Reuters

Thousands gathered in Venice last week to discuss the future of cities. But urbanization seems almost impossible to coordinate on a global basis.

NAPLES, Italy – At the beginning of the World Urban Forum VI here last week, a conga line of sorts wound its way past the exhibits, from the solar-powered refugee shelter to the prototype gondola used as an alternate transport system in some favelas in South America. A large group, some in traditional African dress, chanted "Africa’s future is your future!" and "Toilets for all!"

The boisterous invocation left no room for subtlety. Cities in sub-Saharan Africa are expecting an influx of tens of millions of poor rural migrants in the years ahead, flooding into already precarious conditions in sprawling megacities like Lagos. Overall, Africa will account for about half the total increase of urban population in the developing world, from 2 billion to 4 billion, over the next 30 years.

Just picture these four billion people, living in cities in the developing world – places where, by some estimates, there may be one billion people already living in informal settlements, slums, and shantytowns, with no access to basic services such as clean water or sanitation, let alone education or arts or recreation, the fundamental elements of the metropolis elsewhere.

All of which raised the question: is any conference up to this staggering challenge? Could any problem-solving gathering possibly make the way this trend plays out even a little bit better? More humane?

Conferences about global cities struggle with the reputation of this pattern: advocates, government officials, academics and generally a great many smart people fly in from all over for several days, and then nothing happens. The World Urban Forum is run by the United Nations organization UN-Habitat, which has as its slogan "a better urban future."

Under current director Joan Clos, a salt-and-pepper haired former mayor of Barcelona, the organization has shifted its emphasis from housing to cities in a broader perspective. The ambition of the gathering – held every two years, most recently in Rio de Janiero, and Nanjing before that – might be described as the definitive gathering on the great planet-wide urbanization project, the Davos of global cities.

This year’s forum, from September 1 to 6 in the southern Italian port city overlooking Mount Vesuvius, was initially contemplated to be in Bahrain, but that fell through. Naples took up the cause admirably enough, welcoming some 10,000 registered participants to the Mostra D’Oltemare – a convention center complex built in 1940 as a fairgrounds to celebrate Mussolini’s imperial designs on Africa.

One morning, both the bus drivers and the volunteers helping participants with logistical questions went on strike. Then the acoustics were so bad in the temporary conference rooms – inexplicably fitted with fabric ceilings – that translation headphones were needed to make out what the speakers were saying, even for English speakers.

But the conversation went ahead, from the broad to the technical: how to create inexpensive sanitation or water-delivery systems; how to "regularize" informal settlement through titling or upgrading; how to deal with the impact of climate change in fast-growing cities, where poor populations will be most vulnerable to things like flooding associated with sea level rise. I was there with a delegation from the Lincoln Institute, in part to launch the book Planet of Cities, in which author Shlomo "Solly" Angel makes the case for acquiring urban land for major expansion of cities, rather than worrying so much about compactness or densification. 

The earnest dedication to this one single problem – how to accommodate so many millions moving into cities as this century progresses – was uplifting, though not everyone thought so. An alternative group called Habitat International Coalition issues its own urban manifesto to match UN-Habitat’s, asserting that not nearly enough was done to address the plight of poor people and their "right to the city." But even considering this Occupy-style dissonance, as a policy challenge, urbanization seems almost impossible to coordinate on a global basis. Each city and each nation is in some ways proceeding alone. And who knows what unknowns and disasters await to complicate the project even further.

A 30-minute train ride away from Naples lie the ruins of Pompeii, a glorious example of functioning urbanism with water and sewer infrastructure, open space, commercial centers, housing and the arts – all the more amazing for being in place more than 2,000 years ago. They had everything, my wife remarked. Everything, I said, but an evacuation plan.

Top image: High-rise buildings are seen behind informal settlements in the Angolan capital of Luanda. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters) Left inset: A talk at the World Urban Forum (Anthony Flint)

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