UN-Habitat World Urban Forum III

H. William Batt

[A report on the foum, held in Vancourver, British Columbia. Reprinted from GroundSwell, July-August 2006]

I spent a week in Vancouver, June 19-24, attending the United Nations HABITAT's World Urban Forum. This is the third such event known by this name, although its antecedent was launched thirty years ago also in Vancouver. This World Urban Forum included both national level and city officials, NGOs, and grassroots organizers, unlike other UN conferences where UN ambassadors and bureaucrats meet in "official" sessions separate from NGOs. With no registration fee, it drew over 11,000 people from more than one hundred countries worldwide, over twice what was anticipated.

The theme of the conference was Our Future: Sustainable Cities - Turning Ideas into Action. Our Land Value Taxation movement was represented by seven of us: Alanna Hartzok, Annie Goeke, Ted Gwartney and I representing the American Georgists, Dave and Heather Wetzel for the British Georgists, and Henry Abbott, from Darien, Connecticut, a resurfaced Georgist who came with Ted. Some of us stayed in downtown hotels proximate to the conference, but others -- Alanna, Annie, and I -- stayed in a dormitory suite at the University of British Columbia, to be shuttled back and forth to the convention site each morning and evening. The benefit of being on the campus besides lower cost was the chance to make connections with thousands of others also staying there. Everyone was a "delegate" at this affair, and the national dress -- especially of indigenous peoples and those coming from Africa and Asia -- helped everyone recognize and appreciate the rich array of human experience.

The tenor of the conference was electric, due mainly to the sheer numbers of people, the many plenary sessions, training and networking events, and the rich assortment of exhibits. To be sure, going through the security system was onerous with all the metal in our pockets and briefcases, but it was understandable. Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was awarded and honored at the last HABITAT conference, was assassinated just a bit over a year ago. If present heads of state were few, one had the sense that many future leaders were. Every one of us has come back home with pockets of business cards, and it took me a week to follow up all the contacts.

For Alanna the conference gave ample evidence of her past work. This year's meeting inaugurated a special Global Land Tools Network, where those who have been pressing hardest for greater recognition of the importance of land will now have opportunity to see their issues explored. But my first cut at writing up these details got so many things wrong that Alanna is better elaborating that part herself. So, this part is about the conference generally, and Alanna can talk about LVT's progress on the world and HABITAT front specifically. The results should really be evident at the 2008 HABITAT WUF in Nanjing.

There were chances to make statements, pose leading questions, and otherwise mark our presence. And we all took full advantage of those opportunities at all the breakout sessions we attended. I myself am very impressed by Alanna's conferencing skills: she knows just how to ask a question, or make a statement, just at the right time, and using just the right tone. When there seemed to be hesitation in discussion about the Global Land Tools Network -- a ten-year effort funded by Sweden and Norway, she interceded with a perfectly timed comment that brought the decision to the fore, and action was taken. At two other occasions when I was also in a session with Alanna, she also managed to get herself recognized and then heard. Due perhaps to her assiduous cultivation of the issue, land value taxation is very much on the table among HABITAT discussants and subscribers.

Alanna has reminded me, however, that promoting discussion of land value taxation has been a long process; for her and for Pat Aller it has been a twelve-year campaign. Alanna came prepared at this conference to distribute a modest one-pager describing LVT and what Earth Rights Institute is prepared to do by way of training and consultation to governments everywhere.

Other Chance Meetings of Value

For my own part, the many contacts I established by itself made the trip worthwhile, for contacts are really what such conferences are all about. At one session by chance I sat next to a Vietnamese woman from Hanoi who knows Bruno Moser now living there. It turned out she was instrumental in getting Nic Tideman to visit Vietnam earlier this year and speak on LVT. At another session, a woman sat down next to me who lives close by my home in Albany, sent there by her county Cooperative Extension office to learn more about the advantages of urban agriculture. Todd Litman from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, with whom many of us have exchanged many messages on transportation finance, was there talking with some planners.

Other fortuitous meetings were with a planner from Vermont, the Deputy Director of the Ministry of Construction and Urban Development of Mongolia, a Vietnamese doctoral student in Planning finishing his degree at University College, London, the former mayor of Bogota, all who seem just primed for the Georgist message, and with whom I have followed up. (The Vietnamese fellow, soon back in London, showed up at my suggestion at the International Union conference two weeks later.) The exhibit of the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz in Spain (right near the Basque region) offered an impressive instance of a sustainable city, the representatives of which were most interested in learning more about LVT. Among the Canadians was a woman demonstrating new ways to use GIS technology to foster development and acceptance of policies, and many local government officials who have had extensive exchanges with their third-world counterparts for improvement of administration. Having served my Peace Corps stint in Thailand over four decades ago, I was happy to meet the Thai delegation, all there to talk about the tsunami that hit the southern coast in December, 2004. Three were directly affected, one with a heart-rending story I was privileged to learn about in detail. They talked about how the rescue and reconstruction efforts are going -- in a word, not very well. I even met the director of the Thailand Appraisal Organization, who was responsible for arranging for me to speak to his assembled members when I was last in Bangkok in 2003.

Before we left Vancouver, it was our good fortune to visit with members of our long-standing Georgist community there: Mary Rawson, the former city planner of Vancouver, Olaf Klasen who has roots in Estonia, and Bob Williams who served a term on the Schalkenbach Board of Directors. Tatiana Roshkoshnaya, whom many of us have known since her first visit to the CGO conference in Los Angeles in 1993, was also there, since she now serves as a UN HABITAT official in Nairobi. Tatiana's Georgist presence has been important in that organization's receptivity to LVT, and my chance meeting on the shuttle bus with one of her colleagues, the Chinese-born Chief of the Urban and Housing Finance Section of Nairobi's HABITAT office, probably strengthened his awareness of what we're all about.

The Entertainment Part

It was not all work. The opening and closing sessions had some wonderful art and entertainment. We saw perform the champion Native American Hoop Dancer, as well as three acts from Cirque du Soleil and a few other well-rehearsed choruses. I was taken particularly with a quartet of pre-pubescent Kenyan girls -- a set of triplets and their younger sister -- who sang a song in KiSwahili about land and justice. They were so impressive at the opening session that they were called back to perform again for the closing. They've been singing since they were two, trained by their mother and father. I managed to get the English lyrics for that song, about a child who wants to return to the bush, where life is more serene, and where one can survive more easily than in the city where life that is full of debts and trials.

"O Father, please give me a piece of land (shamba) and I will use my own hands to earn a noble living. I am not happy with city life where earnings are meagre and as evanescent as salt. In the end I'm left by mid-day hopelessly scouring newspapers for a job and ducking endlessly from my debtors." The refrain, "Give me a piece of land," rang powerfully.

By total fluke, my comments in one of the sessions were picked up and printed in an online daily newspaper about the conference. We'd been talking about transportation finance, and there arose a chance for me to mention value capture. I'd already used the free transit pass we were given to ride around in the new SkyTrain that serves the city. A freelance journalist writing on the session found my observations on it worthy of including in his daily recount of things. Here they are:

Scratching heads at SkyTrain

In the afternoon, the folks from TransLink (Greater Vancouver's Transportation Authority) put on a plush PowerPoint show describing their integrated approach to transit. Visitors from Sweden and Nigeria were wowed by images of the SkyTrain and SeaBus, of wheelchair elevators and HandyDarts. Yet TransLink board chair Malcolm Brodie made no mention of the fact that TransLink is currently hundreds of busses short of meeting its modest service targets, largely because the province has chosen instead to pour money into the Canada Line rapid transit route to Richmond and the airport.

"How do you see transit?" asked a woman from Nigeria after that presentation. "I think it's a human rights issue. It gives us access to health. To education. To employment. Everyone has the right to transit." This prompted William Batt, a sustainable transportation expert from Albany, New York, to recall the ride he took on a fancy new elevated commuter railway in Chennai, India. "They put the rail where the politicians wanted it to go, not where people needed it. So at rush hour, it was empty." Batt also spent a lonely Sunday afternoon on Vancouver's Millennium SkyTrain Line What shocked him most were the vast parking lots along the way, like that at Brentwood Mall. "Parking lots! That land is begging to be used."

Batt suggested that such land would be better utilized -- and cities could pay for fancy transit projects -- if we simply re-thought how we taxed the land.

"Right now you guys tax both the land and improvements. It's a double-whammy that punishes the developers who actually build anything. It encourages them to sit on property for years. You should cut the tax on improvements, and heavily tax the land around transit stops. This is called capturing the land value. The more you tax the land, the more the developer is going to invest in that land to recoup his tax expenses." In one study, Batt found that if such tax strategies were used along one road project in New York State, the government could have recouped the cost of that highway eleven-fold. Just an idea, he said.

So it was an enjoyable and successful conference for us, and I think for all the delegates. HABITAT, begun as a rump caucus three decades ago, is an important part of the UN, and is a valuable adjunct to our focus of activity.

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