Sparking a national conversation about cities

At Argentina's National Urban Forum in June, urbanists discussed common challenges facing Argentina's cities and some possible solutions. (City of Mendoza photo)

MENDOZA, Argentina — The city leaders had come from all across Argentina, from icy Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, to subtropical Puerto Iguazú, gateway to the famous waterfalls. And they had one purpose: to get talking about how to improve Argentina’s cities.

It was Argentina’s first ever Foro Urbano Nacional, or National Urban Forum. At dozens of tables packed into an event hall, groups of mayors, urbanists, economists, sociologists, academics, municipal finance experts, geographers, architects, lawyers and accountants sat in groups of ten or so.

Together, they hashed out their common challenges — problems faced by large and small cities alike in a country where more than 90 percent of people live in urban areas.

One table assigned to discuss legislation found common cause around the difficulty of putting valuable vacant land to good use. Another table focused on urban planning lamented the uncontrolled growth on the fringes of most Argentine cities. A group dedicated to finance complained of skimpy municipal budgets that are overburdened by personnel costs.

Beyond venting frustrations, the tables were tasked with proposing solutions as well. From land banks to vacant land taxes to a host of ideas for new national legislation, the day’s conversations produced pages of ideas. They also forged new connections, not only among the 75 cities represented, but also with national and regional leaders focused on urban issues as well as civil society and the private sector.

This forum, held on a Saturday this past June, wasn’t just a milestone moment for Argentine urbanists. It also was part of a growing movement for countries around the world to hold such events. The idea is to gather all of a country’s urban actors in one room and spark a bottom-up conversation about national policies that can support better cities.

In recent years, Israel hosted its first-ever national urban forum. So did a handful of African countries, such as Cameroon, Liberia, Nigeria and Uganda. Some countries have been doing this for a while. Ethiopia has already held seven urban forums, while both Colombia and Ghana have held five each.

Argentina’s National Urban Forum brought together groups of mayors, urbanists, economists, sociologists, academics and others. (City of Mendoza photo)

UN-Habitat, the United Nations’ lead agency on urban issues, has been pushing countries around the world to host these types of forums in order to create broad-based support for national policies to improve cities.

Some of the recent energy comes from last year’s Habitat III conference on cities, where 167 countries adopted a voluntary urbanization strategy called the New Urban Agenda. One of the most concrete actions countries can take toward implementing this strategy is to adopt a national urban policy. And one of the best ways for a country to get started on that is to host a national urban forum, where all of a country’s urban challenges and opportunities can be aired out in full.

[Explainer: What is a national urban policy?]

In Liberia, for example, a national urban forum held two years ago and attended by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf led directly to a process that is now writing a national urban policy for the country.

“It was the first time we had mayors, ministers, slum dwellers, youth sitting around one table discussing the future of cities in that country,” says Omar Siddique, who helped coordinate Liberia’s forum in a previous job with the Brussels-based global partnership Cities Alliance. “It really gave us the buy-in and impetus for the national urban policy.”

Making connections

The U. N. has been pushing this concept vigorously because of its success at the international level. UN-Habitat’s every-other-year global confab — the World Urban Forum —  has become a must-go event for nearly anyone with a passion for cities, and a key event to set global policy priorities in the urban sector.

“National urban forums replicate the virtues of the World Urban Forum at the national level,” says UN-Habitat’s Raf Tuts. The next World Urban Forum will take place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in February.

Among the virtues of national-level meetings are the unanticipated connections that can arise from having all the key players in the same room. For example, Tuts says, “It’s an interesting sounding board for donors to listen to priorities from civil society in the presence of government officials.”

In developing countries, this kind of outside support often proves vital. Vietnam started its urban forum nearly 20 years ago under a Swiss cooperative programme, which also led the country on the path to adopting a national urban policy. After two editions in 2000 and 2001, the process faltered, but with the help of global actors such as Cities Alliance, Vietnam rebooted its effort this decade.

UN-Habitat chief Joan Clos spoke at Argentina’s Natinoal Urban Forum. UN-Habitat has been pushing countries to host these forums in conjunction with a push for countries to adopt national urban policies. (City of Mendoza photo)

The results of a national urban forum, in turn, can lead to a proactive rethinking of a country’s own sense of identity. William Cobbett, the director of Cities Alliance, points to the case of Uganda, which has made national urban forums a matter of statute to ensure they happen on a regular basis.

“Here’s an overwhelmingly historically rural country recognizing that unavoidably, demographically, its future is going to be increasingly urban,” Cobbett says, noting that many countries, especially in Africa and Asia, share a similar demographic pattern. “Unless you start thinking about it and generate the kind of information you need to inform your decision-making, you’re going to be forever retroactively responding after the event.”

Turning dialogue into policy

In Argentina, it’s a particularly ripe time for a robust national conversation about cities. After all, the country’s current president, Mauricio Macri, is himself a former mayor of Buenos Aires who became known for bold urban leadership and innovative thinking. For example, he led the effort to turn Argentina’s most famous street — Avenida 9 de Julio — from an automobile racetrack with 20 lanes of traffic into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard with a state-of-the-art bus network.

[See: How Buenos Aires unclogged its most iconic street]

“[The previous government] didn’t think of these concepts the way we are debating them today,” says Alfredo Cornejo, governor of the province of Mendoza. “The difference is substantial. Now we have a national government that is supporting us and has the mindset to resolve these problems.”

While by some global measures, Argentina is a prosperous, well-developed country, urban planning has not been a strength. So-called villas miserias, or informal settlements, dot the fringes of big Argentine cities. One quarter of all Argentines don’t have ready access to potable water, and 45 percent don’t have sewer hookups in their homes. What’s more, Buenos Aires — the nation’s largest city by far — tends to hog economic resources, political attention and even national identity to the detriment of smaller secondary cities.

That disparity is motivating the current government’s push to adopt a national approach to cities. Small towns and medium-sized cities need decent infrastructure, too — not just the tony neighbourhoods in the capital.

“We shouldn’t just think about the big city,” says Fernando Alvarez de Celis, the country’s top official for territorial planning and public investment. “Every Argentine and all Argentine cities deserve a minimum quality of public services.”

Mendoza was chosen to host the forum because its experience as a medium-sized city is more representative of the country’s typical urban situation than Buenos Aires. (Itsmemarttin/Wikimedia Commons/cc)

So when the national Ministry of Housing and Habitat organized Argentina’s forum, the choice of Mendoza as host city was deliberate.  A city of 100,000 in the foothills of the Andes, Mendoza is more representative of the national urban experience than Buenos Aires. “It’s a typical intermediate city, still manageable from an urban point of view,” says geographer Nélida Beron, who teaches at a local university.

In the event hall, professional mediators guided the conversations going on at the different tables. What should national policies governing local land use look like? How might regional governments overseeing entire metropolitan areas operate? The questions were big, and not intended to lead immediately to easy answers.

But the conversations will fuel deliberations back in the capital, and ultimately inform national laws, regulations and guidelines that hopefully will support better planning and administration in cities across the country. The Macri administration hopes to formulate a series of national plans for housing, urban design, urban development and water. The plans are inspired in part by the New Urban Agenda’s recommendations for compact cities with mixed-use neighbourhoods clustered around schools and parks and easy access to public transportation.

Much of that work will fall to Alvarez de Celis, who considers the first National Urban Forum a success.

“The benefit was that we were creating an urban agenda from the bottom up, collaborating with local, provincial and national leaders,” he says. Alvarez de Celis anticipates the forum will be an annual occasion in Argentina, leading to a regular dialogue among all levels of government about how to build better cities.

Now, his office is moving forward on encouraging Argentine cities to prepare and adopt urban development plans that reflect the principles of the New Urban Agenda. He says half of all Argentine municipalities currently have urban development plans. The goal is to reach 100 percent by next year.

“These will be concrete policies,” he says, “to show that the urban agenda is not just a slogan.”


TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL NATIONAL URBAN FORUM

Choose the right host city: Think beyond the national capital or leading mega-city. Instead, host the forum in a small- or medium-sized city that is representative of the national urban situation. A host city that has done an exceptional job with urban planning and inclusive development is a plus.

Invite the right people: For a true dialogue, leaders from all levels of government must be represented. So must a wide range of disciplines and viewpoints. That includes opposition political voices, contrarian academics, and critical NGOs.

Ask the right questions: To avoid descending into a cacophony of complaints, the dialogue must be focused. Organizers should think carefully about what key questions to put up for debate, and to inform those questions with the best city-level data available. That’s not easy in many countries, where city-level statistics on housing, water and sanitation, for example, can be hard to find.

Follow up or fizzle: Make sure there is a long-term goal, like a new policy or national plan, that the forum contributes to. William Cobbett of Cities Alliance says it’s important not to think of a national urban forum as a one-time event, but rather a “platform where you can generate both shared evidence and a consensus about the issue.”

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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