Building equitable and resilient cities: a dialogue with three foundations

Those who work on issues related to urban sustainability, resilience, and inclusion know that despite their similarities, every city is unique, with its own history, its own culture, and its own way of doing things. The same is true of the many foundations and other funders working in the urban space. At the World Urban Forum 7 networking event "Building Equitable and Resilient Cities – Join a Dialogue with Foundations," conference attendees got a closer look at three of them: the Ford Foundation, the Fundación Avina, and the Fondation Charles-Léopold Mayer pour le Progrès de l’Homme.

Peruvian sociologist Martin Beaumont is responsible for strategy for the Avina Foundation, which operates throughout Latin America. The foundation, launched two decades ago by Swiss entrepreneur Stephan Schmidheiny, is so entirely decentralized that it doesn't have a home office. The Avina Foundation's mission is sustainable development — which, says Beaumont, is impossible without sustainable cities. Beaumont emphasized the need to "increase equity and participation, transforming institutions to include the voices of different stakeholders." Likewise, changes in the law and in the planning process are needed to enforce transparency; without such changes, Beaumont says, "cities are unfair, and decisions not made for the common good."

Don Chen of the Ford Foundation — with 10 regional offices in the Global South, including three in Latin America — described the foundation's long history of work on urban issues and to support the advancement of democracy, human rights, and free expression. The Ford Foundation "works in mysterious ways," said Chen: some of the foundation's work is place-based; some supports social movements or global networks. The foundation provides the "risk capital" to support initiatives that "are promising but have no other means of lifting off the ground," whether in civil society, research, or partnerships with the private sector.

In the 1950s, much of the Ford Foundation's work outside the United States was focused on technical planning — for example, funding the comprehensive technical plans for the cities of Delhi and Calcutta. The Ford Foundation's current work in the urban space is exemplified by the Just Cities initiative, which supports urban development to advance rights and reduce poverty. Housing, planning, and infrastructure are key, says Chen ("They drive the growth of cities"); at the same time, building the influence of civil society is critical to achieving the foundation's goals.

Although many Colombian cities experienced rapid development before the rise of the drug lords, Chen said, urban development work slowed during the period of cartel control. In Cali, where Chen's own activities in Colombia are focused, there were no big urban development projects — housing, highways, bridges. The overall result that many experts left Colombia altogether. Now that the narco-traffickers have loosened their grip, however, rapid urbanization and investment have returned to Colombian cities, with a consequent repatriation of talent. The need to increase capacity includes academia, says Chen; toward that end, the Ford Foundation has been talking with Colombian universities about a research agenda for the region and encouraging them to work together, and a decision has been reached to form a five-university consortium.

Another project in which Chen and the Ford Foundation are deeply involved is the Corredor Verde (Green Corridor) in Cali, which would create a linear park on a 17-kilometer railroad right-of-way that extends across the entire city from north to south. A previous mayor's plan to build a huge toll highway there, said Chen, would have had the effect of dividing poor neighborhoods from the rest of the city much as the Cross Bronx Expressway did in New York City, as well as driving auto use up in Cali. In contrast, the Corredor Verde, still in the design stage, would add green space, bike paths, and bus rapid transit lanes to the city, but still faces obstacles to implementation and raises questions about its effect on slum residents in Cali. The Ford Foundation has provided funding to solicit input from the public, and the project is receiving financing help from multinational organizations as well as from the Latin American development bank CAF.

Julien Woessner presented the work of the Fondation Charles-Léopold Mayer pour le Progrès de l’Homme, a small family foundation based in Switzerland and in Paris and founded in 1982. The foundation’s grantmaking is focused on supporting civil society organizations and communities over the long term by enhancing their ability to influence decision-making and advocate for new economic models and better governance.

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