Ten global urban narratives that shaped 2015

For mayors, city leaders and urban activists around the globe, 2015 was an important and busy year.

For mayors, city leaders and urban activists around the globe, 2015 was an important and busy year. A whirlwind of international meetings set the stage for next year’s Habitat III conference, the UN’s once-every-20-years summit on the future of cities. Meanwhile, cities continued to operate as prime global laboratories for social, economic and technological innovation.

At Citiscope we covered it all, through a mix of regular feature stories written by local journalists, as well as in-depth news, commentary and explanatory coverage of Habitat III. Here are ten global urban narratives that shaped our reporting in 2015.

Cities for all

Children in Bhubaneswar demanded more street lights. (Humara Bachpan)

The notion that cities must work for all of their people is core to our journalistic mission at Citiscope. That theme rang loud in our feature story from India on the Humara Bachpan campaign, where children growing up in urban slums are organizing to advocate for playgrounds, toilets and streetlights in their neighborhoods. In Bangladesh, we looked at how hundreds of slum dwellers, once evicted from their homes, secured deeds to homes in a new neighborhood. And in Mexico City, we examined a bus line that aims to end the everyday sexual harassment women face while riding transit. The role of women in inclusive urban planning was a big theme for Habitat III discussions in Mexico City and Nairobi.

The role of city leadership

Monrovia Mayor Clara Doe Mvogo battled Ebola. (European Union)

On issues such as climate change and migration, mayors showed that leadership at the local level can make a big difference in peoples’ lives.  We interviewed and profiled many of these local change-makers, such as Clara Doe Mvogo of Monrovia, Liberia; Don Iveson of Edmonton, Canada; Salina Hayat Ivy of Narayanganj, Bangladesh; and Alex Morse of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Read all of our city leadership interviews here.

The quest for resilience

Nijmegen protected itself from floods. (Room for the River Waal)

Climate change poses huge risks for urban populations, from rising sea levels to heavier rains to hotter temperatures. We looked at several cities that learned lessons from past natural disasters to come back stronger than before. For example, 20 years after an epic flood, the city of Nijmegen in the Netherlands is “making room” for its river and creating new development and recreational opportunities in the process. After a deadly heat wave, Melbourne, Australia, is planting trees and capturing rainwater, hoping to reduce the city’s average temperature by 4 degrees Celsius. And in a 2-part series from Surat, India, we looked at how the city rebounded from a plague outbreak to create a model public health system and came back from a man-made flood to strengthen its early-warning systems.

Metro mojo

Evans Kidero is governor of Nairobi City County. (Christopher Swope)

A city can’t succeed if its suburbs fail — and vice versa. That’s why cooperation across metropolitan areas — and even creating systems of metropolitan governance — is so important. Urban leaders from around the world gathered in Montreal in October to discuss this theme as part of the process leading up to Habitat IIIwe covered it here. In a feature story, we took a deeper look at the Montréal region’s own efforts to forge an identity as Greater Montréal. We also looked at how these ideas are playing out in Albania, and talked with Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero about how Kenya’s experiment with county governments is going. Read all of our stories on metropolitan governance here.

A seat at the table for cities

Setting rules of procedure for Habitat III proved contentious. (UN-Habitat)

Citiscope is the only news outlet keeping a constant eye on the Habitat III process, including the procedural deliberations in which the rules of next year’s conference in Quito are being decided. That process took an unexpectedly dramatic turn in April. That’s when nation-states failed to agree on rules that would allow local governments and other interested parties to formally participate at Habitat III as they had at Habitat II in 1996. As our editor-in-chief, Neal Peirce, wrote in the Guardian, this essentially meant that cities would have no seat at the table — at a UN conference on cities. After eight months of wrangling, rules allowing for sub-national governments and civil society to participate were finalized in December. The past year also saw agreement among all UN member states on a landmark new development framework, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), that includes a first-ever goal on cities, the “urban SDG.” See all of our reporting on the global role for cities here.

Pope Francis is an urbanist

Urbanists found inspiriation in Pope Francis’ words. (giulio napolitano/Shutterstock)

In June, Pope Francis published an encyclical letter that was largely focused on climate change but also touched on the role of urban planning to create and preserve quality of life and a sense of belonging. The Pope followed that up by convening a major meeting of mayors at the Vatican in July. Then in a September speech at the United Nations, he referenced the “right to the city,” a growing movement to assert access to urban living as a human right. In December, he lauded next year’s Habitat III conference as key to sustainable urbanization. A Citiscope feature looked at ways the Vatican and its partners in civil society and Rome’s local government have been putting into practice some of the urban ideas Pope Francis is talking about. Read the urban section of Pope Francis’ encyclical here.

Welcoming immigrants

Satriano opened its doors to migrants. (Simone d’Antonio)

While many national leaders in Europe struggled to respond to a growing migrant crisis, local leaders took the lead on helping refugees to acclimate and build trust with local populations. In Italy, we looked at the aging town of Satriano, where the mayor hopes newcomers can reverse years of population decline and put vacant housing to use. In Amsterdam, we found a pop-up “embassy” whose mission is to foster dialogue and understanding between locals and refugees. And we profiled Ahmed Aboutaleb, the Muslim mayor of Rotterdam, who in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris sought to strike a nuanced discussion about integration — both within Rotterdam’s sizeable Muslim community and across Europe.

The importance of public spaces

Adelaide experimented with ‘place governance.’ (Adelaide City Council)

“Placemaking” is increasingly part of the urban discussion around the world. In October, we discussed this trend with Fred Kent, founder of the Project for Public Spaces. That same month, public spaces also received a central international focus on World Habitat Day. In a Toward Habitat III commentary, the urbanist Nicholas You laid out the role of public spaces in both Habitat III and the new Sustainable Development Goals that will guide development spending for the next 15 years. A feature story from Adelaide, Australia, explored how that city used placemaking techniques to revitalize its central business district. Read all of our stories on public space here.

The startup scene

Startup companies worked out of Tel Aviv’s library. (Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality)

Creating jobs sits at the top of every mayor’s priority list. In 2015, we looked at a number of these efforts, particularly around fostering startup ventures. Tel Aviv revived a moribund public library by turning part of the space over to a startup incubator. Nairobi built one of Africa’s leading tech startup scenes, with a major focus on improving life in the city’s slums. Meanwhile, Bologna, Italy, found that social enterprises blossomed after the city clarified its regulations around citizens’ use of public assets such as vacant buildings.

Paris power

More than 1,000 local leaders met in Paris during climate talks. (City of Paris)

Mayors turned out in force at the Paris climate talks in early December. Citiscope was there to find out what mayors wanted to see in an international climate deal, what actions they are willing to take to slash greenhouse-gas emissions at the local level, and how they intend to ride momentum from Paris all the way to Habitat III in Quito. Mayors were also looking for deals of their own in Paris — in this feature, we highlighted some of the major climate-related projects cities hoped to find funding for. Read all of our Paris climate talks coverage here.

This story is tagged under: 
Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary

Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.