Five key takeaways from the World Urban Forum

What can Portland learn from the “New Urban Agenda” and its implementation?  How do our successes and “lessons learned” fit into the larger process?

The author signing an MOU at the World Urban Forum with representatives of UN-Habitat to finalize a partnership for pilot projects, helping to implement the New Urban Agenda. L-R, the author, Shipra Narang Suri, Coordinator of the Urban Design Branch of UN-Habitat, and Saidou N’Dow, Head of Legal Office, UN-Habitat.

I recently reported on conclusions from the 2018 World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur in February, for the national planners’ website Planetizen.  I thought readers of this blog might like to see excerpts, and their relationship to some of the issues we discuss here.

As we’ve discussed elsewhere, I think Portland can play an important role in this process — in showing how sprawling American cities can become more compact, walkable, diverse, mixed-use, offering transportation choice, and — crucially — appealingly livable for many different people and stages of life.  We can share our successes, though limited, and our lessons learned — which, if we are honest, are considerable.

For example, are we still too preoccupied with the “low-hanging fruit of the core, and an approach that might be called “voodoo urbanism”? Are we ignoring the opportunities for getting large numbers of units in reconfigured walkable mixed neighborhoods outside the core, where so many peopel live and are moving?

Are we still too stuck in old 20th Century “command and control” methods of planning and design (and their reactionary architectural models)  that are a little too much like Robert Moses, and not enough like Jane Jacobs?   Methods and models that only exacerbate our more intractable problems — like gentrification, loss of affordability, loss of livability, displacement, urban inequity, growing ugliness, growing unsustainability, and other ills? I think so… (Which is one reason I continue to think it’s important to participate in the discourse in my own back yard, in spite of its apparently increasing ugliness of tone…)

Link to the article:


It’s been over a year now since all 193 countries of the United Nations adopted by acclamation the “New Urban Agenda,” the outcome document of the Habitat III conference held in October 2016. The historic nature of that achievement is hard to over-state: for the first time, we have a world-wide agreement embracing walkable mixed use, mixed transportation modes, polycentric regions, diversity and affordability, and other elements of a “new urbanism” (by any other name).

But now comes the hard part of implementation. That challenge was the focus of the Ninth World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur in early February of 2018—the first since the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, and the first to take up the specifics of implementation.

The obstacles are daunting. “Business as usual”—especially sprawl—still dominates in too many places. Yet there is considerable good news about the human benefits of urbanization: improvements in health and well-being, more opportunities for women, moderated population growth, better access to services, better resources for human development and cultural growth, and much more.

Those benefits don’t come equally to all, of course, and that is one of the biggest challenges: creating a form of urbanization that is more equitable, and more effective in delivering on the great promises of cities for all. Of course that is the core reason that so many of us are drawn to cities and towns in the first place. That was, in fact, the theme of the conference: “Cities for All: Implementing the New Urban Agenda.”

So for one week in early February, 25,000 participants from all 193 countries gathered in Kuala Lumpur and took up those challenges, forging partnerships and developing pilot projects. I noted five key takeaways from the conference:

1. The world is urbanizing at a blistering pace. At present rates—and there’s currently no sign this will change—the world’s urban population will more than double in the next 40 years. That’s a staggering rate and quantity of urbanization. Essentially we will create more urban fabric than has ever been created in all of human history up to now.

2. Much of this urbanization is sprawling and resource-inefficient. While the number of people is set to double, the amount of land that will be consumed at present rates is significantly more than double. In other words, urban density is going down—and the cause of that trend is easy to spot. In a word, it’s sprawl: fragmented, unwalkable, resource-intensive, car-dependent (which places an unconscionable burden on the poor, the aged, children, the infirm etc)—and simply unsustainable. At a time of accelerating resource depletion, climate change and other natural and human challenges, the implications are increasingly undeniable, and “business as usual” is increasingly unacceptable.

3. Growing numbers of people recognize that we must change business as usual. This is a hopeful trend, evidenced by the New Urban Agenda itself. It’s not just that we need to avoid disaster, but we need to seize the positive human opportunities too. In fact, the common understanding of cities is changing—from a simple-minded notion that “that’s where the jobs are” to a deeper understanding of cities as creative engines of human development, with a remarkable inherent capacity for resource efficiency. But in turn, that new understanding implies a new appreciation of what cities must do to achieve their potential—especially, how cities need public spaces, and public space systems, including walkable streets and paths. (More on that point below.)

4. But there are many who haven’t “gotten the memo.” Many people are still addicted to the short-term profits from sprawling, resource-intensive urbanization, and too many places look like they could have been designed for 1940 (with updated avant-garde art packaging) instead of 2020. GM’s “Tomorrowland,” with its vast superblocks, segregated freeways, gigantic art-buildings, and degraded public spaces, might have been a profitable model for the last century, but we need a new model today: one that is more attuned to human needs and natural complexities, and the urgent need for a more sustainable form of urbanization. That is what the New Urban Agenda provides.

5. The New Urban Agenda represents a hopeful way forward for all. We now have a landmark agreement by 193 countries to move in a new direction—a “new paradigm” in the words of Dr. Joan Clos, who just retired as head of UN-Habitat. Behind this agreement lies a new understanding of cities and their inherent capacities as engines of human development, and powerful tools in meeting our larger challenges of resource depletion, climate change, inequality, geopolitical instability, and other ills. But along with that comes a sober recognition of the great dangers ahead, if we fail to make the needed changes.

Conclusion: there is much work ahead to change the “operating system for growth.” The current system of “business as usual” is the interactive result of all the laws, codes, rules, standards, conventions, models, incentives, and disincentives, that collectively shape what can be built and where—and whether it will be profitable (which almost always means whether it can be built at all). There is a lot more to it than whether someone thinks a particular project is a good idea—or a bad one.

We can liken this vast set of rules and standards to a kind of “operating system for growth”—its structure governs what can “run” on it (or what can be built and operated). It includes the rules of local and national governments, but also the international rules of global finance and real estate capital, among others. It is a kind of “massive multi-player game” in which we are all players, but some of us get to shape the rules of the game itself. Increasingly that is what we must all work to do—changing zoning to allow better projects, reducing regulatory burdens for desirable projects, and assessing and re-aligning many of the obsolete and conflicting codes from older ways of doing things. It is tedious work, but it could not be more important.

Government policy is one important dimension of the problem—especially in democratic countries. One of the issues we will surely have to confront is the question of how resources are taxed relative to the products of human creativity. By shifting the burden away from creative outputs and toward the consumption of resources (including land) we can reward efficiency, compactness, and the improvement of long-term “externalities” (like greenhouse gas emissions). This “Georgist” approach to economics is one of the kinds of issues we will have to confront globally in changing the “rules of the game” for better-quality urban development in the future.

One of the other issues taken up by our research center in Stockholm—the Centre for the Future of Places—is the fundamental role of public space in sustainable urbanization. We’ve come to recognize it as a kind of essential “connective matrix” of healthy cities. It’s public spaces—including streets—that give us the access to all the benefits of cities, and that connect private spaces to each other. It’s public spaces that ultimately connect us to each other, as the research shows, and underlie efficient creativity and exchange within cities and towns.

Yet ironically, public space is most under threat in the current wave of urbanization. For “informal settlements”—slums—public spaces are shrinking, mostly because the illegal “developers” who lay them out have little incentive to create public spaces. For “market-rate development”—essentially everything else—there is also an economic pressure to get rid of public space, replacing it with more profitable private domains—shopping malls, gated communities, high rises, and the like. But that degrades the very connective tissue that makes cities such powerful engines of creativity, and efficiency too. It also has important impacts on equitability and “cities for all.”

In all these challenges, we will have to learn how to value public space and other “positive externalities”—how to assure that the very real human value they generate gets translated back as economic value in the development process, to reward those who make more public spaces, and reflect the true cost to all of us on those who diminish them. Similarly, those who create other “externality costs” borne by us all—like greenhouse gas emissions—ought to pay a fair amount to offset that cost—with a basic exemption for those with lower incomes. Such pricing mechanisms are a fair way of paying true costs—instead of pushing those costs onto our grandchildren’s bill.

For related reasons, these kinds of economic tools may also be necessary for building “cities for all.” Research is showing that the more we exclude parts of a city from equitable development, the more those parts of the city place a drag on the economic performance of the city as a whole. We can readily understand this in the loss of productivity, the costs of policing and incarceration, and the other costs borne by all. But the new insights show how much it’s true that “cities for all” are not just a matter of justice, but are also good for everyone’s bottom line. That economic incentive is a very helpful resource when it comes to making the needed changes.

So how do we implement such an ambitious agenda? One model discussed at the World Urban Forum is what we might call “snowball projects”—initially small, implementable pilot projects that are structured to scale up as they become more successful, and gather up momentum—like a growing snowball rolling downhill. (In our case they may be public space development projects, but they could be other kinds of urban projects as well.) As the pilot projects are developed, the knowledge gained from them is combined with other knowledge, and exchanged through international wiki-like platforms for peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and development. These “toolkits” of open-source implementation tools can then be tailored to different local conditions, using local universities, NGOs, businesses, governments, and other existing local resources, and then the lessons an be distilled and exported out again for use by others.

I came away from the World Urban Forum well aware of the daunting challenges, but also hopeful and energized. In a sense, we might well conclude that cities (and towns) pose the biggest problems for the future—simply because that’s where most of us increasingly live, and consume. But in a deeper sense, cities and towns are the solution—because, when they function well, they have an inherent capacity to produce beneficial human development with increasing efficiency and diminishing resource consumption In fact, their performance rivals the “organized complexity” and the resulting stellar performance of many natural systems.

It is exactly that “stellar performance” that we must now put to work in our cities, more reliably and more equitably, and on a much larger scale.


The ugly side of Portland’s housing debate (and getting uglier)

Portland blogger Iain Mackenzie gets some facts wrong – and cheerleads for a troubling new divisiveness in city politics

A recent Twitter feed, in which blogger Iain Mackenzie calls this author an “anti-housing activist” – ludicrously false, but also revealing a more disturbing trend of divisive city politics.

In my Twitter feed this morning, I had some nice reactions to our post yesterday on Ada Louise Huxtable’s famous criticism of Portland’s formulaic architecture, which echoes in our time with renewed relevance.  One response was from my friend Loretta Lees, an expert on gentrification and its remedies at the University of Leicester in the UK.

Her work reminds us that we certainly have a huge challenge in Portland with gentrification, equity and affordability — as so many cities do around the world.  In this challenge, we need vigorous debate, incisive critique (like Huxtable’s and others’) and sharing of lessons nationally and internationally.  (That is something we often evangelize for on this blog.)  We also need to be more joined-up with international initiatives, like the historic New Urban Agenda — a new framework international agreement that embraces “cities for all” and the ways we can achieve them.  (This author has been involved in developing and now implementing this framework agreement.)

One Tweet stood out from this narrative, however.  Iain Mackenzie, blogger at architecture fanzine Next Portland,  attacked me personally as an “anti-housing activist,” noting that my friend Sherry Salomon had given testimony at City Hall that echoed our blog post from yesterday.  (That part is true — I had a client meeting and couldn’t attend, so I asked Sherry to give my testimony for me.)

But what is ludicrously false is the charge that I am an “anti-housing activist,” since my “day job” is — to plan and build housing.  And to do so in a joined-up way, with commercial and civic uses, in walkable, mixed, complete communities, that are more sustainable and more equitable.  Among my clients are three of Portland’s best-known affordable housing non-profits, as well as other developers, NGOs and governments, in the US and internationally (including UN-Habitat, for the aforementioned New Urban Agenda.)

I have also been more active in Portland of late, trying to encourage my fellow citizens in my own back yard to think more deeply about the nature of our challenges, and the tools and strategies we will actually need to use to meet them.   (Hint: simple-minded approaches like “build baby build” will not cut it.)  That’s one of my goals in working on this blog, with my great friend Suzanne Lennard, director of International Making Cities Livable (as the name suggests, hers is very much an international effort, but looking at and sharing successes and lessons from Portland too).

For the same reason, not long ago I accepted an invitation to join the board of my neighborhood association — to practice what I preach in my own back yard.  What I have found in that role is rather shocking.  There is an ugly new mood in this city — and it is pushed by people like Mackenzie.  If you don’t see things the way he does — every new building is a good and necessary one, justified by all things correct and righteous — then you are a NIMBY, an opponent of diversity, perhaps even a racist.  At best you are an “anti-housing activist.”

Nowhere does there seem to be scope and nuance to discuss what is a good building or a bad building, what is damaging to the public realm or not, or what is an effective strategy and what is magical thinking, fueled by divisive and toxic “identity politics.”  (As we have noted, that kind of divisiveness serves some narrow financial interests well, and it has sadly come to dominate national politics — but can’t Portland chart a more enlightened way?)

Sadly, Mackenzie is not alone in fomenting this divisive new tone, and framing old-time neighborhood activists and historic preservation advocates as NIMBYs or worse.   It appears to this author that the City’s own Office of Neighborhood Involvement is also preparing to throw neighborhoods under the bus, responding to a misguided call to service “identity politics.”   As we have written, inclusiveness, equity and a “city for all” are absolutely essential goals — and good for everyone’s bottom line too, by the way —  and we must absolutely not make a hash of it by confusing geographic representation with inclusive policy.  We must not fuel the very dynamics that are causing our problems, with  a misguided approach to “voodoo urbanism.”

But sadly, that is exactly what is happening now in Portland — and the city will be damaged for generations.

Meanwhile, at the state level, some land use and housing activists (who should know better) also seem to have bought into this simplistic “build baby build” mentality, and its corollary, the penchant to attack existing neighborhoods who dare to oppose any new project, good or bad  — reflected in last year’s divisive anti-historic preservation bill HB 2007.   This was in spite of the blistering pace of residential demolitions, and the evidence that many of these houses were more affordable than the ones that replaced them.  In addition to our critiques of these misguided efforts, we also proposed alternatives.

As we have written frequently, the Portland region absolutely does need more housing units.  But we also need a more joined-up regional strategy, not a tunnel-visioned “jam them into the core” mentality.  Most people don’t live in the core, and most of the new residents are not moving to the core.  We need to think more regionally, and more polycentrically.  And to be blunt, less foolishly.

More fundamentally, we need to decide what kind of city Portland will become — that’s in our hands, as it was in 1970, and always has been.  Will we become a playground for architects and their self-serving fantasies?  (And other narrow financial interests?) Will we become a sad shell of our own past, mired in failed divisive approaches and magical thinking, rewarding only a few in the end?  Or will we actually work together to find common ground, and make Portland a truly livable “city for all?”

Stay tuned.


Ada Louise Huxtable to Portland: “Lose the ‘Anywhere USA’ towers and bunkers”

Tough words from 48 years ago – and sadly becoming all too relevant again.

“Against the suave schlock of some of Portland’s current architectural imports, Mt. Hood doesn’t stand a chance.” Taller building heights in the new Central City 2035 plan will block a number of iconic views, including this one from Vista Bridge — part of the Portlandia TV show opening sequence, and part of Portland’s urban commons. Who benefits from the privatization of our common urban assets?

In 1970, the famous New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable came to Portland, and she didn’t like what she saw. Writing in the Times, she heaped scorn on the Rose City for accepting a generation of bland corporate “towers and bunkers” that spoiled the unique natural and built heritage of the city.

Portland, she said, had “a better-than-average assortment of Anywhere U.S.A. products, with their interchangeable towers and plazas multiplying a slick, redundant formula… In style, scale and impact it will be alien corn, in every sense of the word.”

She also reminded us of what we do have, and need to protect, including “small scaled, comfortably pedestrian streets.” The trouble is, she warned, “this is a dreamworld urbanism; a city blessed by nature and by man. It is so lovely that Portlanders are lulled into a kind of false security about its urban health.”

Aren’t we ever.

About the big new buildings of that age she said, “No one has stopped looking at the tops of these buildings long enough to see what is happening on the ground. Each one is contributing to the devitalization of the city.”

Two years later, Portland adopted the landmark 1972 Plan, and the city committed to preserving and building on its walkable urban heritage. In that era of reforms, we got the preservation of the Skidmore Fountain area, the new Pioneer Square, Tom McCall Waterfront Park, and the revival of many other great old neighborhoods — often under the threat of demolition. Many of those successes came only after long fights by neighborhood activists.

How ironic that we now seem to be sliding back into the same bland, ugly formulas, driven by questionable logic and faulty reasoning – and attacks on the same neighborhood activism that helped trigger our urban renaissance.  Now they’re not grassroots champions, but “NIMBYs,” “racists,” “opponents of affordability,” and more.

Sheer nonsense.

What is also nonsense is the idea that expensive high rises are the ticket to affordability, that demolition of existing affordable housing stock is somehow the path to promoting diversity, and that we save farmland by building a few hundred more units atop tall buildings in the core.   No, we save farmland by building more walkable compact mixed use in the suburbs, where 80 percent of the region lives.  We keep the best of what we already have, including the best inner-city neighborhoods.  We become a better city by repairing and improving our worst places, not by destroying our best ones.

Perhaps the worst myth of all?  That Portland won’t be a “real city” until it joins all the other wannabe cities and builds a crop of shiny new towers.   That it’s time to put on our “big boy pants.”  (That statement — expressed by a senior member of the city planning hierarchy — is just as childish as it sounds.)

Thanks to that same hierarchy, just this month, Portland’s city council voted to approve building heights that will block many of Portland’s most iconic views, including the view of Mt. Hood from Vista Bridge (the image of innumerable post cards, and the opening shot of the Portlandia TV show).  In the wake of that decision, Ms. Huxtable’s words have special poignancy:

“Against the suave schlock of some of Portland’s current architectural imports, Mt. Hood doesn’t stand a chance.”

Read the article about Ada Louise Huxtable’s visit in Portland Architecture: