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

April 9, 2014

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


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?

April 8, 2014

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


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.


Where Big Ideas Start

April 7, 2014

This is the first in a series of blog posts highlighting “big ideas” reshaping America’s cities. Join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #CityIdeas.

Big Ideas

A lot has been written about innovation and why particular cities are hotbeds of the big ideas that drive the U.S. economy. These analyses often focus on the conditions that enable a good idea, say dreamed up in a coffee shop, to turn into a successful business.

But innovation within longstanding institutions is an equally important story. How existing organizations – whether government, business, civic or religious – adapt to a changing world is fundamental to our country’s progress.

Regardless of where it emerges, innovation is critical because it begins by recognizing the limitations or failures of traditional ways of doing things and creating solutions that add value – solutions that every so often even fundamentally change how we live our lives.

On April 11, NLC and The University of Chicago will highlight ideas with this type of potential at the “Big Ideas for Cities” event in Chicago.  Here are just a few examples of the initiatives attendees will hear about:

St. Paul: Improving Education by Thinking Outside the Classroom


It’s not just classroom activities that determine whether a student will succeed in life. Opportunities outside the classroom are equally important to the social and emotional development of children and youth.

Calling on the entire community, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has led the development of a national model for citywide afterschool. Referred to as “system building,”  the city has moved away from the management and funding of isolated programs in favor of in-depth coordination among city, school and nonprofit providers.

The result is “Sprockets” – a network of afterschool and summer program providers that seeks to improve the quality, availability and effectiveness of out-of-school time learning for all children and youth.

“In our cities today, afterschool programs are one of the best things we can do to keep kids safe, inspire them to learn, teach new skills and help working families,” said Mayor Coleman.

Salt Lake City: Promoting ‘Sustainability’ in Transportation


Innovative and efficient transportation systems can address community needs in ways that influence positive patterns of growth and economic activity. Look no further than Salt Lake City for evidence of that.

From light rail and commuter rail, bikes and pedestrian networks to the Sugar House Streetcar, Salt Lake City has set in place a transit system that provides safe travel options for residents, is affordable and efficient, limits waste and resource use and supports a vibrant economy.

With leadership from Mayor Ralph Becker, the city is working to deliver transportation services that result in a cleaner, healthier and more connected community by fostering alternative transportation use, reducing vehicle miles traveled and promoting fuel-efficient vehicles.

“As we look ahead toward 2015, we envision continued progress to a new kind of urbanism that embraces accessibility, sustainability, diversity and culture,” said Mayor Ralph Becker.

Philadelphia: Going Beyond City Limits to Reduce Violence 


“In Philadelphia, young African American men and boys are 80 percent of the homicide victims and 75 percent of all the arrests we make for violent crime,” said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. “Across America, black victims are nearly half of all homicides even though they are only 13 percent of the population.”

This epidemic of violence is what spurred Mayor Nutter, along with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, to form Cities United, a national movement to restore hope and opportunities to young men and boys directly affected by violence.

Since its 2011 launch, the initiative has forged a growing network of 56 mayors working to equip local leaders with the tools, practices, skills and resources needed to effectively eliminate the violence-related deaths of African American men and boys.

The initiative helps city leaders focus on prevention rather than prosecution, intervention rather than incarceration and relies on data to topple systemic barriers to opportunity facing African American men and boys.

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

April 7, 2014

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


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?

April 4, 2014

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


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.

Missed the Deadline for Health Insurance Enrollment? Consider Medicaid and CHIP!

March 31, 2014

Yes, today is the 2014 deadline to enroll in health insurance through the Marketplace. However, families with low- or moderate-incomes may qualify for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which have no application deadline. This means that even after today, qualifying families may still enroll in Medicaid or CHIP.

Medicaid and CHIP are the two most important public health insurance programs for working and low-income families. These programs provide low- or no-cost benefits including coverage for inpatient and outpatient hospital services, screenings and preventative services, prescription drugs, immunizations, and mental health services.

If families have missed the deadline for health insurance enrollment through the Marketplace, there may be other options in Medicaid and CHIP! Here are some of the ways cities can connect families to these important programs.

EPA Local Government Advisory Committee Key to Local-Federal Partnership

March 28, 2014


This week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Local Government Advisory Committee (LGAC) met in Washington, DC to discuss local perspectives on climate, water, resiliency and environmental justice with Administration officials from EPA headquarters, regional administrators and the White House.

At a time when so many environmental issues are at the forefront for communities and the nation, the LGAC serves as a sounding board for EPA on rules and regulations, as well as policies and programs, such as the Agency’s sustainability and climate adaptation efforts.

“I was pleased to join leaders from across the nation to help the EPA shape sensible and workable rules and regulations for communities,” said LGAC member Cindy Circo, Mayor Pro Tem, Kansas City, Missouri. “The LGAC meeting was also an opportunity to share Kansas City’s passion and success in the area of sustainability while learning about areas where we can be doing even more.”

Over the course of the two and a half day meeting, committee members had conversations with Administrator Gina McCarthy, Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe, Regional Administrators, and other officials about the importance of intergovernmental collaboration and cooperation on environmental issues.

A key theme that was repeated throughout the meeting was how the Agency supports local innovations and works to identify and highlight local sustainability practices that can serve as a model for other communities. Nowhere was this more evident than in the conversation regarding President Obama’s State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.

Three LGAC members serve on that Task Force, which is charged with making recommendations to the President on how the federal government can better support local governments and states in preparing for and addressing the impacts of climate change.

David Agnew, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, who co-chairs the Task Force, called on members of the LGAC and all local officials to submit specific recommendations (by early April) to the Task Force on actions the federal government can take to support local efforts.

Agnew said there is a “strong desire on the part of the President to move the ball forward in as many ways possible [on climate preparedness and resilience] before the end of his term.” This is welcome news to local governments who are already leading the charge but seeking additional tools and resources from the federal government.

The LGAC also dived into specifics, hearing an update on the recently-released proposed rule to change the Clean Water Act definition of “Waters of the US.” LGAC members were able to directly share with EPA how the proposed rule might impact their communities – from an arid environment like Arizona to wetter east coast communities.

“The LGAC is a great opportunity to review EPA rules and shape them so they work for local communities, the business community and our constituents,” said LGAC member Dave Richins, Council Member, Mesa, Arizona. “It is fascinating to be at the confluence of environmental protection and economic development and find solutions that work for both.”

Other NLC members on the committee include NLC 1st Vice President Ralph Becker, Mayor, Salt Lake City, Utah; Mayor Johhny Dupree, Hattiesburg, Mississippi; and Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, Gary, Indiana.

Carolyn Berndt

About the author: Carolyn Berndt is the Principal Associate for Infrastructure and Sustainability on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. She leads NLC’s advocacy, regulatory, and policy efforts on energy and environmental issues, including water infrastructure and financing, air and water quality, climate change, and energy efficiency. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @BerndtCarolyn.


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