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Live from the Mayors’ Summit: Why We Need Bold Leadership for Sustainable and Equitable Cities

The Mayors’ Summit kicked off today in Rio de Janeiro Brazil, allowing city leaders from across the globe to share their ideas for how to create sustainable cities. Former mayor of Portland, Sam Adams, shown speaking above. (Photo: Mariana Gil/ EMBARQ Brasil)

“Something is happening in cities. Every day, 1.4 million people are added to the global urban population.”

With these words, Andrew Steer, President and CEO of World Resources Institute (WRI), kicked off the Mayors’ Summit today in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Bringing together city leaders from around the world, the Summit challenged mayors to demonstrate bold leadership on climate action and to approach climate change as an opportunity for creating cities that are both environmentally sustainable and socially equitable. Former mayors Ken Livingstone (London), Enrique Peñalosa (Bogota), Mary Jane Ortega (San Fernando), Sam Adams (Portland), and Jaime Lerner (Curitiba) joined one another on stage and together showed how acting on a strong vision is critical for ensuring that cities work for people.

Equity and Climate Action Go Hand in Hand

Tackling climate change in cities is just as much about equity as it is about sustainability, and local action can achieve both simultaneously. As Sam Adams noted in his opening remarks, “In the US as a whole, and Portland, [we’re] still too separated between the well-off and the not so well-off.” Echoing the words of Adams, nearly all of the mayors warned that urban development has often been inequitable in the past, and stressed the importance of approaching the two simultaneously through local leadership.

One essential strategy is investing in sustainable urban services. Drawing on her work in the Philippines, Mary Jane Ortega identified a variety of basic public services that cities can focus on to promote fairness, including waste management, education, recreation, health, infrastructure, and housing. During her mayorship, Ortega was able to rework sanitation policies to allow citizens to use waste as fertilizer, improving the ecosystem and boosting the local economy. And while it may seem that these responsibilities are financially unrealistic, investing in people has had massive pay offs for urban areas. “For every pound of dollar that you invest…you get your money back many times over” Ken Livingstone explained. “If you look at any successful economy, it’s based on investment.”

Beyond basic public services, at the core of equity lies access to mobility. In short, ensuring that citizens can travel reliably, safely, and efficiently dramatically boosts quality of life. A pioneer of sustainable mobility, Enrique Peñalosa described public transport as an “equity issue,” noting that the bus rapid transit (BRT) system and walkable streets in Bogotá has allowed people with disabilities to access some public spaces for the first time. In this way, sustainability and equity work together, as public transport improves equity while simultaneously reducing emissions and local pollution.

Finally, to boost quality of life of citizens, the former mayors agreed that cities should prioritize people over cars. The city leaders explained that private vehicles are only affordable to select groups, pollute local air, and result in extreme traffic congestion. Indeed, new roads almost always fail to accommodate the mobility needs of residents in the long run: “You can increase road capacity as much as you like, but it’s going to fill up,” Livingstone said.

(Photo: Mariana Gil/EMBARQ Brasil)

Bold, Strategic Plans and Collaboration Are Key for Success

However, cities need strong mayoral leadership to turn ideas into local action. And, given the opposition that mayors can face from private interests and those benefitting from the status quo, pioneering sustainable solutions can be a challenging task.

But as Enrique Peñalosa stressed, “mayors can’t be afraid of the political costs of action.” For city leadership, a bold vision is absolutely necessary to push through bureaucracy and special interest groups. Indeed, by dedicating themselves to a clear vision of their city’s future, mayors can better manage the complexity of their cities and are more likely to successfully implement sustainable policies. As Sam Adams pointed out, “having a larger plan and vision will see you through hard times. In Portland, independent departments weren’t coordinating–I had to bring them together in order to develop a budget, identify priorities, and move toward a common goal.”

Despite their calls for bold action, the mayors recognized that strong leadership won’t always make city leaders popular in the short term. Explaining how he helped transform Portland, Sam Adams recalled, “At first, I was unpopular because I was changing habits. But I overcame this by sticking to a strategic plan, identifying metrics, and making decisions incrementally”. As Adams’ story demonstrates, if leaders show that sustainable policies and programs work, people will recognize that sustainable development is not only good for the climate, but the economy too. “It’s important to have metrics so that we can demonstrate that these things work,” said Eduardo Paes, the current mayor of Rio and Chair of C40 Cities.

Lastly, a bold vision won’t become reality unless mayors work with residents and develop a strategic plan based on local needs. Emphasizing that good leadership is also about collaboration, Mary Jane Ortega explained that “a vision for the city should be produced by the citizens, with you [the mayor].” Prioritizing an open debate about what works and communicating decisions to the community are therefore critical steps for developing and implementing successful policies and programs. Describing her success, Ortega said “everybody knew the vision, everybody knew the steps to take.”

For recaps of the Cities and Transport International Congress on September 10-11, 2015, click here: (Day 1)  (Day 2). 

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