By Peter Marcuse
Two major world forums focused on urban issues—the U.N.-sponsored World Urban Forum (WUF) and a social-movement-sponsored Social Urban Forum (SUF)—took place in Rio de Janiero in the last week of March, 2010. The forums were extremely different, almost existing in two different worlds, but they tolerated each other; the contrasts and similarities were striking.
In its own words, the World Urban Forum
…was established by the United Nations to examine one of the most pressing problems facing the world today: rapid urbanization and its impact on communities, cities, economies, climate change and policies.
It brings together government leaders, ministers, mayors, diplomats, members of national, regional and international associations of local governments, non-governmental and community organizations, professionals, academics, grassroots women’s organizations, youth and slum dwellers groups as partners working for better cities. The theme for Rio 2010, The Right to the City – Bridging the Urban Divide, is in harmony with U.N.-HABITAT’s flagship report, State of the World’s Cities 2010-2011.
The theme sounds very socially-oriented indeed, and the report it references is a gold mine of data on urbanization around the world today.
In its own words, the Social Urban Forum
took place in a nearby venue, with a similar time schedule and with a similar array of debates around urban issues, also focused on urban poverty and the environment. The SUF gathered social movements, networks and civil society organizations around the world to share their experiences and express their concerns on the collective construction of a different perspective of the city through dialogue, expression of diversity and the strengthening of social movements and organizations’ articulations around the globe.
The WUF was, of course, much better funded, and claimed perhaps 13,000 attendees. At the WUF, present were Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president; Ana Tibaijuka, director of U.N.-HABITAT; Shaun Donovan, secretary, Housing and Urban Development (HUD); Ron Sims, deputy HUD secretary; Esther Brimmer, assistant secretary of state; Adolfo Carrion, director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs; and Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation. The language was overwhelmingly English, with simultaneous translation.
At the SUF, at various larger meetings, over 1,000 may have been present. The call to it came from Social Movements and Organizations of Rio de Janeiro, including many favela-based groups, advocacy organizations and a significant number of African and other developing countries groups; many had booths at the giant warehouse space the SUF had rented. The language was overwhelmingly Portuguese; at major sessions, simultaneous translation was provided.
At both events, the talk was extensively of poverty, inequality, the divide between rich and poor and measures to address those issues. Each forum was overtly tolerant of the other, and accepted the existence and legitimacy of the other, with disagreements civilized rather than confrontational.
The contrasts between the ideological content of the two forums was sharp. To highlight some:
The relationship of mutual recognition between the two forums raises interesting questions of strategy for progressives concerned about the shortcomings of liberal approaches to problems of social justice. Sometimes confrontation and sharp criticism are appropriate; at other times, cooperation on immediate actions, even if with different long-term perspectives, is productive. On the last day of both forums, an informal committee of activists from Brazilian social movements presented a statement at the SUF which was explicit in the radicalism of its analysis and goals, and it was adopted at a well-attended general session at the SUF’s great rented space. The text can be found at http://www.choike.org/2009/eng/informes/7826.html, and it is well worth a close look. It concludes with the call for a further meeting of the SUF paralleling the next meeting of the WUF in two years. It will be interesting to see what happens to this forum of movements in the meantime; it is worthy of international support.
Peter Marcuse is a professor of urban planning emeritus in the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University. He spoke at both the World Urban Forum and the Social Urban Forum. For more information, see Marcuse’s chapter “Rights in Cities and the Right to the City?” in Ana Sugranyes and Charlotte Mathivet (eds.), 2010, Cities for All: Proposals and Experiences towards the Right to the City, also available at http://www.hic-net.org/content/Cities%20fol%20All-ENG.pdf.