The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


The Global Urban Agenda - 16 May 2010

Monthly reflections from The Global Urbanist.

This month's topic: the international relations of cities.

This article was first released as an email newsletter on Sunday, 16 May 2010 to our subscribers, and posted here on Friday, 28 May. Sign up here to be the first to read these newsletters in the future.

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Mumbai, New York-Newark, Port-au-Prince, Mexico City, Jerusalem, Nairobi

Topics: City politics, Participatory governance, Crime and security, Community organisation, Internal migration

The past month has demonstrated again how urban policy is increasingly enmeshed with international politics. The diplomatic stand-off between President Obama and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is over what in other cities would be a simple town planning issue - where can apartments legally be built, and by whom? The bomb threat in Times Square caused New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to fly across the Atlantic to inspect the anti-terrorism security systems overseen by London mayor Boris Johnson. And Bill Clinton is part of the committee on the ground in Haiti replanning and reorganising its capital, Port-au-Prince.

We expect town planning to be a problem for local government, terrorism security for national government, but in some areas the problems are becoming too urgent to be left simply to one or the other.

If that's true, then city governments need to take international relations more seriously. This was a theme at the Richard J. Daley Global Cities Forum, which took place in Chicago late last month. The mayor of Mexico City complained that his and other cities throughout Africa and Latin America were being flooded by cheap firearms originating from US gun sales, and proposed that the world's mayors launch legal action against the US industry to reduce gun violence in their own cities.

The C40 is a group of world city mayors coordinating on climate change action, which rose to greater prominence with a summit coinciding with the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last year. There is clearly an opportunity for such a group to expand their cooperation to all portfolios, and become a forum for global leadership that can ultimately rival the G20, especially in areas of social policy. Realistically this is a long way off, but should this be its goal? We'd love to hear your thoughts.

Knowledge sharing occurs at the grassroots level as well, as the efforts of Shack / Slum Dwellers International (SDI) continue to demonstrate. Threatened by a plan to regenerate the railway line through Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum, residents living near the tracks have staved off eviction by adopting the self-organising and self-enumeration strategies of the Railway Slum Dwellers Federation in Mumbai. In 2001, faced with exactly the same problem as Kibera, Mumbai's railway slum residents banded together to perform their own census, leveraging the data collected to attract international attention, earn the respect of the city's leaders, and improve the terms of the relocation.

But this begs the question: why did Nairobi's leaders plan to evict Kibera's residents so threateningly in the first place? Why weren't they already learning from Mumbai's leaders, in the same way that Kibera's residents learned from slum dwellers in Mumbai?

It is questions like these that created The Global Urbanist. Our city leaders need to network and share knowledge of current projects, as do our urban populations, and they both need to network with each other. We seek to serve as a forum where government and residential leaders can debate policies and projects alongside academics and private enterprise, within the critical framework of an online newspaper, so that there is common knowledge of best practice policies amongst all who shape our urban environments. If you believe in this goal, forward this article to your local government representatives and get them involved in the debate!

We want to hear from NGOs!

We find that many NGOs, especially the small local organisations working in different cities, don't talk about what they're doing in the general media. Maybe they just think of their work as work, and don't think that what they're doing is newsworthy. Well, we think it is! And we want members of NGOs anywhere in the world to get in touch with us so that we can share your knowledge with local organisations and governments across the world. Just like the slum dwellers in Mumbai, your organisation could help residents on the other side of the world solve similar problems to what you face. If you have colleagues in NGOs who do interesting work, forward them this article and get them to write in to us! The world's urban leaders want to hear their story!

We want your contributions!

All of you, our readers, are professionals with intelligent opinions and valuable contributions to make to these debates. We invite all of you to write short articles laying out your perspective on key problems facing your city, your business, your region, or the world's cities in general. If you can think of others who should contribute an article, forward this newsletter to them!

For some inspiration, here are some of the questions we have been asking in recent works. If you have some answers, please get in touch!

  • What are the alternatives to the roadmap that McKinsey has laid out for India's urban infrastructure development?
  • Now that it's staked its reputation on the world's largest expo ever despite cracks in its economy, what is the future of Shanghai, and what does the city still have to teach us?
  • What is the relationship between the political protests in Thailand and the population of Bangkok, and how will the city recover once the unrest is over?
  • What are the untold stories of community organisation and governance in Kinshasa?
  • What should be the priorities for the new Executive Director of UN-HABITAT after Anna Tibaijuka retires later this year?

Don't forget to keep in touch through our RSS or Twitter feeds, and join our Facebook page! And if you received this article from a colleague, subscribe to our email newsletters yourself!

This month's highlights:

Diana Inegbenebor of the ARCHIVE Institute on the relationship between inadequate housing and malaria transmission:

"When the Anopheles gambiae mosquito reaches a wall in trying to enter a house, it flies upwards, and identifies openings or cracks to fly in, unlike other species that fly off sideways … preventing this mosquito from entering a house by installing ceilings or closing eaves should reduce malaria transmission, infection and disease … "

On the global backlog of urban infrastructure:

"It would be wrong to hope that over a century of neglect can be undone by two decades of faddish infrastructure investment now. For this recent push to truly overcome the world's water and sanitation crisis, the projects being built today must be accompanied by hard economic programmes to improve the wages of the urban poor, and the tax base that they represent, so that what is built today is systematically maintained and expanded in the future … "

On the cleanup of the Pasig river which runs through Manila:

"The ABS-CBN Foundation is to be applauded for taking on a project of this scale. But cleaning the river is not simply about changing the image of the city. In certain factions of Manila's politics, beautifying the city has always been code for clearing away the slums. Because of that it is impossible for any organisation to take on the river without taking responsibility for the human consequences of the project … "

And the debate over the BBC documentary Welcome to Lagos:

Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed:"The informal economy … has an important role in providing employment and income opportunities and in its absence, the intensity of poverty, if not its extent, would be much higher. There are also various direct and indirect linkages between the informal and formal economy, which will cease to exist if these people were removed, threatening much of the formal economy itself … "

Rolake Rosiji:" … what they criticise is not a negative portrayal of slum dwellers in Lagos, but any portrayal of the slums at all. They fear that the international community will conclude that slums cannot coexist with the more 'modern' business districts of Lagos. This is a false assumption as proved by India's and China's positions as amongst the world's fastest growing economies … "

Kerwin Datu:" … if the documentary has an intellectual wellspring, it is in the recent efforts by African urban scholars such as AbdouMaliq Simone to analyse African cities on their own terms, without imposing European conceptions of cities as places of planning, engineering and zoning … it is churlish to suggest that this makes the Nigerian government the nostalgic colonialists, but short of pure self-interest, it is hard to imagine another interpretation … "


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