Assessment of UN Habitat’s World Urban Forum 7

ONU (UN) GO HOME - graffiti in Medellín
“ONU [UN] GO HOME!” Graffiti near the botanical gardens in Medellín, far from the WUF7 site

Guardian Cities, section in the Guardian on urban issues, ran an op ed today by a rep from from the Rockefeller Foundation. It was a glowing encomium to Medellín, host city for UN Habitat WUF7. Given the odd soft-pedalling of the Guardian Cities section, I suppose it’s not surprising that this op obscured both Medellín’s existing problems and the problems caused by the mega-event itself. Don’t get me wrong: I loved Medellín. But the Rockefeller piece was using Medellín for its own purposes.

I am still on the road and have not yet written a full review of the WUF7, but most of what I had intended to say is covered by a comment by Guardian reader “colacho,” on 11 April 2014 at 1:19am, which reads:

Christ, WUF7, what a bizarre event! Getting into the place was like getting through airport security, which was apt because the world on the other side of the barriers certainly had little to do with Colombia. (Indeed, foreigners were allowed to register late, but not Colombians!) It was a sanitised zone full of transnational technocrats, zombies still hooked on the failed ideologies of neoliberalism junketing away like there was no tomorrow. There was little or no critique of failed economic models, with panel after panel proposing measures that were little more than palliatives for the dire effects of the global clusterfuck that used to be known as the “Washington consensus”. Lip service was paid to participation, empowerment and ownership, but make no mistake, this was really about governability, control, and openings for the private sector.

The whitewashing of Medellín itself was disappointing too, the cynical moving of street people out of the centre, the relentless, back-slapping focus on the positive (and yes, sure, there have been positives), the refusal to recognise that Medallo is the most unequal city in one of the most unequal countries on the planet, a city where nurturing any form of democracy is an uphill struggle in many poor neighbourhoods where paramilitaries hold sway, with the connivance of the “security forces”, and so on. No reference here to the fact that much of the violence reduction had to do with the state’s notorious offensive against the armed left, which might have been justified if it hadn’t been followed by handing over the “reclaimed areas” to the far right.

Sections of the Colombian popular movement organised their own “Alternative Forum” at the University of Antioquia as a critique of WUF7. We won’t be hearing much about that in the pages of the Graun, though.

This echoes my experience of the WUF7.  Its good moments, such as UN Habitat’s Executive Director (and former Barcelona mayor) Dr. Joan Clos highlighting the way the real estate industry mopped up after the ’08 crash. But those moments were exceptions that proved the rule. Bikes and public transit are not going to solve the far deeper problems and inequalities plaguing the world and by extension its cities.

It’s interesting that after the posting of that single comment, the Guardian now says “Comments for this discussion are now closed.” Sadly it seems UN Habitat is taking the same route. Even one of the transit-oriented speakers at the WUF told me, when I asked if he thought the WUF could be improved, said “too much emphasis on transit; not enough emphasis on inequality and true livability.”


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