WUF7: Building alliances, beating climate change, and disrupting 'the tyranny of experts'

This morning's WUF7 Business Assembly featured four powerhouse speakers from the world of urban development: Medellín Mayor Anibal Gaviria Correa; Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation; Michael Bloomberg, three-term Mayor of New York City and UN Special Envoy on Cities and Climate Change; and Dr. Joan Clos, Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, the United Nations organization behind the World Urban Forum.

The assembly was introduced by Tim Campbell, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center's Urban Sustainability Laboratory and author of Beyond Smart Cities, who called out the urgent need for cities to overcome gaps and divides in resources, in services, and in trust. After Campbell's remarks, Medellín Mayor Anibal Gaviria Correa came to the podium and spoke eloquently on the need for public-private sector alliances for urban development, describing in detail the great progress made in that direction by the city of Medellín.

The next speaker was Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, who began his social sector career working on a grassroots project to build Harlem's first full-service supermarket in a generation. Walker started out by praising the WUF7 host city of Medellín, its people, and its mayor as exemplars of innovation and "constructive disruption." In "serving the public and serving the poor," Walker added, disruption is essential to counter the received knowledge of entrenched "experts." Community efforts to create a full-service supermarket in Harlem had to route around "the tyranny of experts," who apparently couldn’t wrap their heads around residents’ straightforward need for a place to shop for food. Disrupting that tyranny broke a bottleneck and got the residents what they needed. Walker closed quoting Jane Jacobs: "There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans."

Introducing former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Campbell noted that "it's hard to do an introduction in this short a time that does him justice." After confiding his pleasure at having been mayor of the city with "the most Colombians of any city outside Colombia," Bloomberg focused on climate change — appropriately, given Bloomberg’s new role (unpaid!) as United Nations Special Envoy on Cities and Climate Change. "Climate change is reshaping our planet. I don't think any reasonable person denies it," he affirmed, adding that "we need more cities to take part" in making changes happen at a local level. "My focus on climate change is right now," said Bloomberg, who invoked the disastrous impact of climate change on coastal cities, the one million people in China who die each year because of coal pollution, and a host of other issues, many of them detailed in the latest report on climate change from the UN. "Cities are the place for climate solutions," he said. Not only do the biggest carbon emissions come from cities, with their concentrated populations, but city mayors and residents have the power to "keep pressing at a local level. These local changes do add up." Cities must show national governments by example, Bloomberg said. "This work is too important to kick the can down the road."

After Mayor Bloomberg came Dr. Joan Clos, Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, who stressed the importance of public space in the development of just and equitable cities — praising urban density and mixed use, as opposed to an approach he termed "segregation of the land." Public space in most cities "is half of what it should be," he said, noting that fully 50 percent of New York City — which, he reminded the audience, is among the world’s most valuable real estate — is public space. On this theme, Clos also had words of praise for Mayor Bloomberg, who "had the courage to close Times Square to traffic."

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