In Call with Mayors, Obama Urges Measured Response to Ebola

The tragic death of Thomas Duncan in a Dallas hospital reminds us of the severity of the disease, said President Obama, and that it must be taken seriously.

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In a wide ranging conference call with city leaders from across the nation, President Barack Obama on Wednesday spoke about the need for an appropriate and measured response to the Ebola virus and the crisis that is now concerning many in the U.S.

The tragic death of Liberian Thomas Duncan in a Dallas hospital reminds us of the severity of the disease and how we must take it seriously, Obama noted. But we need to respond based on facts and the facts are that doctors in the U.S. know how to deal with infectious diseases, in general, and the Ebola virus, in particular, he added.

Obama reiterated over and over an outbreak in the United States will be prevented, and then announced additional security and screening measures will be taken at five U.S. airports where about 90 percent of all West Africans enter the United States.

President Obama was joined on the call by Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Tom Frieden M.D. Burwell opened her remarks by noting that the U.S. is prepared to deal with the Ebola virus and any outbreak that might occur; that the CDC has been in constant contact through publications and webinars with state and local health officials since the outbreak began nearly a year ago, and is also consulting with airlines, airports, hospitals, private physicians and other health care providers and their representatives.

Dr. Frieden echoed Burwel, saying–as he has said repeatedly–that the U.S. government is confident the virus can be contained in this country, even if other cases are identified; that the CDC is providing information to health care workers on methods for treating Ebola virus patients – something that is very complex — and how health care workers should protect themselves from possible exposure; and has set up a hotline number (800 CDC INFO) for health care workers and others to obtain information on the Ebola virus, its containment, and treatment.

Homeland Security Secretary Johnson addressed the increasing concern about travelers from West Africa. Echoing President Obama’s statement that this is a national security issue, Johnson spoke about how DHS will be increasing inspections of travelers arriving from West Africa. In addition to screenings at departure points in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, customs and immigration agents in the United States will be doing visual inspections for signs of illness, medically trained Coast Guard personnel will be taking temperatures of persons arriving from these countries (with thermometers that operate without direct contact), and when necessary referrals to CDC personnel based at the airports will be made.

The stepped up screenings will take place at five airports – JFK, Newark, Dulles, O’Hare, and Atlanta Hartsfield – and when appropriate, at other entry points, including ports.

Among the mayors who joined the conversation were Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. Each praised the federal government for the work it was doing to help their local health departments prepare for, and in the case of Dallas, deal with the disease, and talked about what they have been learning either as they responded to the disease or prepared to respond.

Mayor Rawlings noted that the real difficulties occur on the ground where so many different organizations and operations have to be merged into a single effort to respond to the disease and wondered if there is a way to standardize this. Mayor Nutter requested assistance from the federal government in developing strategies to best communicate with their federal partners. Mayor Landrieu urged every mayor to perform a table top review so that the response methodology and system to the Ebola virus can be tested and strengths and weaknesses can be identified.

In response to their questions and statement, Dr. Frieden and Secretary Burwell underscored the following facts:

  • Ebola cannot be caught from someone who is asymptomatic;
  • Ebola can only be caught from someone who is actually showing symptoms of the disease and then only through direct contact with the sick person or their bodily fluids; and
  • Ebola is not transmitted through the air like Influenza and other more common viruses.

As to communication and response, they said it is imperative that:

  • Mayors and other local officials should stay in touch with their local health departments to discuss any emerging or present threats;
  • Communicate clearly with the public;
  • Underscore that while Ebola is a terrible and frightening disease, keep to the facts; and
  • Every city, county and state should have an identified incident manager who is responsible for bringing all of the actors together to ensure a seamless response.

Ultimately, Sec. Burwell reminded everyone on the call to contact their local and state public health officials as well as the CDC if they have any concerns or questions.

Note: If you have any specific questions that can’t be answered by the CDC website or by your local or state health department, please feel free to email me at bomberg@nlc.org and I will pass your question on to officials at the White House or Health and Human Services Department for an answer.

Neil BombergAbout the author: Neil Bomberg is NLC’s Program Director for Human Development. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around education, workforce development, health care, welfare, and pensions. Follow Neil on Twitter at @neilbomberg.

WUF7: Final Thoughts on My Week in Medellin

This is the seventh post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.

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Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to a tour of the city of Medellin, the trip would have been worth it. This is truly a city on the rise. Gone is the violence and narco-terror for which the city was famous. In its place is a young, vibrant city filled with new libraries and schools serving some of the poorest neighborhoods; parks that include concert halls, a planetarium and computer learning centers; and a metro system that runs the length and width of the city, employing traditional rail cars, cable cars and escalators.

Its town center or “el Centro” is filled with the wonderful and massive sculptures of Fernando Botero, a Medellin native, whose work is wonderfully sardonic and sarcastic at the same time, and includes a small gem of a museum that proudly displays Colombia’s pre-Columbian, colonial and modern artists. Its neighborhoods are diverse and reflective of a city that is growing but retaining a “small town” feel. Looking out over the city at night from a bar atop the Charlee Hotel in the Poblado, one can feel the pulsating rhythms of this increasingly successful business center.

Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to participation in the mayor’s roundtable on urban equity and the new urban agenda, the trip also would have been worth it. This was truly a roundtable that demonstrated the optimism that exists among city leaders from around the world to create “cities of opportunity” — cities where the poorest and most disadvantaged are able to take advantage of what their city has to offer so they can create a better life for themselves and their families.

As I reported in my fourth and fifth blogs, in its broadest sense, the message of the mayors forum was cities are on the rise as economic centers, centers of innovation and centers of learning — what we have chosen to call “cities of opportunity” — and that cities are replacing individual states and nations as the places in which “real change is taking place.”

Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to attending the various “dialogues” that focused on city resiliency and financing, the trip also would have been worth it. For here the conversations focused on how to finance cities, and how to build cities that can respond to and come back from natural and man-made disasters, but not just for the benefit of the few, but in a way that promotes inclusion and social equity.

Though the solutions that were offered are costly, what was clear is that to do nothing would be even more costly. And though it is much easier to make decisions from the top down, or to make investments that benefit the wealthiest residents, for a city to thrive and grow, every resident must be included in the decision making process, regardless of their income or social standing, and every citizen must be viewed as a likely beneficiary of the investments made.

As Michael Cohen, a professor at the New School (New York) said, it is no longer feasible to operate the way Buenos Aires and New York City have operated until now, where 60 percent of the expenditures benefit the wealthiest 11 percent of the population. “If our cities are to be financially sustainable we must find ways to effectively leverage our resources to the benefit of all.”

Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to hearing Joseph Stiglitz, the Columbia University economics professor and Nobel laureate, speak passionately about the need for national and local governments to take meaningful steps to end inequality and create opportunity through investments in education, job creation and small business, the trip would have been worth it. Had it been limited to hearing Leon Krier, the famous and highly controversial architect, urban planner and architectural theorist, the trip would have been worth it. His desire to create urban environments that are inclusive but limited in size, and therefore more humane in scale, rang true as we sat in the midst of a city whose one-time modest scale has given way to skyscrapers as far as the eye can see.

Finally, had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to visiting the exhibit hall and witnessing what nations and cities around the world are doing to address inequality and create cities of opportunity – from Barcelona to Jerusalem, Guangzhou to Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires to Paris – the trip would have been worth it.

But in fact, this trip to the World Urban Forum 7 and Medellin, Colombia, was worth it for reasons that transcended each of its parts. It was a place for people from around the world to exchange ideas and learn from one another. It was a place where creativity was acknowledged and innovation rewarded. It was a place where one’s status as part of the developed or developing worlds did not seem to matter – everyone had something important to offer.

And it was a place that confirmed what we at the National League of Cities have long stated: cities are the laboratories of innovation and creativity, and the solutions to the world’s urban settlement problems will not happen because of national government. Rather, the solutions will emerge at the local level through the commitment of mayors and other local officials, private sector leaders who share the goal of creating “cities of opportunity,” as well as foundations, non-governmental organizations and universities.

This conference left no doubt: if those who live and work in cities are able to come together to create inclusive, resilient and financially sustainable cities, then the urban future is a very bright one, indeed.

Neil Bomberg

About the author: Neil Bomberg is NLC’s Program Director for Human Development. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around education, workforce development, health care, welfare, and pensions. Follow Neil on Twitter at @neilbomberg.

WUF7: City Resiliency — Facing the Reality of Natural and Man Made Disasters

This is the sixth post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.

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Throughout the week long meeting of the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia, there was clear agreement:

Our climate is changing, temperatures are increasing, sea levels are rising, droughts are worsening, storms are becoming more violent, fires are larger and more expansive, the interface between urban and rural areas seems to be disappearing, allowing diseases to spread to places where they once never existed, and other natural disasters like earthquakes are impacting more and more people.

Furthermore, as the world’s population becomes increasingly urban, as human settlements occupy more and more available land, natural and man made disasters are becoming more consequential.

But there was also agreement that population and density alone are not the reasons that natural and man made disasters are becoming more consequential. Our cities are becoming more dependent on technology to work; the infrastructures of our cities are becoming more complex; individually and collectively we are becoming more dependent on mass services for survival. If our cities are to continue to grow and become places of opportunity, they must be able to respond to the impacts of environmental and other changes, and resilient not just for some, but for all regardless of their economic or social position.

On the last day of WUF7 this message was driven home again and again in a dialogue that included Joan Clos, director of the World Urban Forum; Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation; Luz Helena Sarmiento Villamizar, Colombia’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development and others intimately involved in addressing urban resiliency.

Joan Clos said that “we must create a new system of organization because of the limitations of available land. The more land we occupy the more problematic is our growth, especially if we wish to be resilient.”

Judith Rodin said that everything we do in cities must be done through the lens of resiliency so that our cities and the people who live there can adapt, survive, respond and grow no matter what the shock, and do so without regard to the economic or social position of the city or its residents. She added, “Never before has humanity faced such a threat as it does today. The sheer number of people at risk at any one time is unprecedented.”

There was also agreement that to do so takes money and innovation, and requires engaging all members of society while developing strong partnerships between the public and private sectors. And lest we think the cost is too great, the Rockefeller Foundation’s research shows that every dollar invested will save $15 in future losses. “The upfront costs are huge, but the cost of doing nothing is far greater. For example, the World Bank has shown that right now 25 percent of the businesses that fail after a disruptive event never reopen. That is too high a cost.”

What then is a resilient city? Luz Helena Sarmiento Villamizar put it this way: It is one in which the risks from climate change are mitigated, the relationship between sustainable and urban development are understood, and are done so understanding that the challenge of creating an equitable city must be the defining lens.

Therefore, it is not enough to ensure that the wealthiest parts of a city come back to life; or that the downtown business district is protected. It requires that every resident, every neighborhood, every community and ultimately the entire city come together to respond to a natural or man made crisis.

“In Colombia it means that we cannot forget that poor people are likely to be the most vulnerable. If we are to meet their needs we must include them in the resiliency planning and development process, since they are the most vulnerable economically and socially,” said Villamizar.

Kathrine Vines, director of the climate change risk assessment network of C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a non-governmental organization working with 66 cities around the world to mitigate the effects of climate change, reiterated this point. “We must ensure that each city’s residents, economies, etc., can respond to the undeniable stress of climate change since cities are the first place citizens go to manage risks of climate impacts,” Vines said.

Stefan Denig, vice president of Siemens Sustainable Cities Program said “we must not forget that cities are at incredible risk of huge catastrophes. London has built barriers to the Thames. In the first 30 years the barriers were only raised twice; in the last decade they have been raised 40 times. It is likely that New York City will experience a disruptive weather event every three years.”

Denig added, “if New York City failed to move toward a more resilient city, it would lose $3 billion over the next 20 years. If it only responded with protection it would still lose money over the next 20 years. But if it moved toward resiliency, investing the same $3 billion over the next 12 years would save the city about $6 billion over 20 years.”

So what then was the lesson of this dialogue, one that also included the mayors of Lampa, and Quillota, Chile, both of which in the last ten years experienced an 8.9 earthquake, a tsunami on the nearby coast, and serious flooding; a council member from Toronto, which has begun to experience devastating winters due to a shift in the jet stream; and a representative from the World Bank who underscored the financial problems facing any efforts to create resilient cities? That time is rapidly running out to create resilient cities that can respond to and recover from the ongoing changes in climate, and the increasing urbanization of the planet, both of which are conspiring to increase the likelihood of experiencing catastrophic events. To do otherwise, is to live in a constant state of denial that can only result in catastrophic outcomes.

Neil Bomberg

About the author: Neil Bomberg is NLC’s Program Director for Human Development. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around education, workforce development, health care, welfare, and pensions. Follow Neil on Twitter at @neilbomberg.

WUF7: The Mayors Forum Part II — Individual City Solutions

This is the fifth post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.

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In my previous blog, I wrote that the focus of the Mayors Forum was on inclusiveness in order to create a “city of opportunity.” However, I would be misleading you if I implied that each mayor was striving to create a “city of opportunity” in the same way. What they shared was an outcome. How they got there very much depended on how developed, how democratic and how wealthy the city is.

This was exemplified by the diversity of approaches for creating a city of opportunity. Some focused on transportation, others on broader infrastructure, others on job creation, others on education, and still others on public spaces, and for most, a combination of different strategies was necessary. But two things did seem to underlie their approaches regardless of the strategy: inclusiveness and money.

The mayor of Barcelona, Spain underscored this when he said, “We can have the noblest ideas, but if we do not have the financial resources to draw upon, there is nothing that we can do to change our cities and create opportunities for our residents.” He called on national and state governments to respect the work that cities do by ensuring that cities have the resources they need to be a city of opportunity. And the mayors of Medellin, Colombia and Asker, Norway reiterated the importance of involving all residents in the decision-making process and not just the rich or advantaged.

In Santiago de Chile, this process enabled the city to move forward with the development of an adequate urban mass transit system. Prior to development of this system, the city and its residents were supporting the 30 percent with cars, while the rest had to make it on their own. Once the city came together to discuss a solution to the problem of moving its residents from home to work and school, they were able to reach agreement that there needs to be a transportation system, including roads and mass transit, that provides 100 percent of the population with access to everything the city offers.

In Nanjing, China, the focus has been on building a metro system that will serve the poorest sections of the city. While not sharing the deliberative process that led to this decision, the mayor did note that if they failed to create a system that benefited the poorest, the city would remain divided and the poorest residents would have no opportunities to access education, jobs and important social services.

And the mayor of Medellin, Colombia, chimed in by underscoring yet again the importance of his city’s metro system to the least advantaged residents of Medellin, and how important it has been to ensuring that they can get to work, to school and to the services they need. “We were able to transform a two-hour or more commute by bus and foot from the most remote sections of the city into a 45-minute commute to the downtown. In this way we were able to give our residents back two and one-half hours of their day, and increase their happiness.”

In Delft, Netherlands and Budapest, Hungary, the opportunities provided by effective transportation networks were already there; what was lacking was the ability for many of the residents to enter the job market because the skills they had were not the ones local businesses wanted. Delft’s strong technology sector, a driver of job creation, was limited in its ability to absorb unskilled workers. To address this, the city entered into agreements with construction companies, service providers and others who hire lower skilled workers, requiring that they first hire local unemployed residents before recruiting from elsewhere.

Budapest, a city with low relatively low unemployment, still faced enormous employment issues. Long term unemployed residents were not being hired, and young people were also not being incorporated into the workforce. In response, the city set up its own public works program for low skilled workers and worked in partnership with local businesses to ensure that long-term unemployed workers were considered for jobs; and if they were not hired, the city would step in with high-skilled opportunities. The same was done for the city’s youth.

For some of the mayors, there could be not hope of creating a city of opportunity unless the city was safe. In Johannesburg, South Africa and Gombo, Congo, the latter having just been torn apart by a civil war where young people were often soldiers, the response could not simply be having more police. Efforts to move the youth away from violence required their complete engagement in each city’s development, so that the young people saw a future for themselves in the city in which they live.

Finally, many of the mayors spoke of the need for accessible and meaningful open spaces, and educational systems that included pre-school and after-school programs.

But all of this came down to one issue for each of these mayors, and that was the creation of a city filled with opportunity, where every resident feels a part of the city, has pride in their city, and benefits from being part of the city. As the mayor of Medellin put it, “We want every resident to be happy; to feel good about where he or she lives, and to benefit from every aspect of life that the city has to offer.” Something every United States mayor wants for their residents as well.

WUF 7: Day Three — The Mayors Forum: Cities on the Rise

This is the fourth post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.

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Despite the economic forces that I wrote about yesterday, there seems to be an optimism pervading the Seventh World Urban Forum (WUF7) that is almost contagious.  From the opening general session, where the organizers of this conference talked about the unique opportunity we all have to help solve some of the most basic and fundamental problems challenging us, to yesterday’s Mayors Forum, where mayors from around the globe spoke of their cities as “cities of opportunity,”  the overwhelming thrust of the debates and discussions is that we can make the planet a better place to live for everyone and that we have the resources and capacity to do it now.

Their optimism is reflected in the two symbols that seem to be speaking to most of the participants attending WUF7 here in Medellin, Colombia. The first is the city of Medellin’s symbol, the hummingbird, which in South America and among indigenous populations is the symbol of resurrection.

Throughout the city, one sees images of the hummingbird in flight on street signs or public buildings; and residents, whether public or private, talk about the way the city has risen out of the ashes of the Escobar drug cartel to become one of the best places to live and do business in all of Latin America.

The second is a symbol the United Nations has adopted and is visible at WUF7, and that is the butterfly which appears in many of the graphic images displayed throughout the conference site. It is the symbol of transformation or metamorphosis.

Neither symbol was lost on the mayors at Tuesday’s forum. Each mayor, whether from Barcelona or Johannesburg, from Medellin or Nanjing, spoke about how their city rose out of the Great Recession, civil war, violence, or extreme poverty to transform into a city in which all, rather than the privileged few, have the opportunity to benefit from the education, transportation, jobs and recreation their city has to offer.

In its broadest sense, the message of the Mayors Forum was that cities are on the rise as economic centers, centers of innovation and centers of learning — what we have chosen to call “cities of opportunity” — and that cities are replacing individual states and nations as the places in which “real change is taking place.” Because of this, they argue, the United Nations must recognize that cities have much to contribute to the international discussion on ways to make the planet a better place to live.

When asked about how they are making their cities better places to live, the answer was always the same: “through inclusivity.” This was the case even though the types of cities represented in the forum were extremely different.

They ranged from Asker, Norway, a city near Oslo, with its strong economy and social welfare state, to Goma, The Congo, which has just emerged from civil war and where the most basic problems such as clean water must be addressed; from Seoul, South Korea, where tradition has led to the marginalization of women, to Johannesburg, South Africa, where millions live in shanty towns and remain in extreme poverty.

Not surprisingly, we learned that the ways to achieve inclusivity, and therefore opportunity, varied from city to city based on size, economy, politics, infrastructure, location, history, etc.  Asker, Norway’s goal was to create “a broad-based democracy through nonstop dialogue” in which everyone participates, while Goma, The Congo’s goal was to have a thriving and successful city – but to do so the first step was to find a way to include their young people, those who are most disconnected from their decision making process, in the larger community.  “We must teach our young people, who were caught up in the violence of our civil war as soldiers on either side of the conflict, to trade in their guns and violence for a role in the city’s future,” he said.

Of course, there are specific actions that each of the participating cities have taken to move toward as a “city of opportunity,” and in my next blog, I will discuss the specific things cities like Santiago de Chile; Yakutsk, Russia; Guadalajara, Mexico; São Paulo, Brazil and other cities have done to become transform “cities of opportunity.”

WUF 7: Day Two — Are Economic Forces Conspiring Against Cities of Opportunity?

This is the third post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.

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While thousands of urbanists have gathered here in Medellin, Colombia to discuss ways to create “cities of opportunity,” there is increasing evidence that there may be decreasing hope of creating these places unless we are willing to make significant changes in the way that incomes and wealth are distributed and cities are funded.

This is because there is increasing income inequality within the first, second and third worlds. The most apparent way that income inequality manifests itself is in the very small percentage of individuals who control the bulk of resources, making it increasingly difficult for the least well off to access educational, health care, social and other societal benefits.

Thomas Piketty shows, in his recently published book Capital in the Twenty-first Century (Belknap, Harvard University Press, 2014), that the current move away from income equality (a 20th century phenomenon that Piketty argues will not be repeated) and toward wealth controlled by a very small percentage now appears inevitable, and what separates the haves from the have not’s will become a permanent fixture as we move deeper into the 21st century.

In fact, Piketty notes, this phenomenon appears to be especially true in the United States and what he calls the Anglo-Saxon countries where income inequality is approaching or surpassing levels last seen in 1928 just prior to the Great Depression.

In the United States, ten percent of income earners account for 50 percent of the earnings, and the top one percent of earners account for 25 percent. In the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia the trends are not as dramatic but still significant and appear to be replicating what is happening in the United States. In those countries, the top one percent of earners account for between 10 and 15 percent of all the earnings. And among emerging nations like Colombia, South Africa and China, the picture is no better.

In Colombia, the top one percent of income earners accounts for more than 20 percent of the earnings; in South Africa they account for more than 18 percent; and in China, which is among the lowest, they account for 10 percent. In these countries, the middle class — which was truly a phenomenon of the 20th century — is either rapidly disappearing or struggling to emerge.

The United Nations estimates that two-thirds of the world’s urban population lives in cities where income inequality has increased since 1980. In many cases, this increase has been staggering, and the inequalities have shown themselves in the way that cities are divided utilizing invisible yet ever present borders that take the form of social, cultural and economic exclusion.

Slums, the face of poverty and urban inequality, continue to increase in most countries in the developing world, and remain a significant problem in the developed world, perpetuating the lack of access to basic services and political representation to the most vulnerable communities.

Gender inequality persists, preventing women from accessing secondary education, decent employment, political representation and reproductive health care. Moreover, youth inequalities manifest through discrimination in access to education, differentiated levels of employment and livelihood opportunities, lack of participation in decision making and prejudice against sexual preferences.

Can this trend be reversed? The optimistic group of urbanists who have come together here in Medellin are arguing yes. In sessions and workshops they are providing evidence for the potential to change urban food deserts into food rich zones, urban parks into oases from which everyone can benefit, disenfranchised youth into productive members of their communities, areas with high crime into areas of development and bad schools into oases of learning.

None of this, they argue, is either easy or cheap; but they argue it is one of the many things our urban communities need to do in order to grow and expand.

Cities, then, are a critical component in addressing these problems. As is being talked about in the many dialogues that are taking place, the design, governance and infrastructure of each city will have a direct impact on the lives and opportunities of their residents.

The ways in which cities decide to proceed with development, urban planning and design, the provision of basic services, project financing, urban resilience and public safety will determine in large part the extent to which they become cities of opportunity in which all people can thrive.

 

WUF 7 Day One: Are ‘Cities of Opportunity’ Really Possible?

This is the second post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.

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The theme of the United Nations World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia, is “Equity in Development — Cities for Life;” or what I prefer to call “Cities of Opportunity.”

According to the United Nations, it is now estimated that two-thirds of the world’s urban population live in cities where income inequality has been increasing. In many cases, this increase has been staggering. These inequalities can be seen in urban spaces, with cities divided by invisible borders that create social, cultural and economic exclusion.

This conference has been designed to provide city leaders with the tools they need to create cities in which the design, governance and infrastructure of cities has a direct and positive impact on the lives and opportunities of their inhabitants. In other words, this conference is about ensuring that cities of opportunity remain possible, and become a reality.

Over the conference’s seven days there will be lectures, dialogues, discussion groups, training sessions, roundtables and assemblies.

Among these will be:

  • A mayors’ forum in which mayors and their representatives will discuss how urban planning, design, legislation, governance and finances can be strengthened to ensure equitable local development; and share experiences how urban leaders have been able to reduce urban inequalities and move toward equitable development;
  • A United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) sponsored discussion on how to provide basic services to under-served communities;
  • Training sessions addressing diverse topics such as the use of public space to reduce inequities, food security in low income areas, workforce strategies in urban slums, building safe cities through inclusive participation, sustainable communities, learning to respond to mega-disasters, ensuring resiliency and responding to youth violence;
  • Assemblies designed to address major urban issues including youth, gender equality and business; and
  • Side events such as one on urban innovation and inclusive governance meant to supplement the conference’s agenda.

Among the speakers will be such luminaries as:

  • Richard Florida, professor at the University of Toronto and New York University and senior editor of The Atlantic;
  • Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate in Economics and professor at Columbia University
  • Judith Rodin, Ph.D., president of the Rockefeller Foundation
  • Richard Sennett, professor at the London School of Economics and New York University;
  • Ricky Burdett, professor of Urban Studies and director of the London School of Economics Urban Age Programme; and
  • Sarah Rosen Wartell, president of the Urban Institute.

What remains to be learned in the ensuing days is how cities of opportunity should be conceptualized and ultimately implemented. Stay tuned.

Medellin, Colombia: A City Transformed?

This is the first post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.

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In just a few days I will be in Medellin, Colombia, for World Urban Forum 7 (WUF7) which is hosted by the City of Medellin, the government of Colombia and the United Nations.

“Why Medellin?” is a question I have heard repeatedly. “After all, isn’t Medellin the home of Pablo Escobar and his Medellin Cartel?”

Since Escobar’s death 20 years ago, the City of Medellin has transformed from the world’s narcoterror capital, into one of the most innovative and equity-oriented cities in the world.

The city has built a transit system that was awarded the “2012 top transit system in the world award” by the InstituteMetroCable for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a global consortium of organizations founded in 1985 to promote sustainable transportation worldwide. In 2013 the City of Medellin was called the most innovative city in the world by the Urban Land Institute, the Wall Street Journal Magazine and CitiBank.

Medellin Metro carries more than 650,000 people each day. It’s Metrocable system connects some of the city’s poorest and most remote communities to jobs, health care, education and other necessities. A network of buses feeds into the metro system, and a network of escalators makes it possible for people living in some of the more hilly portions of the city to access the city below.

And while the city is far from perfect — the Washington Post reports that crime still plagues certain parts of Medellin — the city as a whole has been transformed. The homicide rate has dropped by 80 percent since its high in 1990, and it now ranks as the 30th most dangerous city in the world rather than the first.

Medellin has five of the top 30 hospitals in Latin America. Colombia’s health care system ranks 22nd in the world, just behind most of Europe and well ahead of either Canada (which ranks 30th) or the United States (which ranks 37th), according to the World Health Organization. Its system of mandatory health care may be purchased either from the government or through private health insurers. As a result, every Colombian has health care coverage and can access adequate health care regardless of income.

And Medellin’s education system has also been transformed over the past decade. Not only has the city made significant investments in instruction, but it has constructed architecturally important buildings that serve as its schools and libraries, and this new construction has taken place in some of the poorest neighborhoods of the city to ensure that residents of those neighborhoods have access to the education and resources they need to overcome poverty.

There is still much for Medellin and Colombia to overcome. No doubt poverty, and crime, remain obstacles to growth. But if the past 20 years are a marker, Colombia and Medellin have made tremendous strides.

Much more will be learned on my visit there, but all indications are that the Medellin of today is not the Medellin we all thought we know; rather it is a city where the word “transformed” seems to apply.

Stay tuned to this blog for updates and insights from my visit to Medellin and World Urban Forum 7.

Neil Bomberg

About the author: Neil Bomberg is NLC’s Program Director for Human Development. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around education, workforce development, health care, welfare, and pensions. Follow Neil on Twitter at @neilbomberg.

Time is Running Out for Your Residents to Obtain Federally-Subsidized Health Insurance

Health-Care-ACA-Deadline

There is less than one week left for your residents to obtain federally-subsidized health insurance through HealthCare.gov.  But as an elected official there is much you can do to help them get federally-subsidized health insurance.

Please let your residents know that if they do not have employer-sponsored insurance, or have not yet purchased insurance through their state Health Insurance Marketplace, March 31 will be the last day this year they can obtain federally-subsidized health insurance.

Let your residents know that even if they have purchased health insurance on the individual insurance market, they might be able to find better and cheaper insurance through HealthCare.gov.

And let your residents know that obtaining health insurance through HealthCare.gov is quick and easy.

If they have access to a computer, all they have to do is go to the website and follow the prompts, which will take them to their state’s Health Insurance Marketplace where they can register and obtain the health insurance they need and deserve.

If they don’t have access to a computer, then HealthCare.gov is only a phone call away. They can contact their Health Insurance Marketplace by calling 1-800-318-2596 (TTY: 1-855-889-4325) to apply, pick a plan, and enroll.

And remind them of the benefits of enrolling in HealthCare.gov and having insurance. Whether they are  uninsured, been denied coverage in the past, or just want to explore new options, the Health Insurance Marketplace will give them more choices and control over their health coverage, and the Marketplace is operating in all states, so no matter where they live they will have access to coverage.

Remind your residents that in the Health Insurance Marketplace they can compare coverage options based on price, benefits, quality, and other features important to them. Remind them that they can choose the combination of price and benefits that fits their budget and needs.

Also, let your residents know:

  • They may pay less for their insurance. The Marketplace application will tell them if they are eligible for a new way to get lower costs on your monthly premiums or out-of-pocket costs for private insurance. They will also learn if they are eligible for free or low-cost coverage through Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
  • All plans must offer a comprehensive set of essential health benefits including doctor visits, preventive care, hospitalization, prescriptions, and more.
  • Pre-existing conditions will be covered: Even if they have been turned down in the past, health insurers won’t be able to deny them coverage or charge them more due to pre-existing health conditions, including a pregnancy or disability.
  • They can get personal help in their area: If they need help finding a plan, several kinds of help will be available to give them personalized assistance with the process.

Please let your residents know now is their chance to get the health insurance they need and are entitled to, and it is only a click (HealthCare.gov) or phone call (1-800-318-2596 (TTY: 1-855-889-4325)) away.

Neil Bomberg

About the author: Neil Bomberg is NLC’s Program Director for Human Development. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around education, workforce development, health care, welfare, and pensions. Follow Neil on Twitter at @neilbomberg.

Why Are We Cutting the Nation’s Nutrition Assistance Program for the Poor and Disabled?

On November 1, tens of millions of Americans learned that the assistance they received from the federal government to purchase groceries was reduced. Maximum monthly benefits for a family of four fell from $668 to $632, and for a single person the maximum benefit fell from $200 to $189.

Who is going to be effected by these cuts?

This change is likely to affect nearly 48 million individuals, including 22 million children. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), since 2007, the number of individuals benefiting from the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (which most of us know as food stamps) has grown from 26 million to 48 million people, in large part because of the significant loss of jobs and income that resulted from the Great Recession that began in 2008.

What impact will these cuts have on cities?

The impact on cities is likely to be significant. First, individuals and families will have to spend more of their limited resources to purchase food, leaving them with less money to pay for other necessities. Second, these same households will be forced to reduce their food spending, which is likely to impact their health and well-being. Third, your city or town and the various community-based organizations dedicated to assisting lower income households with food are likely to face an increased demand for basic food items like milk, bread, and cheese. And fourth, this cut is likely to have an impact on the nation’s overall economy.

If the impact is likely to be so significant, why did these cuts occur?

The $5 billion cut that took effect November 1 for fiscal year 2014 (which began October 1) will be followed by another $6 billion cut in fiscal year 2015 and yet another $6 billion cut in fiscal year 2016. This reduction in food stamp assistance occurred because Congress failed to extend a temporary increase in food stamp spending that was part of the Obama Administration’s 2009 economic stimulus bill.

Are more cuts coming?

The future does not bode well for the nation’s food assistance program, despite its benefits. If left to the Republican-controlled House, Nutrition Assistance programs would be cut by an additional $39 billion over ten years. If left to the Democratic-controlled Senate, $4 billion in additional cuts would be made over the same ten-year period.

Do these cuts make sense?

These cuts make no sense; they’re happening even though most economists agree that the more spending power low- income people have, the greater the benefit for the economy. Unlike those Americans with substantial incomes, who are more likely to save their extra income, the nation’s poorest individuals will spend their extra money to ensure that their basic needs are met, and in doing so, will return more money to the economy.

For example, the USDA estimates that for every $5 spent with food stamps, $9 in economic activity is generated, and these expenditures benefit grocers, food producers, and farmers. And the New York Times reports that JP Morgan Chase estimates that the cuts could shave 0.2 percentage points from economic growth in final three months of 2013, and 0.1 from the nation’s gross domestic product. And while “those drags may seem small . . . projections for gains in fourth-quarter gross domestic product hover around an annual rate of just 2 percent.”

Are more cuts in safety net programs coming?

Unfortunately, the answer appears to be yes. Unless Congress acts, emergency unemployment benefits will end, and millions of individuals will have their benefits cut. The end of that program is likely to cut economic growth by 0.4 percent in the first quarter alone, according to JP Morgan Chase.

Neil Bomberg

About the author: Neil Bomberg is NLC’s Program Director for Human Development. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around education, workforce development, health care, welfare, and pensions. Follow Neil on Twitter at @neilbomberg.