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