World Urban Forum infuriates and inspires 

Whistler planners, mayor, take part in forum that attracted 10,000

Trevor Boddy was pissed. Attending the United Nations World Urban Forum June 23, the urban designer and Vancouver Sun architecture critic fumed over lack of urban planner presenters at the week-long forum. Attending one of the few planner-led sessions amongst the 120 offered, Boddy complained the forum’s sessions, which attracted participants from around the world, were top heavy with ministers, politicians and policy analysts. But those who actually plan and design cities – architects, urban planners, and landscape architects – were relegated to the audience.

"We’ve spent $30 million of Canadian taxpayers’ money, brought 10,000 people together and talking about design and how to physically shape cities was a forbidden topic."

Boddy said the forum was based on a paternalistic 1960s international development model that doesn’t give credence to those who work at ground level planning and designing cities. He found it ironic that in Vancouver, a city known for its collaborative approach to planning public infrastructure like parks and bike paths, private sector urban planning practitioners were excluded.

Attending a networking event of three project managers re-building tsunami-stricken Jakarta, war-torn Somalia and economically-challenged Nakuru, Kenya, Boddy’s comments were echoed, but tempered, by the session’s leader, Belgian urban planner Andre Loeckx.

"One billion squatters having basic facilities, security of tenure and clean water to drink do not make a city," Loeckx said. "A city is not just the sum of individuals, you need the urban frame that creates a public realm that guarantees access to these basic services and qualities of the city.

"Urban planning and design has a long history of exclusion… but exclusive planning and design can be turned into powers of inclusion," Loeckx said.

Two tenets of urban design, such as the understanding and cooperation demonstrated by colleagues’ work in Somalia, could transcend politics and work toward "an instrument for agreement building… that would show how best to become an urban culture," he said.

Whistler housing planner Guy Patterson attended two forum sessions and wasn’t surprised by the politically-weighted lineup of speakers. "That’s the nature of the UN," he said.

Patterson was impressed with a forum highlight, a talk by Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Columbia. Penalosa received a standing ovation for his presentation on major infrastructure changes he’d implemented as mayor that included reducing rush-hour car usage by 40 per cent, building 50 schools and 300 kilometres of bike paths.

"(Penalosa said) that democracy should put the public good ahead of private interest and in his country, where the vast majority of the population don’t own a car, the idea of spending lots of money to build freeways is ridiculous," Patterson said.

Whistler planner Christina Salin, who attended World Urban Forum sessions that called for collaborative approaches to city planning, came to a similar conclusion.

"In one sense, from where I sit transparency makes our job a lot harder," she said. "Everything takes twice as long when you have to explain the same issues to people over and over, but that’s what democracy and public process is all about."

Although Bogota is a long way from Whistler, Patterson said Penalosa’s initiatives in reducing emissions and creating functional pedestrian- and bike-friendly paths are applicable to Whistler.

"They’re similar messages in a different context – a large city and developing country, two things we don’t share – but these are projects we could find in our strategies and 2020 documents," he said.

Whistler mayor Ken Melamed said he didn’t hear anything new at the two sessions he attended on participatory budgeting and world energy trends, but found the forum’s attendance numbers compelling.

"I was impressed by the engagement of the global community," he said. "We are a global community now and the understanding that what everybody is doing affects everybody else is stronger than ever before."

That impetus still needs to be propelled.

"There’s a building and growing commitment to change, but we’re not seeing the change on the ground. Most of what I heard is still very much business as usual and a lot of the initiatives and changes are fairly insignificant so far on the global scale," he said. "We need to do more."

Like Trevor Boddy, Whistler’s Salin thinks that could happen if urban planning practitioners were given the opportunity to be heard. In one session she observed how an architects’ association president was coolly received by a panel of academics and politicians.

"(They) really didn’t have a lot of patience for the professionals, so again I felt myself fading back, thinking ‘we’re the ones who are left with the job of doing the work.’" She said that more inclusivity would allow "the window to be open for change as far as what doesn’t work and what does."

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