Expedition to City of the Sun: En Route to the World Urban Forum

Expedition to City of the Sun: En Route to the World Urban Forum

Urban Innovation
The band City of the Sun, who recently headlined at the Environmental Film Festival at Yale, is self-described as a convergence of blues, flamenco and indie-rock guitar. Like many bands, City of the Sun came together on the sidewalks of New York City, but their music is as eclectic as their members who hail from Ecuador, Israel, and Seattle. The band shares its name with the 17th century book The City of the Sun, written by Italian philosopher Tommaso Campanella about the utopian city, which he described as an ideal community where all types of work have equal dignity and all possessions are shared.

(I was too busy dancing to ask the band if the name was intentional or coincidental, but let’s stick with it.) The book and the band come together in name and also in their interpretations of the city as a place of innovation where art and society can be shaped and reinvented. The image of the city, whether real or imagined, is in many ways humanity’s attempt to construct the perfect habitat. As a result, cities not only concentrate people and capital, but are also centers of creativity and innovation.

In this sense, cities are seen as both opportunities and challenges – to improving quality of life while also considering impacts on the natural resources that sustain them. Since the word’s urban populations surpassed 50 percent in recent years, there is growing interest to ensure that cities develop in a way that is sustainable and equitable.

World Urban Forum
This week is the seventh World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia, which is hosted by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). This year’s theme is urban equity in development, cities for life. The Forum is essentially a major convening of groups from around the world to share and showcase best practices on urban issues through presentations, roundtables, film, and other various forums. The concept of a world urban forum may seem strange given cities and countries operate on different levels of authority and autonomy from the international community. This raises several questions: Who should make decisions about cities?  What is the purpose of a world urban forum? Whose voice is represented?

To address some of these questions, I am attending this year’s Forum and will be participating in a number of ways:

  • Share >> Present my master’s research on urban climate change adaptation in Manila, Philippines at an event co-hosted with NRDC on the post-2015 development and climate change agendas. This event builds off of the Rio+20 to 2015 conference last fall with NRDC and the Governance, Environment and Markets (GEM) Initiative at Yale.
  • Investigate >> Conduct preliminary research to understand how cities learn from other cities and who they look to for information.  My plan is to talk to as many city officials and decision-makers as I can to see what their top priorities are and what motivates their decisions.
  • Learn >> As the environmental movement attempts to tackle cities through a sustainable cities lens, it is important to learn as much as possible from the successes and failures of other urban movements such as public health, housing, and labor.

Outside these specific targets, another goal is to be open to possibility. To be true, the topic of cities and social equity is hardly a new one. Just look to the tomes of Aristotle, Engels, Corbusier, and Jacobs to know that the ideal city type is a subject of constant debate. The wealth of writing on this topic is testament to the richness of the subject and perhaps alludes to the city as a concept that cannot be contained in one approach or vision alone.

Just as City of the Sun rocks out their vision in chords and The City of the Sun builds a city in prose, the concept of the city as a place of innovation and possibility allows these visions to converge and coexist. The question is what happens when this space is created at the expense of others. I’ll share some thoughts on urban equity and other topics as I participate in the World Urban Forum – follow me on this blog and on twitter @azomer.