WUF7: Final Thoughts on My Week in Medellin

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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.