Ken Smith considered the Habitat III conference in Ecuador a possible once-in-a-lifetime experience. The conference – formally known as the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development – is held only once every 20 years.
Smith, a second-year student in the joint Urban Planning and Public Affairs program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, said the October conference in Quito had many parallels with his graduate studies.
“One of the big emphases was inclusivity and transit-oriented development; planning the city for all,” said Smith, who grew up in Milwaukee. “That’s something that Americans as a whole need to work on.”
The U.N. Economic and Social Council convened the conference to reinvigorate the global political commitment to sustainable urban development, assess accomplishments to date, address poverty, and identify and address new and emerging challenges since the 1996 Habitat meeting in Istanbul, Turkey.
Although much of the emphasis was on developing countries, Smith said, he brought back a wealth of information, including the importance for Americans to think regionally rather than just about their individual municipality.
“It’s really megacities that are competing against other megacities globally,” he said.
Unlike other countries, megacities in the United States like Chicago, which southeast Wisconsin is economically a part of, have thousands of local government entities.
“You have the problem of municipalities, particularly suburbs, trying to steal companies from the bigger cities and vice versa,” Smith said. “There’s all this intraregional squabbling, when you really need to come together.”
The conference brings together diplomats, politicians, academics, and other professionals to share ideas and take them back to their communities and countries. Smith attended with Matt Miller, another urban planning graduate student.
Smith, who received his bachelor’s degree in history from UW–Eau Claire, spent a semester in Spain and attended a Model U.N. Conference in Barcelona six years ago. However, this was his first visit to Latin America and a developing country.
One of the disturbing topics at the conference, Smith said, was regarding planned cities run as corporatocracies. “You buy stock in a city, and as a stockholder, you have more say in how it’s governed than those who live there,” he said, “It’s undemocratic.”
Nonetheless, Smith said, new cities like these will be essential to accommodate massive population growth occurring predominantly in the global south, where the population is growing far faster than in North America and Europe.
Several conference presentations also prompted him to think about his grandmother, who lives in suburban Milwaukee, and has mobility issues due to never having a driver’s license. “It really hit home for me when I heard about cities trying to be more accommodating for the elderly,” he said.
His experience also prompted him to write an article for Urban Milwaukee, an online news site founded in 2008, about Quito’s bus rapid transit (BRT) system. “There may be lessons to be learned for Milwaukee,” which is applying for a federal grant to implement a BRT, Smith said.
Quito was the first Latin American city outside Brazil to install a BRT corridor, where buses utilize the center-most lanes, which are separated by thin concrete medians. “In this way, public transit is incentivized through greater speed unlike present buses in Wisconsin which are forced to drive in mixed traffic.”
At Habitat III, Smith heard presentations by and spoke with the deputy mayor of Paris, the economic development director of Mexico City, professors from the London School of Economics and Columbia University, and various politicians.
“It was very refreshing to meet people from all around the world and exchange ideas and see what other people are doing in their cities,” Smith added.
While waiting in a security line, they also met an older Ecuadorian couple who annually attend the World Dairy Expo in Madison. Both are civil engineers, and they own a farm in northern Ecuador.
“They took us out to eat a couple of times, and we practiced our foreign language skills with each other,” Smith said. “Fabian and Silvia became our Ecuadorian parents.”
This chance meeting couldn’t have happened at a better time. Two days prior, Smith was mugged at knifepoint and his smartphone was stolen. “By and large, the Ecuadorian people were very nice,” he said.
“After I was robbed, an Ecuadorian family gave me a glass of Sprite and very tenderly warned me to be careful,” Smith recalled. “Shortly thereafter, another individual approached Matt and me and told us he drove around looking for the thief and likewise warned us to be careful.”
With an open invitation from Fabian and Silvia “for no more than three months,” Smith hopes it’s not 20 years before he returns to Ecuador.