World Urban Forum 7 Opening Ceremony

The World Urban Forum in Medellin officially started on Monday night with an exciting opening ceremony. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon kicked off the evening with a video address in which he emphasized rising inequality in cities: "We need inclusive development to eradicate extreme poverty." Medellin's mayor, Aníbal Gaviria Correa, described his city as an example of resiliency, and explained that effective solutions come from a combination of effective government and strong civil society. The governor of Antioquia, Sergio Fajardo, emphasized his goal of human dignity, and welcomed all WUF7 participants, mentioning that nice weather had been planned for us!

Next, Luis Felipe Henao Cardona, Colombia's Minister of Housing, gave an overview of Medellin's transformation "from destruction to construction." He explained how public transportation reduces segregation: 20 years ago, many of Medellin's residents had never been to the city's downtown. Today, thanks to the metro, cable cars, and buses, mobility is much easier. He also discussed Colombia's inequality, which according to some statistics, is in fact declining — he mentioned poverty reduction programs, investments in education, and the creation of public spaces as contributors. He concluded that Colombia "still has a lot to learn, but we also have a lot to offer."

The United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan, started by emphasizing that the greatest threat to our world today and in the future is inequality. He cited President Obama's healthcare law as a good inequality reduction strategy: citizens no longer go broke because they get sick. Mr. Donovan lamented the fact that in the United States, the biggest predictor of life expectancy and income is where you're from; this is not only a moral failure, but also an economic one, which costs $500,000 in wages each year. To address these issues, Mr. Donovan’s suggestions include breaking down silos, taking a comprehensive approach, remembering that "one size fits all" isn't true, and that working with local leaders and other partners is essential. He concluded that his work continues until "opportunity is not a luxury, but a reality across the world."

Teima Onorio, Vice President of Kiribati, an island nation in the Pacific, talked about the particular challenges of urban inequality in a "water nation" with large coastal populations and increasing climate change-related disasters. Dr. Joan Clos, UN-HABITAT's Executive Director, explained that while urbanization can be good, as it helps pull people out of extreme poverty, it also raises challenges, like increases in inequality and in youth unemployment. Urbanization is rapidly increasing, he said, so we'd better improve the process of urbanization: it must be planned, not spontaneous. However, only 20 countries in the world have official urbanization policies in place.

The President of Ghana, John Dramani Mahama, explained that Africa is the continent that is experiencing the fastest increase in urbanization rates, and is also the youngest continent. However, this is taking place without the industrialization process that occurred in Europe, the Americas, and Asia, leading to a "youth bulge" without employment opportunities. The Arab Spring movement showed that "it is no longer acceptable to be ambivalent about the needs of the poor." He concluded by showing the importance of infrastructure investments: in Africa, roads take twice as long to drive than in Asia, reducing a part of African countries' GDP every year.

The President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, spoke last, making a parallel between the two big events taking place in Latin America this year: the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, and the World Urban Forum in Medellín. He explained how Medellin embodies Colombia's transformation, putting an end to 50 years of armed conflict. The UN has called this change "an international example of development through social urbanism." Colombia has 33 cities, so for President Santos, urban development is a mandate. He described many of Colombia's successes, like building 100,000 free homes for poor families, but recognized an important failure: Bogotá is one of the three biggest cities in the world that lacks a metro system.

And with that, the 7th World Urban Forum is officially open!

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