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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

“A Marketplace of Ideas”: UN-Habitat’s Mariam Yunusa on the World Urban Forum

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UN-HABITAT’s Mariam Yunusa. Photo copyright © UN-HABITAT.

 [Editor’s Note: Former Vancouver reporter Christine McLaren is traveling around the world as the resident blogger for the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a mobile think tank investigating solutions to urban problems. She is currently in Naples covering the World Urban Forum and we at Spacing Vancouver are honoured to have her permission to post her ongoing coverage. All posts are also being published on Lab|log at Be sure to follow Christine’s thoughts from the WUF all week at @BMWGuggLab and #BGLab. Enjoy!]

By the time you read this, I will have arrived in Naples, Italy, and I will be getting ready for a week of blogging live from the sixth session of UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum (WUF).

As I was planning ahead for my time in Naples, I couldn’t help but question exactly what type of influence such a conference can have. As the world’s largest conference on city issues, attended by more than 10,000 people from over 100 countries, I had to wonder: what can actually be accomplished on that scale?

A few days ago, I spoke with Mariam Yunusa, World Urban Forum Project Coordinator for UN-Habitat, and asked her to walk me through what UN-Habitat sees as the purpose of the conference. How do they siphon the information from such a massive undertaking into their agenda?

She explained that the Forum has a far higher degree of flexibility, spontaneity, and inclusiveness than UN-Habitat’s governing council. “Whereas the governing council is the legislative structure responsible for approving our world program and making decisions [about] governing UN-Habitat, the World Urban Forum is, for lack of a better term, a marketplace of ideas,” Yunusa said.

The recommendations that come out of the Forum, particularly the dialogues and special sessions, are collected into a Report of the Forum, which the chair and co-chair of the WUF give to UN-Habitat’s executive director. This is “a symbolic statement that: ‘This is what the world thinks. This is what the world is saying about the Habitat agenda,’” said Tunusa.

From there the report goes to the governing council—consisting primarily of ministers of housing from UN member states—as an information document, and is used to create the progress report from which the governing council adopts its resolutions.

The impacts of the WUF can be quite large, said Tunusa. It was the dialogues that took place at WUF 3 in Vancouver, Canada, for instance, that brought urban planning itself back to the top of UN-Habitat’s priority list. “It was from that WUF that we got the message that in order to prevent urban poverty and prevent slums and poverty in cities, we have to go back to urban planning. Until then, urban planning had been weakened and had been replaced by structure plans that never made much impact at all,” she said.

Additionally, it was WUF 4 in Nanjing, China that pushed UN-Habitat to begin defining “prosperity” by more than just GDP (gross domestic product) or GNP (gross national product), instead basing that definition on the five “wheel spokes” of their new City Prosperity Index concept: productivity, urban infrastructure, quality of life, equity, and environmental sustainability, all bound by the hub of urban planning.

These larger priorities, then, determine the shape of UN-Habitat’s programs on the ground in cities around the world. I’m looking forward to seeing what new ideas take shape during the coming week. Stay tuned.


For more thoughts from the World Urban Forum, follow me all week at @BMWGuggLab and #BGLab.


Christine McLaren is a freelance journalist who investigates solutions to urban problems. She is currently traveling as the resident blogger for the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a mobile urban think tank investigating urban solutions in nine cities around the world. Her writing and research explores how the shape of our cities impacts the lives and behavior of those living in them and how shifting social, environmental, and economic climates are changing our relationship with the urban fabric. Based in Vancouver, Canada, she has written for publications such as Spacing, Zoomer, BC Business, Unlimited, and Momentum Magazines and reported for numerous print, online, and television news outlets. She was also the lead researcher for award-winning Canadian journalist and New York Lab Team member Charles Montgomery’s upcoming book Happy City, and conducted research for National Geographic Emerging Explorer Alexandra Cousteau‘s upcoming book, This Blue Planet.