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In Rio, hot discussions about climate change and cities

March 25, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Michelle Kooy/Mercy Corps  </span>
    One of the many Dialogues at the World Urban Forum. Photo: Michelle Kooy/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Michelle Kooy/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Members of the Mercy Corps Indonesia delegation at the World Urban Forum. Photo: Michelle Kooy/Mercy Corps

Wow — the heat! It might be hard to believe, but the Indonesian delegation (no stranger to hot and humid climates) has been melting this week.

The UN-Habitat World Urban Forum has been held in converted warehouses in the harbourside of Rio de Janeiro — the warehouses have been abandoned for many years and it is a derelict part of town now being revitalized, while maintaining the historic buildings. The urban planning practice is great, but let’s just say that the infrastructure still needs a few improvements in terms of air circulation. If only we had gotten the memo about the dress code in advance! The large Brazilian contingent at the Forum seem cool (or at least comfortable) in their beachwear attire. It’s been a strange sight to see after the cultural norms of clothing and coverage we are used to in Indonesia.

But enough about the tropical environment — more about the intellectual environment and the energy that we are getting from the open debates, networking sessions, dialogues and impromptu conversations with old colleagues and new acquaintances working on similar issues related to urban poverty and development.

Today I participated in one of the official Dialogues of this World Urban Forum. There are six official Dialogues in total, on the themes of:

  • Taking Forward the Right to the City;
  • Bridging the Urban Divide: Inclusive Cities;
  • Equal Access to Shelter and Basic Urban Services;
  • Cultural Diversity in Cities;
  • Governance and Participation; and
  • Sustainable Urbanization: Cities in a Changing Climate

These Dialogue sessions are the ‘big’ events at the forum, with press coverage and rooms seating upwards of 500 people.

Suffice it to say, I was quite nervous for my participation in the Thematic Open Debate for Dialogue 6 —Sustainable Urbanization: Cities in a Changing Climate. Discussing the work of Mercy Corps Indonesia in relation to ‘reducing vulnerabilities to climate change’ was, however, quite enjoyable once I got over the spotlights. I was on a panel with women activists from Peru and Senegal, who gave practical examples on how networks of urban poor women at the grassroots level are finding strategies to adapt to climate change impacts. Their insights were inspiring. Together with an urban development specialist from the World Bank and a climate scientist from NASA, we all discussed the ways in which cities must plan now for the current climate impacts — such as the frequent disasters of flooding, drought, cyclones and landslides — as well as the longer term, slower-onset changes that will demand adaptive livelihoods, economies, food systems and land use patterns, amongst other things.

Cities must plan now, and must plan with the residents who are most vulnerable: the urban poor.

My concluding comment on the panel is also a good conclusion to this post: “Climate change provides not only a pathway and a motivation towards environmental sustainability, but climate change provides a pathway to renew the call for provision of basic needs to urban poor communities — as lack of urban services, decreased mobility, living on marginal lands, inadequate shelter, and lack of participation in the political systems and decision making all make poor communities more vulnerable.”

Let's all hope that climate change can also provide a pathway and create the political space for more democratic and participatory planning processes, so that all citizens of the city can take part in shaping the places in which they live.