This conference took place on Friday February 26, 2016 at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, ON. It is in its sixth year of being run by International Development undergraduate students at the University of Waterloo. This year’s theme – Urbanized – was inspired by the growing challenges and opportunities faced by developing cities globally. This topic’s importance is emphasized by the fact that more the 60% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2030.
The day started off bright and early at 8:30am for registration and a light breakfast. The first session began at 9:00am with Rob Regier, a city planner, discussing UN-Habitat III and the right to the city. Regier emphasized the need to create connections between different departments in city offices while engaging with the informal economy in order to facilitate more dynamic cities.
Dr. Parthasarathy took to the mic next and discussed his research experience in the slums of Mumbai and Bangkok . His talk, titled ‘Slum as innovation informality, transnationalism and urban future’, demonstrated how society must move away from the traditional view of the slum as dystopian and to be removed. In our interconnected urban futures we must move past the city-slum binary and see how urban economies cannot function without slums, whether they are in the backyard of a city or elsewhere in the world.
Next was Dr. Cecilia Rocha who shared the experience of Belo Horizonte, Brazil as an example of a city that has truly embraced the notion of the ‘right to food’. She showcased numerous initiatives by the local government that were steeped with social justice, led by the city’s Department for Food. An interesting example that was shared was the ‘Popular Restaurant’ which are four cafeteria-style city-run restaurants that serve lunch and dinner at a subsidized cost. These Popular Restaurants are open to anyone, therefore when visiting one you may be eating next to students, youth, laborers, office workers, or people who are homeless. These restaurants are not just popular in name, they have become a very successful initiative in ensuring more equitable access to good quality food in the city.
Dr. Alan Whiteside, a professor at CIGI, discussed the pros and cons of urban life on health, particularly mental health. Dr. Whiteside described how mental health was one of the biggest challenges we face as the world becomes increasingly urban and cities do not currently do enough to address the stresses of urban living on mental health. He emphasized how urbanization and disease must be looked at together as they are intimately linked.
Before breaking for lunch the four morning speakers got together to form a panel to take questions from the audience. Many of the questions the panel received related to how city residents could positively enact change. There was emphasis on strong political will to push a certain idea forward, such as the Popular Restaurants, and the idea that once you’re in agreement that everyone has basic rights then all you have to do is find a way to deliver the appropriate services. In the case of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, there was a social contract between the city and it’s populace with regards to food. Access to food was shifted from being an act of charity to a basic right. By changing this discourse the actions required were drastically changed. Finally, each panelist mentioned how the decentralization of governments is becoming more common as we globally move away from a top-down approach to governance, giving more autonomy to local and municipal governments to enact change.
After the lunch break the afternoon was filled with four very interesting speakers. The first was Mr. Eli Day a public policy writer from Detroit, Michigan. He spoke about the witnessing the fall of the industrial powerhouse of Detroit in a very poetic manner. He emphasised his personally historic approach to policy analysis stating that he “had not found a time in US history when black political consciousness has not been in contrast with white-supremacist policies”. A take-away from his discussion was two-fold: growth without equity is not an option, and relying on market solutions to problems the market purposefully created leaves us prone to failure.
Dr. Priyanka Jamwal, a visiting scholar with the Water Institute, spoke about her research on wastewater reuse in Bangalore, India. Wastewater reuse has been widely presented as a solution to water scarcity – this is easy to say, but difficult to implement. In the Bangalore example the urban population resides outside the watershed but greatly influences the quality and quantity of water in the rivers. Dr. Jamwal explained the importance of connecting her technical research with community action to help local urban and rural communities understand how they both impact and are impacted by the water quality.
Wade Shepard, the author of Ghost Cities of China, took to the stage next and spoke about the two and a half years he spent travelling around China discovering ‘ghost cities’. Shepard explained the Chinese government’s policy of “spreading peanut butter on toast” across the vast expanse of the country – spreading urbanization westward as the eastern seaboard contains the highest concentrations of urban population.
The keynote speaker, Dr. Corrine Cash, is a local sustainable cities planner who completed her PhD in Planning at the University of Waterloo. Dr. Cash stressed the importance of moving past the anti-urban discourse and to address the fact that cities have been neglected in development discourse of the past. Her statement that infrastructure is a global unifier is intriguing to consider. The effects of infrastructure are present in both the global south and the global north. As with other speakers she reiterated the idea that informal settlements are vibrant, innovative places that are full of life, even though they may seem chaotic.
The afternoon panel included all four afternoon speakers, with similar themes to the morning panel. Mr. Eli Day’s impactful statement that ‘disasters of human creation have human solutions’, is very applicable to MDP students’ futures as development practitioners as many development issues stem from past human failures. Dr. Cash can also be quoted when she said: ‘the future needs you to demand more’. Dr. Jamwal and Mr. Shepard shared their understanding of the correct combination of strong political will and contextual conditions that allow for positive political change. Finally all four speakers spoke to the need to break down the silos built up around disciplines and being able to communicate with specialists in other disciplines.
Urbanized: New Frontiers of Development was a day packed full of interesting lessons learned from research and experience all around the world. The diversity of speakers was amazing, demonstrating the need to collaborate across disciplines and that development practice comes in many forms. Having speakers from different disciplines also meant there was something for everyone, with attendance spanning from local high school students to faculty. The world is undergoing a major shift toward urbanization, and such a change will require innovative solutions that integrate food security, water, physical and mental health, infrastructure, climate change, creating a sense of community, and more. Urbanization was a great success, reflecting the many challenges that growing cities encounter and the integrative, innovative solutions that will be needed to confront them.
Blog Coordinators Kaylia Little and Laura Maxwell co-wrote this post about the International Development Conference they attended with other MDP Candidates.
Kaylia Little is part of cohort 4 of the Master of Development Practice program. She works as the Student Engagement Coordinator for the Master of Development Program. Her research interests include community development, human rights, decolonization, gender equality, and indigenous land rights.
Laura Maxwell is part of cohort 4 of the Master of Development Practice program at the University of Waterloo and attended COP21 as part of the delegation of Kiribati, a small island nation located in the Pacific Ocean. Her research interests include climate change, ecology, human health and the environment, and conservation biology.