Sharing urban issues in the Global South – looking back at the 10th World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi

Last changed: 27 March 2020

Reflecting back on the 10th edition of the World Urban Forum, an immediate impression is that it is a truly global event focused on a desire to help people in diverse communities. Almost every session was about ways of addressing inequality, creating inclusivity, providing safety and promoting happiness.

In the spirit of the United Nations, and since it was held in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, its constituency was broad, so non-Western, Global South – notably African – and Muslim countries were very present, giving an atmosphere of post-coloniality to the event, less about the West-as-saviour, and more about affected constituencies talking to each other about shared issues.

As a conference, the exhibition center in Abu Dhabi held the event well, and looking back at it, each of the spaces had particular types of content with their own modes of interaction. While the large lecture venues had the keynote sessions, that tended to be more broad-brush and theoretical, operating in the morning, a group of 32 small rooms were for “networking events” in the afternoons. These often comprised panels of different agencies, and allowed for different interested international groups to engage with each other, and build relationships. While many focused on public space – though design professionals were notably absent from such discussions – the nature of these sessions varied. For example, one group of forums were essentially about public funding and governance, an important reminder that initiatives to improve “the urban” require money and infrastructure, and their success or otherwise is largely dependent on how transparently they are managed; another group were about how digital tools can be used to steer and monitor public space.

Since the conference was situated in the Arab world, it’s not surprising that issues specific to the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. In particular, issues about climate, and specifically how to deal with heat, featured largely in MENA forums, with the nearby Masdar City, a key precedent (with its masterplan by Sir Norman Foster, talked about in this post). Digital tools for urban management and “smart cities” were another very present theme the UAE already excels in. Reading the nature of the urban from the MENA session, it was clear that this region is very different to the Global South, particularly in terms of community safety, crime and informality. However, despite the region having particular security and political challenges, this dimension was absent, as was the political generally at the conference. With lots of different sessions about art and creativity, these tended to focus on art as a tool of communication and participation, rather than art as something that has a political voice and role.

A key area, interestingly, was the exhibition space, which had a diverse constituency. One group of exhibitors were countries, featuring their urban achievements and presumably searching for development and investment potential, such as a new area of Moscow that looked like Dubai, filled with towers, a reminder of how the city is becoming a development model outside the “west”. There were of course lots of NGO’s and universities in the exhibition area, many of which held smaller events, which were highly worthwhile, giving the area a social buzz, occasionally overwhelmed by traditional singing and dancing from various countries. In the exhibition space a favorite area was the Urban Library, that turned over every hour onto a fascinating topic, many with an African or Global South perspective. Some of these changed one’s perception of urbanisation, with Philipp Heinrigs from the OECD arguing from new mapping that migration to cities from the country was now less prevalent in Africa than a densification of the rural. Others made one reconsider the constituencies of the city, like a presentation that looked at old people’s experience of public space. Of particular interest were two SLU panels, one on the urban-rural nexus in the Global South, directed by SLU researcher Zeinab Tag-Eldeen, and one on public spaces in informal settlements, moderated by the director of SLU Urban Futures, Lisa Diedrich.

Overall, the 10th World Urban Forum was overwhelming and it was only possible to walk in and out of content, never to get a complete picture. But it provided a snapshot of the urban world as it stands, and it had a feeling of optimism and positivity that was undeniable, and at the moment, welcome. As it finished, its importance was clear as was the value of attending it regularly. Until next time.


Julian Raxworthy
Honorary Associate Professor, ATCH (Architecture, Theory, Criticism and History) Research Centre, School of Architecture, University of Queensland



World Urban Forum

Organised and convened by UN-Habitat, the World Urban Forum has become the foremost international gathering for exchanging views and experiences on sustainable urbanisation in all its ramifications. The inclusive nature of the Forum, combined with high-level participation, makes it a unique United Nations conference and the premier international gathering on urban issues.

SLU at the World Urban Forum 2020

SLU's participation at the World Urban Forum is supported by SLU Global and led by Zeinab Tag-Eldeen, Researcher at the Department of Urban and Rural Development, and coordinator of the Research Platform ‘Sparking Research into Global Transformation’. SLU arranges side events where research results in the field of sustainable urban development are presented. You will also find SLU in an exhibition stand at the Urban Expo.

Julian Raxworthy, PhD

Julian Raxworthy is an Australian landscape architect and academic, currently residing in Dubai, after 5 years in Cape Town. He is an Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Queensland and reporting from the World Urban Forum for SLU Urban Futures.

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