UN HABITAT's fifth biennial World Urban Forum was launched in Rio de Janeiro this morning, the opening attended by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Philippine Vice President Noli de Castro and other dignitaries.
With an expected attendance of around 21,000 participants, the Forum brings together mayors, national ministers, urban policy makers, NGOs and consultants to network and discuss the social and economic problems facing urban populations throughout the developing world.
The Forum's slogan is "Right to the City: Bridging the Urban Divide." What does 'right to the city' mean? For UN HABITAT, it means that all who dwell in urban areas have the right to the opportunities and services a city provides, from access to job markets and opportunities to establish enterprises, to access to transport, health and education, water supply, and sanitation. 'Bridging the urban divide' means, among other things, closing "the gulf between the rich and poor".
But it is important to understand that the gulf between the rich and poor is not simply economic, but spatial as well. Spatial barriers and segregation are established between the rich and poor, deliberately or by neglect, wherever gross informality and inequality have taken root.
Advances in urban economics in recent decades allow us to understand the right to the city in a more fundamental way. While the urban and social policy community at the Forum take the city as a given, economists such as Ed Glaeser and Paul Krugman have been posing the most basic question - why do cities exist? With so much space around the globe, why do people choose to pack themselves into dense, polluted, and overpriced locations like cities instead of dispersing evenly throughout the countryside?
The answer is that the basic act of crowding together creates a boon of economic opportunities, reduces the risks involved in starting new businesses, and makes it more efficient to provide health, water and other basic services to more people. This is the principle of agglomeration.
So rather than being a radical proposal, the right to the city should be an inevitable outcome of economic forces. Everyone should have access to the economic opportunities and basic services of a city, otherwise what are cities for?
The right to the city is therefore the right to be near other people, to benefit from their closeness. The right to the city is, in other words, the right to proximity. This introduces a spatial dimension to the very centre of urban policy, and no urban policy concerned with the poor can be complete without taking this dimension into account.
What does this mean in practice? The right to live near work, the right to live near transport, the right for children to live near schools, for the elderly to live near hospitals. But these rights have their corollaries: the right to have job opportunities near one's home, the right to have transport built near one's home, the right to have schools established in one's neighbourhood, the right to have hospitals in one's suburb.
This means that all urban problems have two solutions in their spatial dimension: put households where the opportunities and services are, or put opportunities and services where the people are.
In Rio where we are gathered, the low coastal strip that lines the beaches and the bay is well served by a metro. (Participants enjoy free access to this metro for the duration of the Forum, analyse that how you will.) The poor who live upland in the favelas that climb the hillsides have access to this metro system economically speaking, but because it is impractically far from their daily routine, they are denied the use of a metro in spatial terms.
Recognising this, the government is building a funicular system across a string of hills, planting the stations directly onto the steep slopes of the favela communities. They have learnt from the successful system in Medellin, Colombia.
In many developing-world cities, the poor are often told they have no right to live where they live. Rio de Janeiro, having decided upon the poor's right to stay in the favelas, now shows that it recognises the spatial meaning of the right to the city, by providing services exactly where the poor live, not just where they want them to be.
In an era of resource scarcity and expanding cities, the concept of proximity will gain importance, as simply extending transport systems over greater and greater metropolitan distances will become increasingly unfeasible. Planners and policymakers will need to think about not just how to connect people, opportunity and services, but how to bring them into proximity in a sustainable and financially efficient way.
Kerwin Datu will be moderating a session at the World Urban Forum entitled "Knowledge for Cities" on behalf of UN-HABITAT. The session will discuss the problems arising in knowledge sharing between urban policy actors, between different cities, between NGOs and government, and between local, national and international governing bodies. Thursday, March 25, 12:00-1:30pm, room W3-12.