Worldwide, over 3.5 billion people, or half the global population, live in cities. In 2009, for the first time in history more people were living in urban areas than in rural. Urban populations are growing at a rate of about 60 million  people every year.  The director of the United Nations Human Settlement Programs (UN-Habitat) says another three billion people will be living in cities by 2050.  In other words, the world urban population in 2050 will be the same size as the world’s total population was in 2004.  With this rapid growth rate comes a plethora of problems such as uncontrolled urban sprawl, slum creation, environmental degradation, and governance issues like crime and inadequate social service provision.  For this reason, the global community must assemble to orchestrate multidisciplinary approaches that address the myriad of issues associated with urbanization.

The World Urban Forum (WUF) is a non-legislative technical conference convened by UN-Habitat every two years in a different city.  The forum assesses the most urgent matters confronting the global community in the area of human settlements.  Participants of the forum vary, with representatives from national and local governments, NGOs, academia, the private sector, the media, the United Nations, and other international institutions.

Medellin, Colombia is currently hosting the 7th WUF, which has attracted over 25,000 attendees from 164 countries.  The weeklong event boasts an itinerary with over 500 speakers, including Nobel Laureate in Economics Dr. Joseph Stiglitz, heads of state, government ministers, and two representatives from The New School: senior fellow in the Graduate Program in International Affairs Bob Buckley, and Director of International Affairs Michael Cohen. The conference consists of 150 activities including academic sessions, round table discussions, lectures, and workshops designed to stimulate dialogue around sustainable and inclusive approaches to urban development.

Medellin is a very proud, and very appropriate city to host this year’s forum.  Just 20 years ago, Medellin had the highest homicide rate in the world and was held hostage in many ways by rebel guerrilla groups, paramilitary squads, and infamously ruthless drug cartels.  Today, the city leads the world in innovative, inclusive, and environmentally sustainable urban development.  Recent projects range from large foreign investment projects in poor neighborhoods to escalators in slums, to integrated transportation systems connected by a combination of gondolas, metros and buses. These initiatives, together with drastically improved security measures, have resulted in increased foreign and private investment, a booming tourist industry, and enhanced standards of living for many of the cities residents.

The city is nestled in a valley surrounded by steep mountainsides, where thousands of poor and marginalized communities continue to settle. Many migrate to Medellin looking for work or are displaced from Colombia’s violent regions where conflict with left wing guerrillas wages on. Surely, the city has more than its fair share of challenges ahead, but so far it has responded to the complicated challenges of urbanization in creative ways.  In 2013, Medellin earned the title “Most Innovative City In The World.”

As the world urbanizes, new challenges will present their ugly faces and menace the livelihoods of millions of people. However, efforts are already well in motion to unite urbanists, humanitarians, architects, governments, businesses, academics, and citizens to meet those challenges head on with innovative, creative, and sustainable solutions.  Rapidly urbanizing cities in Africa and Asia can learn from, and even replicate, the amazing transformation that has occurred in Medellin.  International forums such as the WUF are vital for promoting the information sharing and international collaboration necessary to ensure a dignified and socially integrated future for the world’s present and future urban populations.

(Photo Credit: WUF VII: Medellin)