In 1976 at the United Nations Habitat I Conference in Vancouver Dove Myer Robinson rose to speak. "I am the Mayor of the largest Polynesian city in the world" he began. There was a dramatic pause as everyone from Ghana to Guatemala wondered where on earth he was talking about. Where could this diminutive little man possibly be from?
"Auckland" said Robbie proudly. The whole hall erupted into applause. In one sentence he had given a voice to all those who had no voice. He had spoken for indigenous people all over the world. He had spoken for the poor and the dispossessed. He had spoken of local government which was "not for us, but with us".
Thirty years later, a few weeks ago, many of those who had been at Habitat I gathered again in Vancouver. People from around the world remembered Robbie with affection. They remembered in a rather bemused way how New Zealanders always seemed to be on first name terms with everyone from their Mayors to their Prime Minister. At the first global conference to consider the built environment Auckland was seen as a city of vision for others to follow.
In 1996 at the United Nations Habitat II Conference in Istanbul Bob Harvey rose to speak. "I am the Mayor of the first city in the world" he began. There was a dramatic pause as mayors from New York and Paris tried to work out how this unknown could even be in the race.
"To declare itself nuclear free" said Bob proudly. His voice was drowned out as everyone rose to their feet and cheered in a round of wild applause. In one sentence he had given the mayors of the world hope that they too could make a difference. He had spoken for principles rather than compromise.
Ten years later, a few weeks ago, many of those who had been in Istanbul gathered again, this time at the UN-Habitat World Urban Forum in Vancouver, a meeting which was popularly called Habitat III, although it should more correctly be called WUF3. People from around the world remembered "Mr Bob", as he came to be known on Turkish television, with affection. Auckland was seen as a city of vision for others to follow.
Sadly no New Zealand mayor rose up to lead the world at WUF3. It seemed that our vision and our sense of purpose had died. We had forgotten our proud tradition of being world leaders. Mayors came from Beirut, Istanbul, Ouagadougou, Nanjing and some hundred and fifty other cities around the globe to listen, but we had nothing to say.
At the Dialogue Session on Municipal Finance Innovation and Collaboration, the discussion of "ongoing reforms that allow municipalities to better finance their increasing expenditure and manage their financial system in a more transparent and efficient manner" was offered no world leadership by Auckland. Interestingly Auckland City Council was chosen by UN-Habitat as one of only seven cities around the world for analysis, which made our absence even more poignant and embarrassing. The theme of WUF3 was "turning ideas into action", but first you need some visionary ideas.
Habitat I in 1976 changed global politics. Until then Non Government Organisations had no formal place within United Nations structures. The NGOs arrived in Vancouver with chain saws and built an alternative venue out of driftwood from the beaches. At first speakers drifted down to Jericho Beach from the formal conference, but then delegates began to come down too. People rallied around Margaret Mead when she said "Do not say that the world cannot be changed by little people. It has never been changed in any other way." The world would never be the same again.
At the WUF3 Reunion people remembered that New Zealanders never asked what needed to be done. They knew what needed to be done and they simply got on with it. While the chattering classes from the universities were still trying to work out the best criteria for performance based evaluation the Kiwis had finished and gone off for a beer. Ian Athfield, now President of the NZIA, was remembered for his building skills, his love of what he was doing, and his sense of humour.
There was even a New Zealander on the committee of seven which organised the 1976 Jericho Beach Habitat I alternative. Zena Daysh did not need to be remembered at WUF3. She turned up in Vancouver with her boundless energy not even dinted by time. She is now 92. Zena has always taken it for granted that New Zealand will lead the world.
Habitat II in 1996 gave visible form to the concept of partnership. At that United Nations gathering the Forum, as it was called by then, and the formal meeting of governments all took place in one pedestrianised venue. New Zealand again played a leading role, overcoming the opposition of those who feared a terrorist attack. The vision of an NGO document being formally accepted as a UN document was realised.
More than ten thousand people came to Vancouver for the UN-Habitat World Urban Forum in June 2006. Idealism was in the air. Prime Ministers mingled with the homeless. Slum dwellers told the architects of the world not to meddle in their lives. The only common ground seemed to be the knowledge that the point has now been reached where more than half the world's population live in cities. By 2020 more than two billion people will live in slums.
Cities which spend their time rearranging the kerbstones have become irrelevant in today's world.
Tony Watkins travelled economy class to Vancouver at his own expense.