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There’s More to a City

December 17, 2013

By Carl Teichrib (www.forcingchange.org)

Note: This article, released after the 2006 event it describes, is being republished so that you can better grasp how global governance and United Nations ideals intersect with urban affairs. In other words, this piece gives you a glimpse into the working of the international community as it relates to the city. Furthermore, this article has been revised to improve readability and to include new data where applicable.unhabitat logo

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Standing on the public promenade of the Canada Place Vancouver Convention Centre, I was a overwhelmed by the magnitude of my surroundings. To my front and across Burrard Inlet was the city of North Vancouver with its spectacular mountain backdrop typical of beautiful British Columbia. Behind rose the skyscrapers, towers, and construction cranes of Vancouver, one of the most successful growth-cities of North America. And all around flowed a sea of humanity.

More than 10,000 participants from over 100 countries had converged on Vancouver for the week of June 19-23, 2006. The reason for this massive influx of politicians, world leaders, lobbyists, and government-types was the third international session of the United Nations World Urban Forum (WUF3) – a product of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (also known as UN-HABITAT).

Turning to my agenda package, I leafed through the material hoping to organize my week. Like the event itself, the WUF3 programme was immense; daily plenary sessions, a multitude of roundtables and dialogue meetings, and over 160 training and networking events scattered over five days. Added to this mix were cultural festivities, side meetings, and guided tours – all meant to build international solidarity.

As page 48 of the official conference program stated, “…the first steps towards global change start with us!”

International Bed-partners

Cities are more than just places of work, places of residence, business and culture. They contain the majority of the world’s population and are therefore focal points for political power: leverage used to advance “global change.” International players recognize this immense political potential, and over the course of the WUF3 it was evident that cities were to undergo a more unified partnership and purpose within the global community.

Throughout the World Urban Forum, cities were upheld as strategic allies of the United Nations system. And it wasn’t hard to understand the context; we were told, on more than one occasion, that if nations would not uphold their international agreements, then individual cities should lead the way. To this end, mayors, city planners, politicians, and UN leaders emphasized key urban-international partnership areas, including,

Localizing UN Millennium Development Goals. The MDGs act as a multi-point commitment program that incorporates poverty-eradication promises, education, and global development goals. For some like the Socialist International, the MGDs have become a type of global-socialist rallying cry, and cities were encouraged to firmly step into the MDG arena of social action. [Regarding the SI and MDGs: “The Socialist International reaffirms its strong commitment to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. The MDGs are part of the social democratic approach to governance in a global society.”] The main point was that cities were to take a direct role in MDG programs, as national governments had so-far failed to live up to promised commitments.

Local UN Agenda 21 programs. Back in 1992, Agenda 21 was released as a major leg of the UN Earth Summit. It was a comprehensive “sustainable development” framework document designed as an influencing agent regarding land use and the environment. Ultimately this framework impacts property rights, values and behaviors, national and local environmental management plans, and development priorities. Since 1992 thousands of local Agenda 21 committees have cropped up in cities and municipal regions around the world.

Agenda 21 played into the UN World Urban Forum. After all, the WUF3 official motto was “Our Future: Sustainable Cities – Turning Ideas into Action.” So it wasn’t a surprise to see that a significant effort was being made to tighten the integration between Agenda 21 and global city planning.

Agenda 21 operates as a bureaucratic lever, providing a mandated justification for “management” that extends from global agencies to national governments, and then from federal departments into state/provincial and local county/municipal offices. Mark Edward Vande Pol, a former Agenda 21 planner for Santa Cruz County, puts it into perspective.

This is Agenda 21. The UN intends to control your life, through incremental mandates instituted by your local government bureaucracy. You will never see it. You will never vote on it. No matter which path they use, the agencies can pen the new regulations under ‘threat’ of lawsuit and down the pipe it comes: enforceable administrative rules without legislation.[1]

UN Convention on Climate Change. Over and over again, climate change and global warming were given as the single most important international problem requiring a global solution. From podium speakers to floor questions, climate change was clearly a uniting factor for WUF3 participants. Indeed, it seemed every ill in the world was placed at the feet of global warming, with the West automatically shouldering the burden of responsibility. Here too, cities were encouraged to lead the way in calling for global economic and social change. The shift was obvious: allegiances are no longer exclusively nationalistic, but rather international in scope, and cities will have to lead the way if countries won’t.

International Financing. At the Wednesday morning Plenary Session titled “Partnership and Finance,” Robert Williams, Mayor of Georgetown, Guyana, stressed the need for the UN to act as a direct, fast-track partner between cities and world financial institutions. The moderator for this Plenary Session, Katherine Sierra (Vice President for Infrastructure at the World Bank), explained that the World Bank is now looking to go beyond working with national governments and start openly providing individual cities with funding and financial services.[2]

This is a major shift, with all the implications of debt politics and enforced top-down economic re-structuring at the city level. While World Bank loan programs typically deal with major infrastructure projects, such as roadways and water systems, the World Bank is also noted for its economic reform requirements. Primarily this entails “conditionalities” and “structural adjustments,” which are monetary and trade policy conditions and alterations that amend the way nations conduct economic activity. Sometimes these measures are benign, such as instituting anti-corruption changes. But other aspects may be viewed as problematic, such as public-privatization requirements of national programs and enforced re-arrangements of national industries and financial institutions to achieve World Bank targets.[3]

Although it’s true that the World Bank has had an urban unit for thirty plus years, and that it loans billions to city-based projects, the larger issue centers on direct debt politics at the city level verses traditional federal channels. Fundamentally, urban World Bank loans have historically been part-and-parcel of national arrangements. Directly dealing with cities, however ultimately conceived, will by its nature up the ante in terms of localizing debt burdens and influencing political power – a game where money and politics intersect in ways that forces change.[4]

As one commentator has written,

Although most of the policy statements of the World Bank deal with economic issues, a close monitoring of its activities reveal a preoccupation with social and political issues. This should not be surprising considering that the Bank was perceived by its founders as an instrument for social and political change.[5]

Both Williams’ call for greater UN intervention and Sierra’s World Bank revelation are moves that would inextricably bind cities to largely unaccountable international bureaucrats, more ominous debt burdens, and ensure that cities would stay ensnared within the web of global governance politics.

In reviewing this World Bank development, two quotes come to mind; “The problem of world debt leads ineluctably to the problem of world management…”[6] And, “The control of money and credit strikes at the very heart of national sovereignty.”[7]

But at the WUF3, where international solidarity was the fixed goal, such troubling global financial partnerships didn’t raise any noticeable questions or critical comments from the floor. Rather, it was apparent that such a marriage between cities and the world community was relished – and if a choice needed to be made between “world management” and “national sovereignty,” it wasn’t too hard to figure out which way the pendulum was swinging.

Soul City

Going beyond international political and economic posturing, the World Urban Forum literally searched for the “soul of the city.”

On Wednesday afternoon, religious thinkers convened the “Spirituality Roundtable.” Consisting of approximately 30 spiritual leaders facing each other in a square grouping of tables, with a much larger audience seated around this inner core, the event’s theme was “Bridging the Gap: Spirituality and Sustainability in the Urban Context.”

Opening this Roundtable was a “First Nations Welcome and Prayer.” Then after panelist introductions, Dr. Michael Hryniuk gave a brief meditation on “vision.”

“At the outset we would like to honour all spiritual traditions here and their insight that one of the great ways to make contact with that source of vision within us, between us, and among us is to enter into silence – into a silence that unites, and it allows our minds to settle into our hearts and into our spirits so that we can access the deeper intelligence, a deeper sense of imagination, a deeper sense of vision.”[8]

Three minutes of silence followed this meditation, which Hryniuk broke with the sound of a small bell. Hryniuk, one of the Christian representatives, came to the WUF3 from the Vancouver School of Theology. Paradoxically, the Vancouver School of Theology’s Vision and Values statement first affirms the calling to be a “faithful and discerning disciples of Jesus Christ,” then proclaims “ecumenical action and interfaith engagement”[9] as a specific faith value. And “interfaith engagement” was a fitting description of the WUF3 Spirituality Roundtable, where no religion was right or wrong, and where truth followed whatever breeze was blowing.

Some of the spiritual and environmental leaders who participated included,

– Yoland Trevino, Global Council Chair, United Religions Initiative (USA).

– Francesc Rovira, Executive Director, Interfaith Centre of Barcelona (Spain).

– Mae Chee Sansanee Sthirasuta, Buddhist Spiritual Leader, Co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women (Thailand).

– Pritam Singh Aulakh, President, Federation of Sikh Societies (Canada).

– Gwendolyn Hallsmith, Executive Director, Global Community Initiative and leader of the Vermont endorsement campaign for the Earth Charter (USA).

– Pandit Prameya Chaitanya, Head Priest, Mahalakshmi Hindu Temple (Canada).

– Maureen Jack LaCroix, Executive Director, Earth Revival Society (Canada).

This wasn’t just a feel-good meeting; former and active city politicians were in attendance and offered their insights. In the end the consensus was that cities needed to become spiritual magnets, hubs for inter-religious growth and commitment. Therefore, city planning and zoning regulations would need to incorporate interfaith realities, and urban festivals would likewise have to reflect a universalistic philosophy.

For UN-HABITAT, the United Nations specialized agency that was hosting WUF3, the Spirituality Roundtable was a milestone. According to organizers this was the first time that spirituality and the UN-HABITAT agenda were linked in such a solid manner, offering a working prototype for deeper collaboration.

“Spirituality” was weaved throughout the World Urban Forum. An interfaith prayer room was set aside, devoid of religious symbolism to keep from offending any particular belief system. And during the official cultural arm of the WUF3, the “World Urban Festival,” a 14 foot-high demon effigy was burned to celebrate the summer solstice, followed by a late night solstice dance. More subtly, Earth Charter brochures and other Earth-centred paraphernalia could be picked up at the UNESCO exhibit and other booths scattered throughout the conference site.

Taken as a whole the message was unmistakable: global change requires more than just political and economic restructuring – it requires a complete reshaping of values and beliefs, a spiritual shift that blends the gods and embraces Earth paganism. Tolerance would need to be the new norm, but there would be little to no tolerance for religious truth claims exemplifying exclusivity.

Global Cities, Global Perspectives

In 1976, the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements was held in Vancouver, British Columbia. During that inaugural event, the Secretary of the HABITAT event, Dr. Uner Kirdar asserted, “We must now learn to live with a global perspective.”[10]

Three decades later similar sentiments re-vibrated throughout the HABITAT World Urban Forum, “…the first steps towards global change start with us!”

This is the new urban-change perspective: a worldview ever pushing towards international solidarity, global governance, and a new planetary spirituality.

Endnotes:

[1] Mark Edward Vande Pol, Natural Process: That Environmental Laws May Serve the Laws of Nature (Wildergarten Press, 2001), p.317.

[2] Audio tape on file.

[3] For more information on World Bank operations, history, and conditions, see the August Review White Paper, Global Bank: World Bank, at www.augustreview.com.

[4] An interview by journalist Greg Palast with former World Bank Chief Economist, Joseph Stiglitz, raised some interesting questions and concerns on World Bank/IMF activities. To read Palast’s article on the interview, go to www.gregpalast.com/the-globalizer-who-came-in-from-the-cold.

[5] G. Edward Griffin, The Creature from Jekyll Island: A Second Look at the Federal Reserve (Westlake Village, CA: American Media, 1994, seventh printing, 1998), p.95.

[6] Anthony Sampson, The Money Lenders: Bankers and a World in Turmoil (New York: The Viking Press, 1981/82), p.318.

[7] A.W. Clausen (former President of BankAmerica Corporation and World Bank president from 1981 to 1986), in an interview with Michael Loyd Chadwick. This interview can be found in the International Banking issue of the Freeman Digest. The interview took place on August 27, 1979.

[8] Audio tape on file.

[9] Vision, Mission, Values and Goals: http://www.vst.edu/about/values.php [link no longer active]. Conversely, the Vision statement for VST reads, “In the Spirit, we are called to be faithful and discerning disciples of Jesus Christ, witnessing to the living God.”

[10] UN-HABITAT, Habitat Debate, June 2006, p.2. Quoted by Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, Executive Director of UN-HABITAT.

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