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Naples the Site of World Urban Forum 6

The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) has held six biennial World Urban Forum (WUF) sessions since 2002. WUF is an opportunity for leaders who develop and implement urban programs to discuss challenges and strategies for their countries, cities, and neighborhoods. The most recent session, WUF 6, was held September 1–7 in Naples, Italy; its theme, “The Urban Future,” centered on the accelerating pace of global urbanization.

In 2010, 51 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas—a figure that grows 1.85 percent annually. More than 1 billion people live in urban slums. These trends present enormous challenges for policymakers, and throughout the conference session participants discussed how to improve the quality of life of urban residents and grow the middle class while reducing per capita resource consumption. Dr. Joan Clos, under-secretary-general of the United Nations and executive director for UN-Habitat, launched the conference with a call for two primary actions: (1) national government creation of national urban policies and (2) local planning for city extensions to accommodate population growth. In a taped message presented to other housing ministers, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan observed that the most sustainable and resilient places share three core characteristics: (1) inclusivity, in which mixed-income communities with adequate affordable housing are linked to job centers through light rail and rapid bus transit, improving residents’ economic standing and quality of life; (2) sustainable planning, which preserves needed resources, and (3) business investment, which must be integrated into sustainable growth strategies.

Heidi Crebo-Rediker, chief economist of the U.S. Department of State and head of the U.S. Delegation, noted that the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that cities will need to increase investments in new physical capital to more than $20 trillion per year by 2025. Crebo-Rediker stressed that partnerships with the private sector are crucial to raising the capital needed for urban infrastructure improvements and that good governance is essential for leveraging these investments wisely. Todd Richardson, HUD’s representative, discussed the opportunity to use administrative data to track progress toward local goals at the neighborhood level.

Some of the most powerful conversations were held outside of these formal sessions, including U.S. officials’ discussions with Chilean leadership about their long-term plans for disaster recovery following the 2010 earthquake and tsunami, which destroyed 88,000 homes and affected 84 percent of Chile’s 16.5 million people. Representatives from Paris, where residents of suburban public housing developments are facing social and economic isolation, were very interested to hear about the lessons learned from public housing redevelopment in Atlanta. German and U.S. officials discussed the next steps in their memorandum of understanding and shared strategies for assisting cities facing population loss and industry change. The United States and Brazil discussed issues related to sustainable cities, including affordable housing; mobility; and the intersecting themes of financing, public-private partnerships, and governance. U.S. and Dutch officials compared learning and exchange strategies that benefit domestic policy agendas.

Ministers and leaders from around the world discussed the tensions they face when implementing an urban agenda amid ongoing uncertainty. Several leaders described using such disruptive periods to reassess priorities. For example, Luigi de Magistris, the mayor of Naples, remarked that his city is functionally in a state of emergency, forcing it to reinvent itself and make difficult choices. De Magistris remarked that this process of reinvention was helping Naples negotiate its distinct cultural position.

Kenya’s minister of housing, Soita Shitanda, spoke about the dual pressures of poverty and population growth, noting that Africa’s urban population will double by 2030. Shitanda said that by distributing economic opportunity equally, national government could potentially ease these population pressures and foster more stable growth. He explained that Kenyan officials were considering decentralizing government operations, establishing facilities in several cities around the nation. He also said that they are partnering with other African nations to develop creative regional strategies.

Ministers from Indonesia, Chile, and Iraq spoke about rebuilding efforts following national disasters, revealing how in each case, tragedy spurred innovation. In Indonesia, a disaster loan fund was developed, Chile is learning to rebuild social and economic systems in addition to physical reconstruction, and Iraq is considering how to create a nation of new cities as it emerges from conflict and destruction.

Dr. Peter Ramsauer, Germany’s minister of Transport, Building and Urban Development, noted that cities were becoming immensely powerful—in some cases even surpassing their national governments. Ramsauer expressed concern, however, that their power could lead to development bias. Federal governments, therefore, must ensure a balance of power among small, mid-sized, and large cities. Leaders from Saudi Arabia and Norway shared this concern but adopted different approaches to achieve this balance of power. In Norway, officials are developing policies of decentralization, giving local governments the freedom to implement their own strategies as long as they adhere to federal guidelines. They reinforced the importance of place-based solutions and flexibility of policy for sustainable growth. The Saudis are developing new federal housing programs in mid-sized cities to reduce demand in larger urban areas.