Abu Dhabi, 7 February 2020 - At the dawn of the new decade, Canberra is facing down a state of emergency as bushfires rage through Australia. Wuhan and dozens of other Chinese cities are on lockdown in order to quarantine the rapidly spreading coronavirus. U.S. rental housing unaffordability has reached an all-time high, according to a new Harvard study. On the other side of the Altantic, meanwhile, Berlin just passed a five-year rent freeze, a signal that even Europe’s fabled capital of cheap housing amidst a vibrant economy is feeling the squeeze.
Just one month into the 2020s, these headline-grabbing stories underline many of the common issues facing cities around the world. While few if any of these challenges are unprecedented, the new decade also offers a chance for a fresh slate to set an agenda to find solutions for an increasingly urban planet.
That opportunity will come February 8-13 in Abu Dhabi, when the United Nations convenes the world’s top thinkers and leaders on cities at the biennial World Urban Forum. This tenth edition of the planet’s preeminent gathering for urbanists, mayors, scholars and activists will showcase the ways in which cities are not sitting on the sidelines in an increasingly complex world, but rather are reaching out to learn from each other and forge the city of the future.
If the 2010s were the decade in which the global community set its priorities for cities — witness international efforts like the UN’s first-ever urban-focused development goal, the groundbreaking vision for cities codified in the New Urban Agenda, and the recognition that cities will play a crucial role in the worldwide effort to deliver on the Paris Agreement on climate change — then the 2020s will refine those lofty aspirations through the on-the-ground, city-to-city learning that takes place at World Urban Forum.
“Cities can be catalysts for inclusion, leaders in environmental action and powerhouses of equitable economic growth,” says Raf Tuts, who directs the Global Solutions Division at UN-Habitat, the U.N. agency for cities that puts on the forum. “Their density and economies of agglomeration link energy, environment, science, technology and social and economic outcomes. So, in the coming decade, we must invest in enhancing the capacity of cities to act on climate change, transform deprived areas into connected, vibrant and affordable neighbourhoods and accommodate additional population with a focus on social cohesion.”
While such a utopian metropolis seems elusive, an increasing recognition that cities must deliver both economic prosperity and grapple with climate change is already spurring a new sense of what the ideal city accomplishes.
“I think we need a new definition of what a ‘successful city’ looks like in this age,” argues Ani Dasgupta, who directs the World Resources Institute’s Ross Center for Sustainable CIties. “It’s a city that is able to create jobs and increase quality of life for everyone while taking significant climate action — both to protect against inevitable changes and to mitigate future warming.”
“A successful city will find ways to manage the tension between these three goals,” he tells Next City. Although the climate emergency, with its increase in extreme weather events and natural disasters, may be cities’ paramount concern in this decade of global uncertainty, there are other related issues at place. Civil war and other violent conflicts have created the largest refugee population since World War II, which has put immense strains on arrival cities and drained departing cities of vital human capital. Those wars and armed conflicts have also threatened the historic and cultural fabric of cities — witness the vanished way of life in Aleppo, once one of the Mediterranean’s great crossroads.
While the international community struggles to contain these cataclysmic disruptions from spreading further, more quotidian disruptions are taking place with every new technological device in the hands of city dwellers inadvertently tracking their movements, or in the hands of city officials keeping a watchful eye on the street. From drones to autonomous vehicles, such data-rich disruptors of urban life are only expected to multiply.
“The growth in the digital economy in recent years has enabled mobile operators, social media companies and sharing platforms to collect so much data that they already know about more or less everything about urban life, including on housing, mobility, public space and many other areas,” says UN-Habitat’s urban technology analyst Pontus Westerberg.
“The challenge for public policy makers in the coming years is to ensure that this privately-held data is used to design better cities,” he says. “This will require large-scale transformation of local government, new ways of thinking about the role of digital technologies and data in professions such as spatial and transport planning and of course new regulation.”
From ancient cities hoping to preserve their thousand-year-old heritage to ultramodern neighborhoods with a sensor in every paving stone, cities of all stripes will have something to share — and something to learn — at World Urban Forum.
Gregory Scruggs is Next City’s special correspondent covering World Urban Forum 10.