Our cities need a global political debate, not just politically correct ideas
Ahead of next week's World Urban Forum in Naples, our editors exhort the global urban development community to help raise the level of debate in our media from awareness building and campaigning to constructive engagement with the political conflicts that confront our work in the world's cities.
Think about all the media about the world's cities that you have consumed in the past week, whether on Twitter, Facebook, urban blogs, local newspapers, or internationals like the Guardian or the New York Times. Chances are it has been filled with lots of good ideas and great initiatives that provide inspiration for your own work. Yet so few of these ideas and initiatives ever take off, despite their obvious appeal. Why?
Many of the stories that circulate in the global urban media have their origins in the press releases and awareness campaigns of NGOs, researchers, international agencies, private sector think tanks and social entrepreneurs, what we might call the global urban development industry. Many of you will be convening in Naples next week for UN-HABITAT's World Urban Forum 6, one of this industry's flagship events. Generating awareness and promoting your work is essential for your organisations to secure funding and maintain visibility for your cause. Yet as a result, much of what we circulate can become very politically correct, as we shy from ever raising criticism against those we must work with to implement our ideas, or from discussing the challenges that may have diluted our impact.
When the media operates at this level, it can create the perception that every actor in the field of urban development is working together in the public interest. Yet the public interest is never quite so universal.
When the media operates at this level, it can create the perception that every actor in the field of urban development is working together in the public interest. Yet the public interest is never quite so universal. As any political scientist will tell you, politics at any level is not simply about the marketplace of ideas, but also about managing conflict between competing interest groups. And in many cities it is also about integrating demands arising at different levels: the needs of local communities and businesses, the priorities of the national government, and the policy agendas of international organisations.
On these issues the global urban media is far too silent. Rarely do we read about the interest groups that lobby for the demolition of informal settlements, the construction of new highways over historic neighbourhoods, the dismantling of public transport systems in favour of the road network, the expansion of urban sprawl. Nor do we often hear how a land titling policy or an environmental regeneration programme that sounds good at the international level might be used at the local level to evict communities or destroy livelihoods. Yet these things keep happening, partly because they are never reported meaningfully to the agencies with the knowledge to prevent them or engage those responsible.
This is especially important while we have no effective judicial system to enforce the human rights to housing, water, sanitation, livelihoods, etc., comprised within the global urban agenda, as we have discussed elsewhere.
Holding cities to account
What we need is a global urban media that not only circulates good ideas, but holds the world's urban authorities to account. A media that acts as a watchdog over the world's cities and the bodies that govern them, rather than simply as their spokesperson. This is not to imply that local governments are often corrupt and need to be raked over the coals, but that any city leader or urban development agency can cause great harm to their communities and environments, inadvertently or not, when media scrutiny is lacking. For individual cities, this means a media that analyses their actions with the benefit of global knowledge, and for international agencies, a media that confronts them with the diverse realities and local constraints that affect their interventions.
In every country with a free press, there is a lively media debate about the national government agenda, from what the nation's priorities should be right down to the policy detail. And it can be argued that there is a real global conversation on the issues that arise between nations — climate change action, energy security, trade, war, and humanitarianism among others. But when it comes to our collective urban agenda there is little real exchange between the politically correct optimism of the global urban development industry, and the isolated debates that take place within the silos of each city's metropolitan media.
A viable agenda for our cities cannot be achieved, nor sustained, without bringing these two scales into permanent confrontation. We need a media where conflicting ideas and interests can confront one another within a constructive environment of civil debate, whether expressed through the analyses of professional journalists, or through the words of urban stakeholders themselves. Such a platform will not necessarily resolve these conflicts — that is another false hope — but creates a transparency and a currency of debate that is presently missing more or less at every scale of urban policy.
But when it comes to our collective urban agenda there is little real exchange between the politically correct optimism of the global urban development industry, and the isolated debates that take place within the silos of each city's metropolitan media.
Seeking your engagement
Naturally we aim to provide such a platform here at The Global Urbanist, which is open to contributions from anyone of you reading this article. But this is also our call to the whole field of global urban development, from those who write the articles we receive and publish, to those we interact with on Twitter and other networks, to those we will meet in Naples next week.
We ask you to reflect on the model of the 'cities' media that we have laid out here. How can we accept the existence of conflicting visions for the direction of our cities? How can we engage with opposing interests more constructively? How can we do more to test our ideas against political realities as we circulate them?
If you will be attending the World Urban Forum next week, this will be the ideal setting to raise the level of debate from politically correct wishful thinking to political realism and informed optimism. And in the weeks and months that follow, we ask you to follow this through into your press releases, your tweets, your blog posts and your articles, whether on The Global Urbanist or elsewhere.