polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Social Urban Forum vs. World Urban Forum

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Last week, the World Urban Forum (WUF) took place in Rio, with a record in participants (over 10,000). The WUF is organized by UN-HABITAT every two years as an open space to debate the most up-to-date issues related to urban development worldwide, with a strong focus on urban poverty and environment. This event gathers all sorts of people, from slum community leaders to prime ministers. The theme for this year was: The Right to the City - Bridging the Urban Divide.

In parallel to the WUF, the Brazilian social movements, with support from NGOs and international networks, organized the Social Urban Forum (SUF). This event took place in a nearby venue, with a similar time schedule and with a similar array of debates around urban issues, also focused on urban poverty and the environment. The SUF gathered social movements, networks and civil society organizations around the world to share their experiences and express their concerns on the collective construction of a different perspective of the city through dialogue, expression of diversity, and the strengthening of social movements and organizations’ articulations around the globe. The SUF placed itself as an opportunity to open debates about a city that is more just, democratic, gender-equal and committed to social and environmental justice. The staring point of the SUF was an unauthorized demonstration in front of the WUF, which was repelled by the police with pepper gas. Despite the violence, the SUF managed to send the message that the WUF did not represent all voices equally, and that there was an alternative space where to debate the same issues in a challenging manner.

Why two events at the same time, in the same city and neighbourhood, dealing with the same issues? To understand this, one needs to understand that the WUF is an event led and dominated by government entities. UN-HABITAT and the UN system as a whole represent their 190 country government members. UN-HABITAT, thus, has a commitment to its members and to their participation as the leaders of the event. It is a noble fact that governments agree to join communities, academics and professionals face to face in defining what will be the agenda of UN-HABITAT in the coming years. Moreover, this WUF's theme is an issue that was originated and claimed to governments by social movements for a long time: the Right to the City. In this sense, the WUF is essentially a consultation process. However, we all know that governments are far from perfect, that consultation is not enough, and that they need to be challenged somehow in order to improve their performance and, above all, their accountability to whom they are meant to represent, the civil society.

Once again, Brazilian social movements become a reference point worldwide in regards to defining their role as leaders of social control over public policy (see the World Social Forum). This is, then, the role of the SUF, a space in which the civil society, through its organizations, associations, etc, challenge our governments. This year, the SUF has specifically challenged the fact that the WUF's theme is "the Right to the City", because the path ahead in meeting this right is still very long and it needs the social movements to remind governments about it.

As Peter Marcuse put it in the inauguration of the SUF, both events are necessary, both need to be separated as they have different purposes, and both have to feed each other.

Credits: Image of Raquel Rolnik and David Harvey inaugurating the SUF from direitoacidade.org. Image of the main space in the SUF from inhabitatnts.org.