Two World Urban Forums, Two Worlds Apart

 Two major world forums focused on urban issues – the U.N.-sponsored World Urban Forum (WUF) and a social-movement-sponsored Social Urban Forum (SUF) – took place in Rio de Janeiro in the last week of March, 2010. The forums were extremely different, almost existing in two different worlds, but they tolerated each other; the contrasts and similarities were striking.

In its own words, the World Urban Forum 

…was established by the United Nations to examine one of the most pressing problems facing the world today: rapid urbanization and its impact on communities, cities, economies, climate change and policies.  

It brings together government leaders, ministers, mayors, diplomats, members of national, regional and international associations of local governments, non-governmental and community organizations, professionals, academics, grassroots women’s organizations, youth and slum dwellers groups as partners working for better cities. The theme for Rio 2010, The Right to the City – Bridging the Urban Divide, is in harmony with U.N.-HABITAT’s flagship report, State of the World’s Cities 2010-2011. 

The theme sounds very socially-oriented indeed, and the report it references is a gold mine of data on urbanization around the world today. 

In its own words, the Social Urban Forum 

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 WUF was, of course, much better funded, and claimed perhaps 13,000 attendees. At the WUF, present were Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president; Ana Tibaijuka, director of U.N.-HABITAT; Shaun Donovan, secretary, Housing and Urban Development (HUD); Ron Sims, deputy HUD secretary; Esther Brimmer, assistant secretary of state; Adolfo Carrion, director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs; and Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation. The language was overwhelmingly English, with simultaneous translation.  

At the SUF, at various larger meetings, over 1,000 may have been present. The call to it came from Social Movements and Organizations of Rio de Janeiro, including many favela-based groups, advocacy organizations and a significant number of African and other developing countries groups; many had booths at the giant warehouse space the SUF had rented. The language was overwhelmingly Portuguese; at major sessions, simultaneous translation was provided.  

At both events, the talk was extensively of poverty, inequality, the divide between rich and poor and measures to address those issues. Each forum was overtly tolerant of the other, and accepted the existence and legitimacy of the other, with disagreements civilized rather than confrontational.  

The contrasts between the ideological content of the two forums was sharp. To highlight some: 

  • At one of the “Dialogues” at the WUF, David Harvey spoke of and traced the economic problems of poverty and inequality to capitalism and the operations of the market, suggesting that the market as practiced had failed and needed to be replaced. The moderator, Neil Pierce, a respected urban journalist from Washington, D.C., asked whether the market was, nevertheless, inescapable as a way of allocating resources and motivating economic activity. Harvey pointed out that, judging by its results, the market didn’t do a good job of it, and most people in fact found the motivation for their actions outside of the market. Pierce simply shook his head in disbelief. The desirability/inevitability of capitalism was a foundational belief at the WUF; not so at the SUF, where it was often called into question.
  • Issues of poverty, homelessness, insecurity and disease were major topics at both forums. At the WUF, these were documented, measured, graphed and displayed in powerpoint slides, and the difficulties of measurement and the quality of indicators were often discussed. At the SUF, these issues were narrated as part of daily experience, and their ubiquity was simply assumed, with little interest in measurement or indicators. Even more striking, the discussion in both places was limited to the condition of the poor, rather than their relationship to the activities of the rich (perhaps a limitation of some progressive planning also). But, at the WUF, the poor were dealt with as the objects, the beneficiaries of the policies there debated; inequalities in the distribution of goods was often referred to, inequalities of power rarely. At the SUF, the poor and their movements were the subjects of concern, the actors whose ideas and struggles for increased power were the key issues to be addressed.
  • The Right to the City as a slogan was in the heading of the call to the WUF, and the words were frequently used in the SUF as well. But the content was quite different. For most at the WUF, the Right to the City was at best a laundry list of goals to be achieved by better designed, managed and targeted policies. At the SUF, its content was much more radical—a demand for an alternative organization of the city, one in which not only the laundry-list items would be achieved, but the whole organization of the society gave priority to the well-being of all of its members. Bridging the Gap, in the call for the WUF, was there seen as moving the poor a little closer to those above them; in the SUF, it was rather eradicating the distinction between above and below.
  • “Best practices” were a mantra at the WUF, barely mentioned at the SUF. Best practices, after all, result from a survey of what is now being done, of the existing practices of existing cities. The vision of the SUF is oriented to deal with immediate problems, with what exists today, but goes beyond these. Thus, utopias were a topic of discussion there, in the sense not of something impossible, but of something to be pursued, something necessary, something toward which the existing needed to be turned.

The relationship of mutual recognition between the two forums raises interesting questions of strategy for progressives concerned about the shortcomings of liberal approaches to problems of social justice. Sometimes confrontation and sharp criticism are appropriate; at other times, cooperation on immediate actions, even if with different long-term perspectives, is productive. On the last day of both forums, an informal committee of activists from Brazilian social movements presented a statement at the SUF which was explicit in the radicalism of its analysis and goals, and it was adopted at a well-attended general session at the SUF’s great rented space. The text can be found at, and it is well worth a close look. It concludes with the call for a further meeting of the SUF paralleling the next meeting of the WUF in two years. It will be interesting to see what happens to this forum of movements in the meantime; it is worthy of international support.


Peter Marcuse is a professor of urban planning emeritus in the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University. He spoke at both the World Urban Forum and the Social Urban Forum. For more information, see Marcuse’s chapter “Rights in Cities and the Right to the City?” in Ana Sugranyes and Charlotte Mathivet (eds.), 2010, Cities for All: Proposals and Experiences towards the Right to the City, also available at


This article was first published in Progressive Planning, no. 183, Spring 2010, available at: