Participation and Sustainable Urbanization: Lessons Learned from the World Urban Forum 

by Participation Factory


If you were in the Polish city of Katowice the last week of June, you could have heard that all over the city. Yet, maybe surprisingly, the noise was not coming from our four-legged friends but from thousands of urban practitioners coming from around the globe to discuss how to transform our cities for a better urban future. This was the theme of this year’s World Urban Forum, the premium urban conference on sustainable urbanization, hosted by UN-Habitat for the 11th time this year. 

We were there – and what did we learn? 

WUF offers countless opportunities to discuss, listen, and read about urban issues from all different perspectives. Housing, safety, public spaces, transport, food security, climate resilience – all that and a lot more was on agenda during hundreds of events spread over 5 days. 

As the theme of this year’s forum suggests, all discussions were leading towards the urban future – how to make our cities more livable, more inclusive, more sustainable? Experts have agreed a long time ago that the future is urban and that cities, although today the world’s biggest polluters, have potential to offer the most environmentally friendly lifestyles and bring solutions to the climate crisis.

Many of these solutions already exist – and more new solutions keep emerging all around the world. Hence, it is not necessarily the lack of technical expertise and solutions to enable the sustainable urban development but rather their delay in implementation in cities around the world. Urban champions that offer success stories however do exist. What is their secret ingredient to getting on the track of sustainable urban development?

Participation kept appearing as the underlying message throughout most of the talks as the main topic of the discussion aside from a few exceptions. So, it was the connecting silver line through all the different agendas cities are addressing. 

Whether coping with migration, climate change adaptation, (post-)conflict situations, or any other challenges, the need to engage a certain target group through the process is omnipresent regardless of who needs to be engaged. In some cases, it is the general public or a specific community or other institutions, and in other cases, the city only needs to consult the target group to map their needs or engage them in more complex co-creation processes. 

Maria-Mercedes Jaramillo, the Senior Urban Planner & Designer at the city of Bogotá, Columbia, emphasized the importance of creating a new relationship between citizens and authorities: in the post-conflict context, the participatory process engaging citizens that enables them to create a new sense of belonging to the city is essential when one attempts to implement sustainability strategies. 

Fatma Sahin, Mayor of the city of Gaziantep, Turkey, highlighted the importance of identifying the right target group in the context of inclusion of migrant communities. Refugees shall not be perceived as one homogeneous vulnerable group with the same needs, facing the same issues. For example mothers with children are a specific vulnerable group within a larger vulnerable group. Hence, they should be engaged through their own process that focuses on their specific needs. 

Another speaker pointed towards institutional participation. He highlighted the need for processes enabling a central authority to listen to local governments and to funnel the identified solutions.

Countless other examples were quoted, public space co-creation, children and youth engagement, creation of cross-sectoral alliances and platforms to work on specific agendas to cite the least. 

To summarize the learnings from WUF from our perspective in one sentence: participation is the vehicle driving the future of sustainable urbanization. 

Are you working on an agenda that requires engagement of more stakeholders and target groups? Aren’t you sure where to start and how to design your participatory process? Get in touch with us!