ISOCARP Statement for the World Cities Day

The International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP) wishes to join UN-Habitat and the global community in celebrating the 7th World Cities Day – while keenly aware that WCD 2020 is different from the previous six anniversaries.

This October, we should remember the original purpose of the WCD, which calls for ‘a moment to reflect on our cities and consider their future’ and do it more seriously than even before.

Year 2020 has been a remarkably challenging year for cities. It started with a global pandemic, only to be followed by harsh measures to contain it, which in turn triggered a global economic recession and brought social and cultural life in cities worldwide to a standstill. In the words of UN Secretary General, Mr Antonio Guterres: “Cities have borne the brunt of the pandemic.”

The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the fragility of our cities like no computer models ever could. And this came in a period in history when we have had such great ambitions with urbanisation. Ever since the turn of this millennium, cities have been at the front line of the 21stcentury global agenda – climate action, biosphere regeneration and socially inclusive development. This year, it has become painfully obvious how crucial the condition, process and future of urbanisation are for humanity’s destiny.

Better Cities, Better Life is an attractive slogan, but after the coronavirus shock some have even questioned the idea of the city as such. Perhaps the words traditionally central to the idea of city, such as ‘crowdedness’ and ‘concentration’, need to be replaced by new concepts? For example, with ‘diversity’ and ‘community’, to reflect the less physical, yet vitally important attributes of the city.

Such clues are indeed discernible in the UN-Habitat’s choice of the Valuing Our Communities and Cities slogan and acknowledgement that “local communities have played a key role in contributing to keeping people safe and maintaining some economic activities”. The UN-Habitat’s WCD 2020 statements also stress that it is more important than ever to consider how diverse urban communities can be better recognized, supported and their qualities maximized…”.

Forced by the pandemic pressure cooker, perhaps we are closer to a new definition of the city than we realise. It might be one which is not based on the physical concepts related to the urban form (density, centrality, concentration) and more oriented towards urban flows, social aspirations and environmental constraints. The word ‘community’ – which very fortunately combines the social and ecological connotations – seems to dominate our 2020 discourse about the city. During this year we could observe cities going dysfunctional under the various Covid-19 regimes, while the local communities gradually took over the city life. Something similar might be forced upon us in a not-too-distant future, under some of the uglier global climate meltdown scenarios.

And maybe that’s how it should be even post-Covid, and regardless of future challenges. As stated by the UN-Habitat Executive Director, Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif: “communities provide a vital safety net. But their value goes far beyond supporting emergency responses.”

At ISOCARP we support this focus on local communities and their empowerment and resiliency. At the 2019 Congress of ISOCARP in Jakarta, which tackled the metropolitan scale of urbanisation, we had already recognized in our Jakarta Declaration that “working strategically across government levels and scales from territorial to neighbourhoods, from national drivers to local livelihoods, formal and informal, from macro to micro is essential”.

This statement – formulated half a year before the pandemic – only reflected the emerging global trends in urban development towards de-centralisation and re-localisation. The trends were already there; Covid-19 only accelerated them. As the UN-Habitat WCD 2020 policy statement observes, the pandemic is only “a costly but timely lesson in valuing communities in a more systematic manner and including them in urban planning, implementation and monitoring” which calls upon us to “reimagine what makes cities resilient and sustainable”.  

We join UN-Habitat in its call for a “transition to a new sustainable normality” in which “local communities must play an expanded role”. And this year, more than ever before, we stress the central role of urban, regional and spatial planning in this global task of unprecedented importance and urgency.

As released by ISOCARP at its Board Meeting on 30 October. For more info: isocarp@isocarp.org

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