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Latin American and Caribbean cities: Championing local solutions for global challenges

Certain policies in the region hold the keys to addressing some of the most pressing challenges facing the planet today

A cable car in the town of Ciudad Bolivar, in Bogotá (Colombia), on April 11, 2023.
A cable car in the town of Ciudad Bolivar, in Bogotá (Colombia), on April 11, 2023.NATHALIA ANGARITA
Sergio Diaz-Granados Rebecca Bill Chavez

In a world rife with existential challenges mounting at accelerating rates — polarization and a collapse of social trust; unchecked human displacement; the climate crisis; citizen and food insecurity; persistent economic, racial and gender inequality — ready sources of hope are in short supply.

In our hemisphere, there is a tendency to view the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean not for what they are — fonts of solutions to these challenges — but rather as overwhelmed by them. The reality is that Latin America and the Caribbean are critical to a better global future, particularly when you look at the region through the experiences of its cities and subnational political, social, civic, and private sector leaders.

With more than 80% of its combined population living in cities, Latin America and the Caribbean is one of the world’s most urbanized regions, and cities, large and small, are indispensable engines of innovation and critical to effective regional integration. Their policy wins — effectively understood, replicated, and scaled — hold the keys to addressing some of the most pressing challenges facing the planet today.

It is why our two organizations — the Inter-American Dialogue and CAF: The Development Bank of Latin America — came together last year during the 9th Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles to convene the first-ever Mayors’ Summit of the Americas and why we are so excited that it helped pave the way for this week’s inaugural Cities Summit of the Americas in Denver, Colorado. It is also why CAF now operates under an expanded mandate to enhance lending to subnational actors and why the Dialogue launched its Cities Initiative.

As is true around the world, democracy is under pressure throughout the Western Hemisphere due to a collapse in social trust and a growing skepticism of democracy’s ability to deliver and meet the basic needs of its citizenry. Local leaders are on the frontlines of pushing back on that skepticism by ensuring inclusive public policies are implemented in ways that generate real-world improvements for ever expanding segments of our societies.

During a discussion on migration last year in Los Angeles, we witnessed firsthand how mayors can find common ground in the challenges and opportunities inherent in the inclusion of large numbers of new residents. In this case, it was the mayors of Bogotá, Colombia; Upala, Costa Rica; and Chattanooga, Tennessee — home to new populations from Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, respectively — who came together to share best practices. Indeed, cities are leading the way on effective and humane management of migration. As our hemisphere addresses historic levels of human mobility, there is much to learn from cities and other sub-regional actors who can and are wrestling with complex dynamics while driving forward the kind of effective inclusion that a recent IMF study shows benefits host communities and migrants alike.

Similarly, cities are indispensable actors when it comes to climate. Sustainable urban transportation infrastructure must be part of any suite of policies to address the climate crisis and ensure the livability of our planet. Once again, cities across Latin America and the Caribbean are at the forefront of innovative policy solutions. Mexico City is focusing its public transportation investment in sustainable approaches, which includes one of the largest fleets of electric buses in the world. Cities also play a unique role in preserving biodiversity — a particularly important task across Latin America and the Caribbean, home to more than 60% of the world’s biodiversity. As many of Latin America’s megacities are defined by their rivers, CAF is, for example, financing efforts to create public, green, sustainable and resilient spaces along the Rimac River to both restore its historic centrality in Lima, Peru’s urban landscape and consolidate it as a vibrant ecological corridor.

Cities are at the heart of closing the profound racial and gender gaps that are pervasive across the Americas. Mayors and other local civic leaders have shown that they are uniquely positioned to transform a structure of discrimination and exclusion into one that empowers women and other traditionally marginalized groups. In cities such as Long Beach, California and Recife, Brazil, local government, civil society, and private sector leaders are driving the digital transformation — estimated to generate 70% of new value creation in the global economy — in a more inclusive direction. The Inter-American Dialogue’s women’s economic empowerment work shows how subnational actors are leading digital capacity building programs to increase the workforce marketability of women and other marginalized communities and creating a foundation for more inclusive online entrepreneurship.

As we demonstrated in Los Angeles and we will again this week in Denver, we are committed to working with subnational partners to ensure that the lessons learned from mayors and other subnational civic leaders are broadly shared. It is only through focusing on concrete actions that improve the quality of life that we can build the kinds of inclusive, just, democratic, and resilient societies in which all our people can thrive.

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