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

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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.”