Three centers share Penn expertise at UN forum on urban issues

When the UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum commences in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, this February—the ninth such meeting—a large Penn delegation with representatives from the Penn Institute for Urban Research (Penn IUR), Perry World House (PWH), and the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy will be on hand to showcase the University’s breadth and depth of expertise on urban issues.

“Knowing that this was happening, we started last summer thinking about what the University of Pennsylvania could contribute to the dialogue, and knowledge-sharing, and capacity-building at this conference,” says Eugenie Birch, the Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research and Education in the School of Design and co-director of Penn IUR.

The collaboration, co-led by Birch, PWH Director William Burke-White, and Mark Alan Hughes, director of the Kleinman Center, commissioned 10 white papers on pertinent subjects from faculty and affiliated fellows across campus. Daniel Aldana Cohen, an assistant professor of sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences, wrote about a movement called “The Right to the City,” which says that anyone who lives in an urban space deserves the privilege of its services. Lisa Mitchell, an associate professor in the Department of South Asia Studies, focused on the use of public spaces.

“Lisa came at this topic from the point of view of a historian,” Birch says. “Of course we need public spaces, but we really need to understand the cultural and historical traditions that exist in a place in order to create and plan for that public space.”

Presenting these viewpoints at the upcoming forum offers an opportunity to help effect change on the global scale, says Burke-White, who is also the Richard Perry Professor at Penn Law School.

“When thinking about how to engage, you often need a catalytic moment to get the policy world to listen,” he says. “Moments like the World Urban Forum bring together the policy community in one place, at a moment when people are thinking and listening, when there is dialogue between academics, civil society, and policymakers.”

Each group approaches urbanization from a slightly different angle. A core Perry World House mission is to link academic research and policy in real-world situations. Among other focuses, Penn IUR tackles civic engagement, incorporating stakeholders such as academic institutions and NGOs into conversations like the one occurring at the World Urban Forum. And the Kleinman Center’s main thrust is, of course, energy.

“Energy is fundamental to almost everything that either policymakers or implementing institutions on the ground have to contend with,” says Hughes, a professor of practice at PennDesign. “Few things don’t require energy in their program operation or delivery of goods and services.”

A workshop at Perry World House on Wednesday, Jan. 17, will present an opportunity for the many Penn experts to showcase their individual voices on campus, before they fly across the world for the UN forum. The event is open to the public.

“Such challenging topics need expertise from across Penn,” Burke-White says. “Bringing the three institutes together, backed by support from the enabling environment the University provides, is a great way to do that, and will allow robust participation from many different disciplinary perspectives.”

UN Habitat Malaysia