Greetings from Abu Dhabi

Andre Van Eymeren
February 11, 2020
2-3 minutes

Stepping off the plane I was surrounded by fog, giving me a somewhat eerie first impression of Abu Dhabi. As the fog cleared the city showed itself to be a fascinating mix of cultures, with buildings reaching for the sky and mosques nestled between them. 90% of people who live in Abu Dhabi are migrant workers or ex-pats of some description, creating a subdued cosmopolitan feel.

Abu Dhabi is a fascinating city, built in the 1960s from a fishing village surrounded by ocean. It was originally settled by the Bedouin Bani Yas tribe in 1793. It was best known for its pearl trade in the 19th Century up until oil was discovered in 1958. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahan launched a coup against his brother, seen as an ineffectual leader, in 1966 to take Abu Dhabi to become the city it is today. He ruled until his death in 2004. His diplomatic skills saw investment and growth for the city. (Lonely Planet)  

Abu Dhabi is a story of found prosperity and wealth and is currently hosting the tenth World Urban Forum. This event aims to continue exploring the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, which was ratified by the governments that make up the United Nations in 2016. The vision of the agenda sets the path for the next twenty years of city development. Its hope for our rapidly growing cities is that they become places of inclusivity, safety, and health. Places that are affordable, just, resilient, sustainable, and that foster prosperity and quality of life for all. Often these outcomes are referred to as the right to the city.

From vision to actuality is a long journey. However, 18,000 city leaders and innovators from around the world, gathered in one place to discuss topics as varied as housing, crisis prevention, social inclusion, public transport, strengthening local government, reduction of energy use, the role faith communities play in the city, climate action, inclusion, migrants, circular economy, and the list goes on, can’t help but create a sense of optimism.

Soon we will be lining up to be part of the opening ceremony where the big picture vision will no doubt be highlighted and some of the pathways alluded to. Whilst I do feel optimistic and hopeful for the future of our cities, I carry some concerns about how the agenda will or will not be implemented. From my experience of being at a similar gathering in Quito in 2016, where the agenda was launched, I feel a lot of the focus was and is still on mechanisms and techniques that promise new life for struggling cities, and sometimes even panaceas for slums and informal settlements. Yet many of these strategies are not people-centric. They lack intentional community engagement with the grassroots people whose lives will be affected. Some tack community development onto the end of a statement about improving energy use, for example, but it’s clear that the proponent does not understand how to work from the grassroots up, with people-empowering approaches. My other concern is about the siloed nature of conversations. Whilst we cannot deal with the complexity of a city in a 2-hour session, I fear we will stay locked in our professional focus areas. If we do not look to deal with the interconnected nature of cities, we will create a series of unintended, often negative consequences.

With these concerns in mind I head into WUF10 with hope, but also with the desire to push conversations towards interconnectivity and more holistic thinking. I’ll let you know how I go.

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