By Gregory Scruggs
KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The world's largest conference on cities opens on Wednesday as policymakers and activists strive to drive forward an ambitious 20-year road map for sustainable urban development.
More than 20,000 delegates are expected at the ninth World Urban Forum (WUF) in Kuala Lumpur, where Maimunah Mohd Sharif will make her first public appearance as executive director of UN-Habitat, the United Nations' agency in charge of cities.
Delegates hope to push forward the New Urban Agenda, a non-binding agreement adopted by over 160 countries in 2016 to steer cities growing at breakneck pace on a path towards sustainability.
More than half of the world's seven billion people live in urban areas, a figure expected to grow to 66 percent by 2050, according to the United Nations.
The New Urban Agenda sets goals such as the development of cities that do not harm the environment, the redevelopment of informal settlements with the participation of residents and reining in urban sprawl.
"We are counting on the World Urban Forum to be a significant rallying moment for the urban world," said Emilia Saiz, secretary-general of the Barcelona-based cities network United Cities and Local Governments.
National governments have made commitments to end poverty, reduce inequality and tackle climate change as part of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted unanimously by the U.N. member nations in 2015.
But many of the actions required to achieve the SDGS are the responsibility of local governments, such as planning, housing, infrastructure and basic services.
As a result, national governments are expected to take steps such as relaxing rules to allow cities to access international finance, adopting national urban policies and collecting data at city level to allow for more rigorous metrics to measure the SDGs.
For urban leaders, meanwhile, the forum will be the start of a year where cities finally have a seat at the table.
Monthly negotiations will begin later in February on the Global Compact on Migration, where cities will play a key part in discussions about how to regulate the rising flow of migrants that have overwhelmed municipal services in receiving cities.
The fact that cities have a seat at the table is "a good indication of a good way forward", said Saiz. "Our clear commitment to the SDGs is making a difference and we are now seen as key actors to achieve the SDGs."
The forum will also offer delegates an opportunity to plot strategies ahead of other key urban policy events this year, such as the annual review of global progress towards the SDGs.
Goal 11, the "urban SDG" that aims to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, will be up for its first review in July, three years after global leaders agreed for the first time to make sustainable cities a standalone development objective.
Others see the forum as an opportunity to sound the alarm over what they see as growing urban inequality.
"We expect to bring a strong voice to denounce the current unjust and unsustainable urban development patterns and the related human rights violations affecting millions of people all over the world," said Lorena Zarate and Joseph Schechla of Habitat International Coalition.
Nearly one billion poor people live in urban slums and informal settlements in about 100,000 cities, in dire need of clean water, energy, food, sanitation and health services. The U.N. estimates that number will triple by 2030.
"We will be questioning paradigms such as 'sustained economic development', the 'competitive city', and the 'smart city', as well as the expectations of communities at risk and victimised to be 'resilient'," Zarate and Schechla said in an e-mail to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.