The 10th World Urban Forum

The 10th World Urban Forum, 8-13 February 2020, Abu Dhabi [1]

Text by Roberto Rocco[2], Rachel Keeton[3], Luz Maria Vergara[4], Igor Pessoa[5]


Just before the COVID-19 outbreak threw us into a mind-boggling vortex of events, the World Urban Forum took place in Abu Dhabi in February 2020. World Urban Forums are biannual events organised by UN-Habitat, the branch of the United Nations in charge of sustainable urban development, in the lead up to the big Habitat meetings every twenty years.

Habitat meetings have an enormous influence on how we conceive sustainable urbanisation.

Habitat I took place in Vancouver in 1976, four years after the momentous 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. During the 1960s and 1970s, the world had witnessed unprecedented urban growth and governments started to notice the negative effects of rapid and unplanned urbanisation. At Habitat I in Vancouver, governments recognised the impact of rapid urbanisation on the well-being of people, but the emphasis was largely on the provision of housing and services. These were often based on very technocratic approaches, which put national governments at centre stage, leaving authorities out of the equation. This happened well before the report that has shaped our understanding of the relationship between human settlements and the environment was released: ‘Our Common Future’, also known as the Brundtland Report. Published in 1987, this report launched the idea that we must seek “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

If you are young, it might be difficult to imagine that before that report, talking about sustainability was seen as something of an oddity. The emphasis was on growth, competitiveness and technological progress. This was the world before the fall of the Berlin Wall(1989), a world locked in the Cold War stalemate, with two main competing and mutually exclusive narratives about the path to take for human development and the danger of a nuclear holocaust looming in the horizon. Those who warned about the dangers of unsustainable urbanisation to the environment were not taken seriously enough.

This scenario had changed substantially when Habitat II took place in Istanbul in 1996, also four years after another crucial gathering concerned with the environment, the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit of 1992. During the Rio Summit, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, best known as Agenda 21, was launched.

Habitat II was popularly known as the ‘City Summit’ and recognised that although cities are en­gines of growth, sustainable urbanisa­tion should be a priority. It also called for a bigger role for local governments and citizen participation, giving rise to a wave of decentralisation and participatory policies. Cities (and citizens) finally started to take centre stage.

Another landmark was achieved in 2000, with the Millennium Summit of the United Nations and the adoption of the United Nations Millennium Declaration and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), eight international development goals for the year 2015.

In 2012, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), also known as Rio+20, was held again in Rio de Janeiro, as a 20-year follow up to the Rio Earth Summit of 1992. It was during the Rio+20 conference that the idea of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was launched. The SDGs were finally adopted in 2015, a few months before Habitat III.

20 years down the road, a lot had changed when Habitat III took place in Quito, the beautiful capital of Ecuador in 2016. The effects of climate change were now undeniable and the world was more interconnected than ever.

We had finally come to the realisation that the resources of our planet are indeed finite, and many governments had started to take serious steps towards transitioning towards sustainable sources of energy (albeit those steps were not nearly enough to face the scale of the problem), while humanity had become, for the first time in history, predominantly urban around 2014.

Habitat III in Quito and its output docu­ment, the New Urban Agenda (NUA), took all this in stock and reinforced the idea that sustainable urbanisation is an engine for development. But urban sustainability here is understood much more holistically, embracing its three essential ele­ments: environmental, social and economic. The NUA seeks to create a mutually rein­forcing relationship between sustainable urbanisation and development, but it pays much more attention to the social and po­litical aspects that underscore sustainability. The idea is that by addressing Sustainable Development Goal 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities: Make cities and human set­tlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sus­tainable), we can address most of the other SDGs agreed by the United Nations in 2015. If we wish to ensure “development that meets the needs of the present without compro­mising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, then we must find the political, economic and technological tools that will allow that to happen.

This is an important issue for us, because we understand that, in order to effect the drastic changes that we need to undergo in order to make cities sustainable, we can’t rely only on technology and economic development. Many authors are starting to question the idea that economies must keep growing, since the resources available to us on our planet are clearly finite. Technology helps, but we must also be able to understand how actors and institutions interact with technology and with each other and how decisions are made. This is because algorithms, as “smart” as they are, cannot replace political will when it comes to changing pathways towards a more sustainable future. Any transition on the scale that we need demands herculean coordinated efforts from all actors in society. In other words, this transition cannot take place “by decree”. Actors from all sectors of society must converge towards a vision of a desired and possible future for humanity on planet Earth.

Understanding this complex network of actors and how they interact with each other is crucial if we wish to plan and design for sustainable futures, as we must be able to shape their attention and steer them to act towards a common goal. Excessive faith in technological solutions is misleading. The transition of complex socio-technical systems must be anchored on coordinated and converging institutional, cultural and political change.

In this sense, understanding governance is fundamental for planners and designers of the built environment if they wish to effect real positive change in their quest for sustainability. Governance allows us to understand how different actors in a process or organisation interact with institutions, with technology and with each other.

With these ideas in mind, we decided to organise a training event at the 10th World Urban Forum, held in Abu Dhabi between 8 and 13 February 2020. Our 3-hour training event was titled “The Spatial Justice of Slum Upgrading Strategies: frameworks for social sustainability”, and aimed to introduce policy makers to social sustainability as a crucial dimension of sustainable development, using spatial justice as an analytical and practical framework for policy design. By playing a serious game, we explored the power of communicative rationality as a tool for better policy design, embedded in the notion of polycentric governance developed by Elinor Ostrom in her governance of the commons theory. We encouraged policy makers and other actors to develop analytical and communicative skills that help address issues of governance and to conceive slum upgrading in a cooperative way. The skills we wanted to develop were:

  1. How to design slum upgrading strategies that focus on social sustainability and locally bound cultural assets, based on the notion of communicative rationality and polycentric governance.
  2. How to include spatial justice ideas [distributive and procedural] into policy design.
  3. How to evaluate slum upgrading strategies in terms of social sustainability, spatial justice and transferability.

We were helped in this endeavour by Claudio Acioly, TU Delft alumnus, and former head of the capacity building unit at UN-Habitat. Claudio gave an extensive presentation about his experiences in slum upgrading with UN-Habitat, which informed participants about the challenges and the limits of participation and co-decision-making. The session was attended by 45 people from all over the world. A quick survey showed that participants were more or less equally distributed between public sector, private sector, civil society, with a slightly lower number of academics. Feedback was incredibly positive and we intend to organise another training event in the next World Urban Forum in Katowice, Poland, in 2022.


Now that the WUF is over, and we start looking forward to the next steps, it is important to situate this discussion within the current COVID-19 outbreak crisis. More than ever, urban development is at the centre of our concerns about how to steer sustainable development, prevent new outbreaks and how to minimise the suffering of those most vulnerable in our societies.

On a par with climate change, infectious disease outbreaks are global events that demand immediate action, as the interconnectedness of our socio-technical systems mean that any health hazard can spread with unmatched velocity around the world. Exposure and resistance to infectious diseases have much to do with how and where we live. One of the defining characteristics of the COVID-19 outbreak was the necessity to slow down contagion by encouraging citizens to wash their hands frequently, keep social distance and to self-isolate. These measures are impossible to implement in urban environments where people live in too close proximity to each-other, like slums and crowded tenement houses, where they don’t have easy access to running water and sanitation, and where the quality of housing is so poor that health hazards cannot be effectively addressed or contained. Moreover, general public health is bound to be very poor in places where a significant part of the population lives in slums or where the rate of homelessness is substantial. The homeless have no protection against health and natural hazards whatsoever, unless firm public action is taken

Let us remind you, dear reader, that approximately 1/3 of all urban dwellers worldwide live in informal settlements or in subnormal conditions, often without access to sanitation and running water. This is morally unacceptable, and also socially, environmentally and economically unsustainable. Healthy, green, accessible, climate resilient cities are a right for all, but they are also the key to avoid catastrophes like the COVID-19 and impending environmental disasters, which affect all of us. We cannot survive without spatial justice being at the centre of urban development, and hence at the centre of education on spatial planning and design.




More information about TU Delft’s participation at the World Urban Forum can be found here:

You can download the Declared Action from WUF here:

Have a look at the photos:



[1] The introduction to this text was published in slightly different from in the report Rocco, R. (2017). Education for the City We Need: Exploring how to integrate the UN-Habitat New Urban Agenda in higher education curriculums. Delft: Delft University of Technology.

[2] Associate Professor, Department of Urbanism.

[3] PhD Candidate, Department of Urbanism.

[4] Postdoc researcher, Department of Management in the Built Environment.

[5] Postdoc researcher, Department of Urbanism.