QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Thousands of experts and leaders from around the world are gathering in South America to dream up the city of the future even as the continent struggles with urban planning issues such as slums that have dogged the continent for decades.
The third United Nations Habitat Conference kicked off in Quito on Monday with the goal of tackling haphazard growth and fostering livable, self-sustaining cities amid a boom in the global urban population.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, 11 presidents and hundreds of experts were among those on the guest list.
The meeting comes as a downturn in prices for global commodities has threatened gains in government-constructed public housing that have helped many escape the sprawling shantytowns creeping up the hills of South American cities. Experts estimate that more than 105 million people in Latin America live in informal slum communities without access to basic services such as water and electricity.
Urban planners say more of these people should be brought into the conversation about how to construct cities.
"The mistake we've made is to only let architects and planners manage cities. Habitat III should be the Habitat conference that balances the input of citizens and experts," said John Dunn, professor of urban planning at the Universidad San Francisco in Quito.
Those attending the Habitat gathering say urban planning can be a key tool for creating a more equitable world. More than two-thirds of the world population live in cities with greater levels of inequality than they had 20 years ago, conference organizers say.
"The new global urban agenda has to focus on overcoming the social exclusion that defines cities in Latin America and all over the world," said Luis Bonilla, chief operating officer of Techo International, an organization that has built housing for the poor in 19 countries.
The four-day conference, which takes place every 20 years, will tackle issues ranging from climate change and public transportation to social justice and housing discrimination. Attendees say they hope the policies that come out of the conference will help reshape the world's urban centers over the next two decades.
"We need a change of mentality," said Jose Morales, professor of architecture at the Catholic University in Quito. "We have spent the last 40 or 50 years building cities only for cars. We've forgotten that cities are for people and communities."