UNESCO and UN-Habitat build the case for culture and sustainable cities at the World Urban Forum

13 February 2018

As cities grow and urbanization presents new challenges, culture has a strategic role in innovating urban policies towards more people-centered practices. To elaborate this, a special session on “Leveraging diversity and culture, shaping cities for all” was jointly organized by UNESCO and UN-Habitat on 9 February 2018 as part of the World Urban Forum 9, taking place in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia).

Experts advocated for the essential role of culture in building sustainable, inclusive and resilient cities; its transversal impact across different goals and targets contributes to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the New Urban Agenda adopted at the Habitat III conference in 2016.

“Cultural diversity should be considered as the manifold ways in which the cultures of groups and societies find expression” said Jyoti Hosagrahar, Director of the Division for Creativity in UNESCO.  She emphasized that culture must be understood in its broader sense, encompassing built and intangible heritage, as well as cultural and creative industries, and mobilizing policy instruments through UNESCO Culture Conventions and programmes, as well as UNESCO cities networks (such as the UNESCO Creative Cities Network).  

 “Culture is a key element to humanizing cities” said Christine Musisi, Director for International Relations in UN-Habitat; it “embodies the human face of urban development” added  Christophe Lalande, head of Housing in UN-Habitat. The panel stressed that culture should be celebrated as a dynamic process of hybridization and reinvention, rather than a static picture whose integrity should be protected. 

Examples were given of how culture-empowered strategies contribute to people-centered urban governance models with bottom-up, participatory planning. Virginio Merola, Mayor of Bologna (Italy), a UNESCO Creative City of Music, underscored that the major responsibility of mayors and local authorities is to enhance the “urban commons” and build the conditions for people from diverse social, cultural and generational background to live together peacefully. Building on a wide recognition of cultural diversity, citizens of Bologna are thus empowered to manage public gardens or buildings, and offer social services, with support from the Municipality. To open up side-lined urban neighborhoods, facilitate their participation in urban life and expand dialogue with other urban dwellers, Bologna co-housing projects bring together native Bolognese and other more recently arrived cultural communities.

Culture was also emphasized as the essential foundation for resilience, particularly in post-conflict or post-disaster situations. “Without culture, people cannot recover from disasters” said Lazare Eloundou Assomo, Deputy Director of the Heritage Division in UNESCO, who described UNESCO’s efforts in supporting communities of Timbuktu (Mali) reclaiming their cultural heritage following the period of conflict there that saw destruction and damage to many of the city’s mausoleums. Building on people’s cultural knowledge related to the environment or building techniques is also a strong lever to foster risk preparedness, as exemplified by CRAterre project in Bam (Iran).

The role of grassroots cultural expressions was also stressed, as these act as a talent incubator not only by opening up access to cultural contents but also by nurturing skills development and empowering local actors. “You do need to have a place to live, but also something to live for” claimed Shaine Shapiro, managing director of Sound Diplomacy, referring to grassroots projects conducted around the world to map the music industry and support communities to nurture their creative sector.

Yet fostering this requires culture to be included in the initial stages of urban design, to address fundamental needs of urban citizens in a prospective manner and provide quality public spaces so communities can nurture the creative sector.

Panelists and participants jointly called for pushing further the advocacy for culture, particularly towards Mayors and local decision-makers. In that perspective, the importance of measuring the actual contribution of culture to urban development processes was underlined, building not only on its economic value but also on its impact on education, people’s well-being, resilience and social inclusion.