World Cities Day highlights design’s role in promoting sustainability, inclusivity

Local governments use event, which bookended Expo 2015, to bolster recognition of the Habitat III process.

MILAN — This year’s World Cities Day, celebrated on the last day of October and dedicated to the topic “Designed to live together”, confirmed the role of city residents as key actors in the global debate around urbanization in their roles as everyday, spontaneous urban designers.

The event officially brought to a close Urban October, the past month’s worth of cities-focused celebration and discussion launched at the global level by UN-Habitat last year. This year’s World Cities Day, formally held in Milan, also brought to an end Expo 2015, the five-month event that this year focused on food and food systems, and reportedly brought in some 22 million visitors.

A year before Habitat III, next year’s major urbanization conference, is set to take place in Quito, Ecuador, World Cities Day and its focus reinforced the centrality of the alliance between local governments and residents as a decisive element in moving toward more sustainable and inclusive cities.

[See: U. N. marks Urban October, one-year countdown to Habitat III]

The need for greater collaboration between local institutions, stakeholders and residents was underlined also in a joint message delivered by local governments in Milan. That document, “Local Governments Moving towards the New Urban Agenda”, sought to bolster mayors’ recognition of the Habitat III process and the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of it.

In the coming year, the document states, local governments must work together through the Habitat process in order to “transform cities into inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable places”. Local governments took the opportunity of World Cities Day “to recall the central role and responsibilities of local governments in the Habitat III process and confirm our commitment to constructively contribute to develop a strong action agenda in Quito.”

A key message underlying the local governments’ call was the rising sense that local decision-makers and stakeholders need to be involved in the Habitat III process — and that the opportunity to do so is now.

The design-focused discussions in Milan offered the opportunity for local policymakers from many urban contexts to discuss shared concerns.

“Urban form is the combination of streets, building typologies and networks of public spaces,” UN-Habitat Executive Director Juan Clos said. “They form the underlying structure of the city, a skeleton around which people’s lives are built and activities carried out. Good design contributes to social integration, equality and diversity.”

Clos continued: “Planning residential areas with different possibilities in terms of typology and price enables residents from different backgrounds and income levels to live together, prevents the creation of isolated ghettos or gated communities, fights segregation and discrimination. Good design gives space for different cultures, ethnicities and lifestyles to mix and come together.”

[See: Habitat III must rethink the role of housing in sustainable urbanization]

Local authorities and others were able to discuss a spectrum of these shared tools: design and its effect on city planning and urban regeneration, social integration, urban security and economic growth. For many taking part, these discussions reiterated the extent to which solutions adopted at the local level can constitute the real core of the debate towards Quito, with people’s needs at the top of the agenda.

Milan’s World Cities Day highlighted how participatory process and local debates are decisive for every phase of planning. As summarized in Milan by Pietro Garau, an urban planner and the event’s keynote speaker, “The questions is not just on how to include citizens but how citizens can include decision-makers and experts in what is happening in the cities.”

‘Better city’

Last year’s World Cities Day, as well as Expo 2010, was held in Shanghai. This year’s event thus brought together top decision-makers and academics from Milan and Shanghai, offering an opportunity to discuss how design contributes to change in these cities.

The Expo itself, of course, has taken place for decades, traditionally seen as the “world’s fair”. In the past, the world’s major cities — Brussels, Paris, London — have used the Expo to unveil major new parts of their urban fabric and identity, as well as to foster urban innovation and tourism through iconic symbols, such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Atomium in Brussels. Today, the Expo represents “an occasion to launch long-term projects for the development of the city”, Milan Mayor Giuliano Pisapia said.

It will take years to see how, or whether, Expo 2015 was really able to contribute to Milan. Pisapia was nonetheless keen to show off new initiatives, including the redesign of some of the city’s most well-known areas, such as the Darsena. Elsewhere, the city has been busy rehabilitating empty buildings such as the Officine Creative Ansaldo, which by March will host some 6,000 square metres of cultural and co-working space for start-ups.

Milan has also played a central role in the strengthening discussion around the sharing economy. The city already shows how the design of physical infrastructure can contribute to better quality of life for urban citizens — and to a more prosperous and integrated city overall.

[See: As Expo 2015 nears, Milan embraces the sharing economy]

Shanghai’s experience has tried to move in a similar direction. Expo 2010 was dedicated to the topic “Better city, better life”, a tagline that has been adopted by the World Cities Days, as well. That event jumpstarted a new experimental model that has led to a process of urban transformation that continues to this day in China’s most dynamic urban areas.

“Shanghai profited from mega-events such as the Expo to modernize the entire city context through concrete projects,” said Wu Zhiqiang, vice president of Tongji University and the former chief planner of Expo 2010.

Public works such as the construction of new metro lines or the creation of new parks rather than parking spaces are visible examples of an urban design centred not only on big-ticket infrastructure but also on the needs of those who live in these areas.

“We are not only involving government agencies, professional organizations and scholars but also engaging the general public much as we can,” said the vice mayor of Shanghai, Jiang Zhuoqing. Official master plans for Shanghai’s development now stretch for the next three decades at least.

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary

Simone d'Antonio

Simone is a Rome-based journalist who covers innovation, sustainability and urban issues.