver in 1976 and Istanbul in 1996. Habitat I led to the creation of the U.N. Habitat organization - the Nairobi-based United Nations Human Settlements Programme. Habitat II, following up on the Rio Earth Summit, focused on adequate shelter and sustainable cities.

And Habitat III? It was lucky to get U.N. General Assembly approval because times are tight, including for U.N. budgets. But sponsors can point to fast-changing conditions: the growth of information technology, financial crises for governments worldwide and fast-rising natural and man-made disasters.

And at a U.N. forum in October, I heard what at first seemed a wild melange of ideas about cities that could be communicated, exchanged, debated worldwide to prepare for, and follow up on, Habitat III. The technology - from moderated Internet discussions to Facebook/Twitter-like platforms - makes the idea of a first-ever global urban dialogue, with ideas traveling across continents in seconds, an actual possibility.

Then I heard proposed topics - an amazing mix. How Habitat III discussions could focus early on neighborhood, bottom-up processes. The role of women in challenged neighborhoods. Opportunities for youth. Startup business opportunities. Tracking clean water and healthy air strategies. Successfully integrating immigrants. Coalescing transnational metropolitan regions. Or a global place-making campaign for neighborhoods and accessible transit and citizens' right to the streets of their cities.

And wait - more: corporations such as IBM, Cisco, Siemens and others as capitalist power on one hand, invaluable city connectors on the other. Perhaps a global "Sustainability Jam." 

Easy to do? Surely not: There'll be immense language and cultural barriers plus demand for a masterful global set of translators and moderators. 

But if cities are mankind's new shared home, what better way might there be to plan for - and then follow up on - a Habitat III process that makes a leap appropriate for these times, embracing globally connected grassroots dialogues, solutions and celebration?

Neal Peirce's e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

© 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.