Image: Mayors from across the Americas celebrating the enactment of the Anti-Racist Cities Network and Anti-Racist Cities Pact.
From large metropolises like Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Mexico City, Mexico, to smaller municipalities such as Peñalolén, Chile, and Upala, Costa Rica, cities hold the key to solving some of the greatest threats we currently face in the Americas and around the world. That was the central message that framed dozens of panels and discussions at the inaugural Cities Summit of the Americas, which took place from April 26 to April 28 in Denver, Colorado. As an Associate Editor for Global Americans—and Denver resident—I had the opportunity to attend the conference and hear from over 200 mayors from 35 countries across Latin America, as well as from several leaders from multilateral institutions, nonprofit organizations, civil society, and from the private sector. Here are my four main takeaways from attending the Cities Summit:
- Cities Are Essential in the Fight Against Climate Change
The Latin America and Caribbean region is home to over 40 percent of the world’s biodiversity and nearly one-third of its freshwater resources. The Americas also host some of the most biodiverse countries in the world, such as Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, and the United States. As highlighted during the Summit, this extensive stock of natural capital should offer the region an unprecedented opportunity to tackle climate change and engage with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Many discussions focused on how to finance climate projects properly, especially when issues such as crime, health, and education often take precedence in cities and municipalities with limited resources. According to a panel from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), medium-sized and smaller towns in the Americas are challenged in financing and securing funding for climate projects. At the same time, research from other scholars demonstrated that mayors should integrate emergent planning and implement schemes such as Urban Nature-Based Solutions (NbS), which critically contribute to the resilience and conservation of natural ecosystems.
One of the most active sessions of the Summit tackled yet another approach cities can take in addressing climate change: engaging in a circular economy. According to the Secretary General of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, adopting a “Circular Development” strategy can help cities achieve climate targets, improve their biodiversity, increase social benefits for their citizens, protect their critical materials, and stimulate their local economies. Mayors from Niterói, Brazil, Renca, Chile, and Monterrey, Mexico, shared examples of how their cities have employed such principles recently. All equally agreed that municipalities are essential in implementing the SDGs.
- Local Governments Are Vital in Receiving and Integrating Migrants and Refugees
Latin America has been a region of origin, transit, and destination for migrants for centuries. Today, many countries face major challenges concerning the movement of people across their borders. While migration can greatly contribute to economic development and introduce a flow of skills and expertise, it can lead to social and political tension as many cities and towns are usually unprepared to accommodate large influxes of migrants and refugees.
Addressing migration was another central theme during the Cities Summit, where several mayors, civil society leaders, and heads of multilateral organizations shared their experiences with the effects of migration in Latin America and their successes and failures with related programs and policies. The Organization for American States (OAS), for example, hosted a panel on the role of cities in receiving and integrating refugees into their local communities. It was inspiring to hear that cities like Montevideo, Uruguay, actively work on developing policies of capacitation for refugees and migrants, while cities like Boston, Massachusetts, house over 200 thousand immigrants (out of 690 thousand citizens). However, the conversation also highlighted the challenge that many regions face. Although many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean nominally have laws to protect refugees, very often, these regulations do not get to be applied in practice—either because governments lack the ability to enforce them fully or because they were created purely for symbolic purposes. In some countries, however, there are either very few or no established national policies for migration, which puts pressure on local governments to come up with their own solutions.
The panel from OAS (as well as several others during the Cities Summit) served as a space where city leaders could engage in conversations about the proper manners to create comprehensive frameworks for integrating migrants into society, including access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities. While the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection grounded many of these discussions—there was a high level of novelty and plainness shared by local leaders when tackling the wide-ranging issues of migration in Latin America.
- Transparency Pays Dividends
Promoting transparency within city governments is a fundamental principle of good governance and essential for building trust with citizens and constituents. Government transparency can mean many things to many people—but for leaders who attended the Cities Summit, it involves providing their citizens with the information they need to make informed decisions about their lives, communities, and governments. At a panel hosted by Open Government Partnership, mayors from cities like Peñalolén, Chile, and Santo Domingo de Los Tsáchilas, Ecuador, gave vivid illustrations of how their governments contribute to improving transparency in their municipalities. Examples included government websites showing residents all active ongoing construction work in their city, platforms portraying the effects of climate change in their municipalities, and creating initiatives to listen to citizens’ needs concerning public health emergencies.
The concluding idea among city and civil society leaders in the panel was that the higher the transparency, the better the public policy in a city. They explained that similar municipal initiatives help prevent the spread of misinformation and engender trust in city government. They also offer the added benefit of promoting civic education programs to increase political awareness and participation among marginalized communities. One dimension that leaders could have expanded on, however, is the proper mechanisms to build the technical capacity to implement such transparent practices in their cities. As argued during the panels, cultural factors such as a lack of trust between citizens and authorities can prove to be a major challenge for municipalities. Therefore, expanding from a technical and programmatic lens on how mayors have been able to implement successful programs in their cities could have served even more beneficial for all those who attended the Summit.
- Municipal Frameworks Must Prioritize Minority Groups
One of the most significant deliverables of the Cities Summit was the announcement of the Anti-Racist Cities Network and Anti-Racist Cities Pact. Launched by the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the initiatives advance the work of several Brazilian cities that have come together to collaborate on anti-racist plans. According to the mayor, the goal is to promote inclusivity in municipal governance and planning, while sharing best practices for tackling racism with all other member cities that have signed the Pact.
The Americas are home to a diverse range of minority groups—those like migrants, Afro-Latinos, Mestizos, Mulattos, and Indigenous communities—who frequently face higher levels of discrimination, marginalization, violence, and lack of access to resources and opportunities. The Summit did a good job of not only representing the leaders of such communities but largely of recognizing and celebrating the contributions of these minority groups to Latin American culture and society through the multiple and eclectic panels it put together in two days. The conference was a clear testament to the organizers’ unwavering commitment to promoting diversity. From indigenous leaders to Afro-descendant authorities, the Cities Summit meticulously handpicked a diverse range of speakers for each panel and discussion, leaving an indelible mark on its attendees.
Mayors play a crucial role in connecting with their citizens and responding to community concerns in a timely manner. Effective municipal government fosters trust and credibility within communities and, according to several mayors who spoke at the Summit, is often the primary way people interact with government in the Americas. In her closing thoughts during a panel on citizen participation and inclusiveness, one civil society leader representing the City of Los Angeles wonderfully summarized what many other leaders have been deliberating since the conference’s opening remarks: “Public service is not meant to be a theoretical exercise. The underserved need to sit at the table. Their needs cannot be assumed by politicians that are removed from the issues.” The inaugural Cities Summit of the Americas proved to be more than just a theoretical exercise—leaders from large and small towns across the Americas were able to absorb the most efficient practices around issues like migration, climate change, and inclusion and bring those lessons back to their communities. Moving forward, the hope is that these exchanges do not simply get lost in translation but turn into effective and transformative action for citizens across the Americas.
Caio Pereira is an Associate Editor at Global Americans. He has previously worked or interned for organizations including the Brookings Institution, the UN Development Programme, and the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures. He holds an M.A. in International Development from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies from the University of Denver and a B.A. in Political Science and International Development from Colorado State University.