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Inside the World Urban Forum

DAY THREE: Poorer nations suffer for our excesses.

By Charles Montgomery 21 Jun 2006 | TheTyee.ca

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Downtown Dhaka.

[Editor's note: Watch this space daily as noted author Charles Montgomery adds updates to the top of this article.]

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON, June 21

It is a very bad time to live in the rich lowlands between the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. This is where Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, has grown into a megacity of 12 million people. The city has suffered three hundred-year floods in the last 18 years. Each time, most of Dhaka disappeared under the chocolate waters of the Buriganga River. With the rising waters come the usual flotsam of disease, hunger and chaos.

"These floods are supposed to be hundred-year events. You tell me if these are the result of climate change," Mozaharul Arum told a packed room at the World Urban Forum on Tuesday. In fact nobody can pin distinct weather events on climate change. But what climate scientists are certain about is that it is too late to stop rapid change from happening, and that as the earth warms, extreme weather will become more common.

And it will be the world's poor, particularly the urban poor, who will suffer the most.

‘A profound unfairness’

The irony of this was not lost on the crowd of researchers and community activists who had gathered to discuss ways to help the developing world's cities plan for climate change.

"There is a profound unfairness, globally, in terms of who has generated this problem and who is most at risk," said David Satterthwaite, Senior Fellow with the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). "The poor residents of cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America are not the ones emitting greenhouse gasses. We didn't make this problem. The developed world did," he said, adding that people in the developed world -- that's you and I -- are responsible for hundreds of times more greenhouse gas emissions per capita than the urban poor in the developing world.

"So why should we in the developing world bother with climate change? Because what is done or not done in the next decade will affect hundreds of millions of lives."

The exploding cities of the global south will experience most of the world's population growth in coming decades. This presents not just huge risk for slum dwellers, but monstrous potential for greenhouse gas emissions. The key, Satterthwaite said, is getting climate change issues onto local government agendas. Cities with good transit, where people can live close to work, will pollute less. They will also happen to be more livable.

China gets off its bike

Victor Orindi, a researcher with the African Centre for Technical Studies in Nairobi, said cities could follow the example of the Kenyan town of Kisumu, which has built bike paths for its local fleet of thousands of pedicabs.

A young delegate from China got a big kick out of that one. "Thirty years ago in Beijing, almost everyone rode a bike. But then we adapted capitalism and got cars, so we could catch up on growth. Now you want us to go back to riding bikes?"

This is, of course, the conundrum that has stymied the Kyoto Accord. The U.S. and Australia refused to agree to emissions cuts in part because developing countries weren't required to make cuts in Kyoto's first phase. But China has a hell of a way to go before it manages to belch out as much CO2 as the U.S., which currently accounts for a quarter of the world's emissions.

Incidentally, if you look at per capita emissions, Canadians are among the world's top 10, at 16.5 metric tons per head. That puts us just ahead of the oil-rich Saudis.

A Canadian agenda

So while it is noble for folks in the developing world to do their bit, it is clear that everyday actions by average Canadians are much more likely to have an effect. The most urgent task, agreed delegates, is to scream for action from the countries that have prospered by pumping out CO2.

For Canadians, that means investment in green technology. It means pushing our government to legislate emissions reductions here in Canada, and demanding public investment in decent transit rather than highways. And it means considering the floodwaters of Dhaka every time we make personal decisions about where to travel, how to get around, what to buy and how to vote.

TUESDAY EVENING, June 20

Barely a day into the World Urban Forum, the naysayers have declared the event irrelevant. Many Tyee readers responded to my first WUF blog disparagingly. Too many politicians, too much hot air, you say. Well, you've got a friend in Vancouver Sun columnist Pete McMartin who, apparently grumpy from his morning commute in from White Rock, took a wander through Canada Place and concluded that the WUF was a "wonk-fest."

McMartin, a proponent of the rights of minivan drivers, declared the forum pointless, given that cities are inevitably shaped by market forces, not the efforts of idealistic planners and Jane Jacobs-istas. Further down I'll explain why this notion is utter hogwash. But I should first admit that I actually felt similarly about the WUF until I dug a little deeper.

A few weeks ago I quoted local architecture critic Trevor Boddy, who pined for fewer bureaucrats and more architects at the UN Habitat event. That, of course, was before organizers actually told us exactly who was coming. In the past couple of days I have discovered that the real action of the forum occurs far away from spotlights and sound-bite central. It happens in the networking and training sessions put on by more than 160 participating groups. Folks at these sessions are not talking about cutting-edge architecture. That's because they are too busy working on the rather more pressing issues of how to feed and house the billions -- yes, billions -- of people who will be moving to urban slums in the coming decades.

The Woodwards lesson

"It's so easy to dismiss the UN as a bunch of people who get together for conferences and waste taxpayers' money," Tilo Driessen, a planner with the Vancouver Park Board told me. "In fact, UN Habitat is providing training and tools to people who are making change happen in their communities. These training and networking sessions give people the sense that they do have rights and allies, and that they are part of a global movement for sustainable development."

Example: Today, hundreds of WUFers participated in workshops focusing on tools to get citizens and experts working together on urban design, civic budgeting and governance. What's so important about this work? Well, take a look at the Lower Mainland, where we have, at times, done these things quite well.

Take the Woodwards development, which will transform Vancouver's Downtown Eastside with a mix of social housing, upscale condos and public amenities. There were many plans for Woodwards over the years, and most would have been disastrous for the community who now call the area home. The current plan got support from developers, planners and residents specifically because residents were included in the decision making process, and so their wishes were part of the final plan.

A decade ago, thousands of citizens from all of Vancouver's neighbourhoods came together to figure out what we wanted this city to look like in the future. We called this effort CityPlan, and the vision that came out of it has guided the development of many neighbourhoods. Take Kensington-Cedar Cottage. Folks in that hood put together their vision plan in 1998. City hall now makes area decisions based on that plan. It's why residents around Knight and Kingsway are now getting a bit of density, with shops and services, around their key intersection.

'Eco-density'

Contrast this approach to Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan's latest out-of-the-blue proclamation. Sullivan announced, on the eve of the forum, that he would be working to implement what he called 'eco-density' in neighbourhoods across Vancouver. It was an undoubtedly useful idea, given the benefits of walkable neighbourhoods and the rising cost of gas.

Yes. Great idea. Problem was, the mayor apparently never bothered to discuss it with the rest of council, nor did he get communities on board before he set sail with his new eco-brand. So the past few days have seen an outcry from the crème de la crème, daring Mayor Sam to just try to build a forest of condo towers in their neck of the woods. Never mind the fact that Vancouver's co-director of planning, Anne McAfee, has been trying to spearhead such densification strategies -- and community involvement -- for more than a decade.

Cities work better when the people who actually live in them are involved in planning. But citizens are never included by accident. They are either invited by enlightened governments, or they have to claw their way into the clubhouse.

People in the developing world are envious of the kinds of consultation and inclusiveness that Vancouver has developed in the past decades. "Between us and democracy there is bureaucracy," complained Jean-Pierre Mbassi, of United Cities & Local Governments Africa, at one crowded dialogue session. "Our elected representatives keep people out of the loop. They are afraid of giving up power to the people. We won't really have democracy until we can engage them."

That comment stung, particularly because in January, our own mayor tried to suspend the city's own network of citizens' advisory boards. (The boards' fates will be decided by council sometime this summer. Until then they will continue to meet and advise the city on everything from bikeways to theatres.)

Government's role

I began this blog with a reference to the Vancouver Sun columnist who suggested that the WUF's well-meaning eggheads have little effect on the cities they love. One look at Vancouver proves this is not true. The city boasts higher residential density than any mid-sized city in the USA, thereby making it easier to serve with transit and amenities.

This feat of sustainable planning is no accident. It is a result of citizen engagement -- the anti-freeway fight of the 1960s -- and sound planning policy. Vancouver's dense, walkable downtown is no accident. It was the brainchild of planners who were profoundly influenced by Jane Jacobs and her tribe. The neighbourhood centres popping up around SkyTrain stations are no accident either. Nor is the fact that fewer commuters in Vancouver are using their cars. These things are the result of government policy informed by boring conferences like the WUF, and they benefit even the citizens who deride activist civic governments.

We may quibble about traffic and smog in Vancouver, but, as Mbassi told his fellow WUFers today, it is reckless to argue against informed government intervention in the developing world, where slums are growing exponentially: "If we leave all people moving to cities to the forces of free market, they will all be homeless," he warned. "They will all be brutalized."

MONDAY EVENING, June 19

We were all late for the opening ceremony of the World Urban Forum this morning. Thousands of us, in pinstripes, chadors, tie-dies and bureaucrat-grade Dockers, all lined up on the promenade at Canada Place while event security checked our bags for machetes. Stephen Harper was in the building.

We gawked at Vancouver's signature views like Inside Passage cruisers and we talked, of course, about the host city. A Swiss urban planner named Ewa turned to me and asked me why half the streets in Vancouver had no names. "All your big streets have names," she said, " but the ones in between have none."

"Those are alleys," I told her.

"OK. Alley streets," she said. "Well why do they not have names? And why are they so filthy? It's so strange that you would leave garbage on half your streets."

She was gone before I had a chance to explain that alleys were for service, for dumpsters and trucks and graffiti. Not for living. Then it struck me: we in Vancouver have become so accustomed to congratulating ourselves on what a fabulous town we've built that we've forgotten to imagine that there are other ways to see things; other ways to see our own city, and perhaps other ways to imagine making it better.

Indeed, why should alleys not be considered streets?

Backs well patted

More than 6,000 politicians, planners, activists and eggheads from around the world will spend this week talking about how to make all cities more sustainable. But they'll also be wandering around -- and wondering about -- Vancouver. Much pre-forum buzz has focused on what Vancouver, with its dense, livable downtown, can teach the world's cities. I learned on the forum's first day that we may learn a heck of a lot more from these fresh eyes.

Of course, to do that requires one first to wade through a slurry of self-congratulation. The WUF's opening ceremony was awash with it. Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan cheered the city's three-decade-old decision to keep out freeways -- while neglecting to mention his own council's inertia on the urgent question of affordable housing for the people who actually work in and around downtown. Premier Gordon Campbell, whose government is spending $2 billion to wrap Greater Vancouver in new highways, declared without a hint of irony that, "we need to move people, not cars."

Affordable housing. Accessible, low-emissions transportation. These are the trumpeting elephants in the corner of the sustainability chat room. And they could not be heard this morning above the roar of back-slapping.

Scratching heads at SkyTrain

In the afternoon, the folks from TransLink (Greater Vancouver's Transportation Authority) put on a plush PowerPoint show describing their integrated approach to transit. Visitors from Sweden and Nigeria were wowed by images of the SkyTrain and SeaBus, of wheelchair elevators and HandyDarts. Yet TransLink board chair Malcolm Brodie made no mention of the fact that TransLink is currently hundreds of busses short of meeting its modest service targets, largely because the province has chosen instead to pour money into the Canada Line rapid transit route to Richmond and the airport.

"How do you see transit?" asked a woman from Nigeria after that presentation. "I think it's a human rights issue. It gives us access to health. To education. To employment. Everyone has the right to transit."

This prompted William Batt, a sustainable transportation expert from Albany, New York, to recall the ride he took on a fancy new elevated commuter railway in Chennai, India. "They put the rail where the politicians wanted it to go, not where people needed it. So at rush hour, it was empty." Batt also spent a lonely Sunday afternoon on Vancouver's Millennium SkyTrain Line. What shocked him most were the vast parking lots along the way, like that at Brentwood Mall. "Parking lots! That land is begging to be used."

Batt suggested that such land would be better utilized -- and cities could pay for fancy transit projects -- if we simply re-thought how we taxed the land.

"Right now you guys tax both the land and improvements. It's a double-whammy that punishes the developers who actually build anything. It encourages them to sit on property for years. You should cut the tax on improvements, and heavily tax the land around transit stops. This is called capturing the land value. The more you tax the land, the more the developer is going to invest in that land to recoup his tax expenses."

In one study, Batt found that if such tax strategies were used along one road project in New York State, the government could have recouped the cost of that highway eleven-fold. Just an idea, he said.

Urban poverty, there and here

Vancouver has never experienced the scale of wrenching poverty, homelessness and violence faced by the members of Slum Dwellers International who bring their stories this week. We are awash with cash to deal with our problems. And yet we still have problems housing people. We still haven't figured out how to get people around the region. The poorest of our poor still face the spectre of forced evictions.

In one networking meeting (of the more than 160 to be held this week), delegates from Africa discussed their frustrations that, despite the ongoing tide of urbanization, and the painful knowledge that slums are growing faster than cities, federal governments around the world are doing next to nothing to deal specifically with urban poverty.

It was hard not to immediately think locally. Despite a brief photo-op and chinwag at the opening ceremony of the forum, Canada's own prime minister has yet to announce a significant investment to deal with urban poverty here at home. Then again, his predecessor was the guy who cut federal funding for such projects in the first place. The city of Vancouver has acquired dozens of parcels of land for social housing. Some of that land has been waiting more than a decade for provincial and federal dollars to make such housing happen.

With Vancouver now boasting the least affordable housing in Canada, I'll be looking for inspiration from the debate set for Thursday, where some Members of Slum Dwellers International will argue that the poor can no longer afford to wait for action from higher levels of government.

It would be a mistake to confuse our problems with those of the developing world. But there are lessons to be learned from people who are tackling the greatest problems of our age without our financial wherewithal. In the coming days, I'll be looking to them, and to visiting sustainability experts from all over the world, for inspiration.

Charles Montgomery will continue to blog the World Urban Forum daily for The Tyee. He is author of The Last Heathen, and is at work on a book about mega-cities.  [Tyee]

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