City Futures – an international conference on globalism and urban change

EURA-UAA Conference, Chicago, USA
8-10 July 2004

Robin Hambleton reports on the conference:

The City Futures Conference was a ‘first’ for EURA in three main ways. All previous EURA conferences have been held in Europe. On this occasion, as befits an association concerned with the impact of global forces on cities, we organized a conference in another continent.

A second ‘first’ was that we organized this event in collaboration with another international association. Indeed, we could not have made a success of this conference without the enthusiastic support of our sister organization in North America – the Urban Affairs Association (UAA). Before going further I would, as Conference Chair, like to express my sincere thanks to both the EURA Executive Committee and the UAA Governing Board for their strong support in publicizing and supporting this ambitious event.

A third innovation was that we required full papers to be submitted weeks in advance so that a CD containing the papers could be prepared and given to participants on arrival. Many of us are ‘last minute merchants’ – we tend to write our conference papers very close to the date of the event. Asking for early submission put pressure on both the presenters and the organizers. Somehow we all managed it and stayed friends!

Attendance and themes

About 250 urban scholars from a wide range of disciplines plus a good number of government officials attended the three-day conference. Colleagues came from 36 countries covering all continents. Presenters addressed such issues as affordable housing, crime prevention, brownfield redevelopment, metropolitan planning, urban leadership and community development. In all cases scholars were urged to compare and contrast experience in different countries and/or draw out lessons of interest to an international audience. A consequence was that the intensity of cross-national dialogue was very high.

The formal paper presentations were organized into four tracks:

  • A special track focusing on issues of particular interest to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
  • Comparative urban analysis examining how cities are changing in different countries
  • Comparative urban planning looking at how different countries are approaching the planning of cities and regions
  • Comparative city governance reviewing alternative approaches to city politics, urban management and community involvement

Over 160 papers were presented and the vast majority of these are available on the College of Urban and Public Affairs website at the University of Illinois (UIC): www.uic.edu/cuppa/cityfutures

Keynote presentations

We were honoured and delighted that two very senior figures accepted our invitation to give keynote presentations:

  • The Honorable John C. Weicher, Assistant Secretary for Housing and Federal Housing Commissioner of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), gave an address on ‘City futures – insights from US experience for a global audience’
  • The Rt Hon John Prescott MP, Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State of the UK, spoke on ‘Sustainable communities in the 21st Century’

Mr Weicher spoke about the development of American cities since the turn of the 20th Century and outlined what he saw as the country’s successes and failures in reaching its declared goals during that time. Mr Prescott outlined key features of the UK’s ‘Sustainable Communities Plan’ and stressed the need to develop high-density neighbourhoods. He advocated approaches that promote social cohesion and prosperity not only for current residents, but also for future generations.

Both speakers shared the platform and took a large number of questions from the audience. This was much appreciated as it generated a good deal of stimulating, cross-national discussion at the very beginning of the conference.

Two plenary panels on the second and third days formed a key part of the structure of the conference. One was composed of practitioners drawn from different countries who identified key concerns and challenged academics to produce more timely and relevant research findings. The other was composed of leading scholars from different continents who, at the close of the conference, drew out themes and key questions for research and urban policy.

Reflections

The conference set out to bring together some of the best urban researchers in the world, to draw them into a forward looking conversation about where cities in different continents appear to be going, and to encourage them to offer advice to leaders, managers and activists concerned with policy and practice in cities.

The response to the call for papers was exceptional. The International Organizing Committee charged with reviewing the abstracts was forced to filter out papers. Moreover all presenters were required to submit their papers several weeks in advance of the conference. This meant that we were able to include nearly all the papers on the City Futures CD and this high level of preparation underpinned some very productive dialogue and exchange.

Three gaps presented themselves during the conference. One is the gap between countries. Effective cross-national approaches to the improvement of public policy are still in their infancy. Certainly, good progress has been made in the last ten years or so in some parts of the world. The European Union, for example, can claim great credit for fostering practical dialogue and exchange between cities and regions in different countries. But sophisticated cross-national policy exchange remains rare. Universities can and should be much more energetic in working with local authorities to enhance cross-national lesson drawing.

The second gap is the global north/south divide. The imbalance in economic and political power in the world is mirrored by an unhelpful divide between two ‘worlds’ of urban scholarship and practice. Research carried out on urban conditions and approaches to city governance in the ‘developing countries’ of the ‘south’ are disconnected from urban research and practice taking place in the relatively prosperous nations of the ‘north’. This gap needs to be bridged as both sides have much to gain.

The third gap appears to exist in most if not all countries – this is the gap between practice and academe. There is often a veritable chasm between those concerned with the improvement of local governance and city and regional planning and those in the academic world who carry out research in the field of urban and public affairs.

This gap lays down major challenges for those in universities. Traditional definitions of what counts as good scholarship need to be questioned. Academics who make a useful contribution to policy and practice should be encouraged and given more recognition. On the other side of the divide policy makers should consider afresh whether their local university represents a neglected resource. If we can create new settings for dialogue and guide that dialogue in a constructive way both sides can improve their effectiveness.

Our ‘City futures’ conference set out to start a process of bridging all three gaps – an ambitious aim but one that is clearly worthwhile. We made progress but, in my view, we – as committed urban scholars – need to devote much more energy to bridging these gaps in the coming period.

A new series of books

Given the high quality of the papers and the many strong comparative contributions we are planning to prepare a new series of books on ‘Global City Futures’. The precise aims of the series are taking shape but, in overall terms, the intention is to advance comparative scholarship in urban studies, public management and community development. As well as drawing on contributions given at the City Futures Conference we are seeking suggestions and ideas. Anyone interested in submitting comparative proposals for this series is invited to email my Assistant, Michael Clark (Email: mjclark@uic.edu)

Organizers

The Conference was organized by the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs (CUPPA) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). The academic leadership was provided by Robin Hambleton and Janet Smith (both of CUPPA) and Jill Gross (Hunter College of the City University of New York). The administration of the event was carried out by Jodi White, Loretta Foote Casey, Michael Clark and a team of energetic and inventive staff and students in CUPPA.

Acknowledgements

The conference enjoyed the support of a range of sponsors and they are all listed on the City Futures website. I thank all of them and, in particular, I would like to thank the EURA, the UAA, the British Consulate General in Chicago, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Joyce Foundation, Chicago Public Radio, Skidmore Owings and Merrill and the US National League of Cities.

My personal thanks for their ‘behind the scenes’ hard work go to the eleven members of the International Organizing Committee, to Janet Smith and Jill Gross for their major contribution as Track Chairs and to the astonishingly good organizing team of staff and students at CUPPA .

For more information about the UAA: www.udel.edu/uaa

For more information on CUPPA: www.uic.edu/cuppa

Robin Hambleton is Dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago