Tackling complex urban development challenges

March 24, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Flickr, courtesy of despoeitugiu  </span>
    Rocinho Favela, one of Rio de Janeiro's thousand shanty towns. Photo: Flickr, courtesy of despoeitugiu
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps Indonesia works with thousands of people in some of Jakarta's poorest neighborhoods — including the enormous Penjaringan slum — to address enormous urban challenges. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

The UN-Habitat World Urban Forum is the world’s largest global meeting on cities. Its fifth session — happening this week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — has a record 21,000 delegates from across the globe.

The broad theme of the World Urban Forum — Bridging the Urban Divide — aims at narrowing the gaps in many areas of everyday city life including the gulf between rich and poor, governments and city authorities, and governments, local authorities and the law when it comes to gender and youth issues. Another topic that's high on the agenda this year is the rebuilding of Haiti in the awake of January’s devastating earthquake that claimed more than 200,000 lives.

In many ways, there could not have been a more appropriate setting to host the conference than Brazil’s second largest city, Rio de Janeiro. Having landed the two greatest sporting events on earth — the FIFA World Cup and the Summer Olympics, Rio is determined to lead the 20 percent of its citizens that inhabit slums to a better quality life in a safer, “greener” a more inclusive city. With a population of more than six million, the divide between rich and poor has resulted in urban islands of poverty — the favelas, or urban shanty towns . Twelve percent of households in Rio lack running water, and more than 30 percent do not have sewage connections and are not reached by formal electricity lines.

Because of its topography of seaside mountains and valleys, the poverty of Rio is in your face: the 1,000 favelas often occupy hillsides that overlook the city. They can be spotted from pretty much any corner of the city, including the most exclusive and wealthy neighbourhoods. All of these factors make Rio a good place to engage governments and civil society representatives for a vast number of countries to openly discuss ways to tackle the urban divide.

The unprecedented investments that Rio de Janeiro and all of Brazil’s urban areas are experiencing right resulting from of a strong economy, combined with the preparations for the two massive sports events, should provide an ideal illustration of how cities can make good use of infrastructural overhauls as catalysers of more profound and sustainable progressive social change.

In his speech in the Forum’s opening ceremony, Brazil’s President Lula da Silva proclaimed his pride in showcasing the redevelopment that is occurring in Rio, a city that can be seen as the “image of the new Brazil.” He encouraged all participants in the Forum to not only visit Rio’s tourist attractions, but to also visit the favelas to witness what is going on and see the positive changes that are occurring. There is no question that the vibrant and fast-changing city of Rio is providing an inspiring background to the plenary discussions, networking events, trainings and panel discussions planned for the five days of the World Urban Forum.

Mercy Corps — which operates about 50 urban projects in more than 20 countries — is not just attending the World Urban Forum, but using this great opportunity to showcases our successes. We're participating in networking events and workshops, highlighting the enthusiastic participation from our Indonesia and Zimbabwe country teams, where we have strong ongoing programs addressing complex interconnected urban issues to support secure, productive and just communities.

In a very well-attended networking event on the Forum’s first day, Mercy Corps Indonesia presented and facilitated a conversation about multi-stakeholder partnerships in urban interventions, posing the important question “working together – is it worth it?”. Drawing on experiences from urban infrastructure development projects in Jakarta, Indonesia and Colombo, Sri Lanka — as well as urban reform programs in Brazil — the panellist and participants in this event talked about best practices and lessons learned on how to engage a wide range of actors to address complex urban development challenges. They focused on innovative and inclusive partnership models including civil society, the private sector and governments.

The practical examples of joint actions for mutual benefits highlighted in this networking event provided a definite answer to the key question if working together is actually worth it — a resounding YES!