The historic center of Curitiba, where the city has a plan to improve the mobility of people with special needs. Bruna cs/Flickr

This could be the biggest task yet for the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge.

How do you build a useful network among cities scattered across more than 10,000 kilometers? This is the mission of this fall’s Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, as it takes on what could be its most ambitious task to date.

In the previous two rounds of the challenge, mayors submitted bright, city-fixing ideas for the U.S., and then Europe, with five winners each receiving significant funding and mentoring for their projects. This year the challenge moves to Latin America and the Caribbean, and will have to grapple with an entirely new socio-political landscape.

It’s not just that the region in question is vast and diverse. Look more closely and the challenges are, if anything, larger than they seem at first sight. As Juan Felipe López Egaña, executive director of Chile’s Laboratorio de Gobierno and a judge in the challenge, points out, the issue is not just that applicant cities are all very different from one another. It’s also that the data necessary to understand their differences and make useful comparisons is often absent. Finding what economists call “statistical neighbors” — cities with conditions similar enough to make comparisons between them fair and useful — is very hard in Latin America.

“If you want to be rigorous, then you can’t really make comparisons between Latin American cities, because the data just isn’t there. When it is there, there is a huge diversity in the different ways municipalities collect it,” López says. “To give an example of the problem, one finalist city for the Mayors Challenge, Asunción, Paraguay, has as its project the creation of the first census in 15 years.”

Managing Inequality

This hard-to-chart diversity doesn’t prevent some clear themes from emerging this year. Latin American applicants seem especially interested in managing the fallout of social inequality. The specific approaches vary greatly: finalist proposals look at increasing education and training opportunities for marginalized groups, making transit more accessible, and fighting the corruption that perpetuates social divisions. Underlying all this is a push to alleviate a continental wealth gap that has a direct relationship to instability.

As López makes clear, this imbalance affects all areas of society and has a roll-on effect of disrupting daily life across the board.

“You find evidence of inequality across Latin America in access to services, to education, in people’s health as well as with income alone. As a result, we have a very turbulent society,” he says. “For any local authority, marginalized groups are thus always a focus, not only as a target for policies, but also as a way of minimizing political tension and providing solutions that are able to channel conflict.”

Tackling an overall systemic social imbalance through local projects may seem like a tall order. But as the Mexican economist Salvador Ramirez Medina tells CityLab, this inequality is often most keenly felt in the day-to-day services over which cities have a significant degree of control. Transit is a key example, an area where chaotic deregulation in cities (or no regulation in the first place) has created sharp divides between rich and poor commuters.

“Often cities give concessions to private bus operators line by line rather than requiring them to cover an entire system and then regulating their service,” he says. “In a region as unequal as Latin America, this means that transit companies simply don’t put in decent services to poorer areas, because it’s not profitable for them to run anything other than the most basic service. That leaves many areas with buses that are old, unsafe, crowded and heavily polluted.”

Bogotá wants to earmark rush hour lanes for school buses to shorten students’ often grueling commutes. (Edgar Zuniga Jr./Flickr)

This may sound daunting, but the Mayors Challenge proposals tackling transit nonetheless demonstrate a level of resourcefulness and innovation that encourages optimism about the future. Bogotá, for example, plans to reserve traffic lanes at certain times of the day for school buses, in order to shorten the often grueling commutes experienced by many children. Elsewhere, Caracas and Curitiba are proposing programs specifically aimed at improving transit options for people with special needs, a group that faces special challenges to their mobility.

This determination to bridge inequality gaps among applicants carries over into projects addressing the job market. The Brazilian city of Barueri wants to create a physical and digital network to help disabled citizens participate in the job market, for example. Meanwhile in Chile, the Estación Central commune, part of metropolitan Santiago, plans to provide training and support to help recent immigrants to the area access to more work and entrepreneurial opportunities. A proposal from Kingston, Jamaica, looks to equip young unemployed people with skills to work in the culture and music industries. And in Pudahuel, Chile, a scheme that would make childcare easier for families on lower incomes seeks to connect working parents with senior citizen childminders.

Fighting Corruption and Building Trust

Finally, several cities want to tackle a problem that’s arguably closest to home: corruption within official bodies themselves. As Ramirez notes, many official bodies have shown good faith in attempting to combat corrupt practices within government itself, but often the mechanisms and institutions necessary to enforce this good faith are weak or lacking.

“Transparency is one of the most important issues cities need to work on. Right now, information on, say, construction permits already exists. But it’s sitting in some bureaucrat’s database and we can’t access it,” he says. “Likewise, some cities are trying hard to control corruption because politicians in charge have decided to make it an issue — but it’s a political decision rather than evidence of institutions themselves working to prevent abuse.”

Guadalajara, Mexico, wants to create a platform where citizens can scrutinize city construction more closely. (Mitch Altman/Flickr)

Several Mayors Challenge applicants are trying to make it easier both to access public data and to report abuses. The Mexican city of Guadalajara, for example, wants to create a public platform to publish construction information, allowing citizens to track everything from site locations to funders across the city. In Southern Mexico, Tuxtla Gutierrez hopes to create an app that will enable citizens to monitor officials more easily and create an anonymous platform to report corrupt transactions such as kickbacks or bribes. And in an assault on non-official corruption, Medellín, Colombia, wants to set up a micro-finance fund that will enable citizens to escape the services of exploitative loan sharks whose illegally high interest rates trap borrowers in a cycle of poverty.

Playing to Local Strengths

In taking on problems like these, Latin American cities may face major hurdles, but they also have some key assets up their sleeves. When it comes to citizen engagement, for example, many cities are actually somewhat ahead of the curve. One consequence of the region’s social and political turbulence is that it has created a public that is often very aware and engaged, albeit with a widespread mistrust of institutions, and has by necessity become highly adaptive to new situations. Applicants to the Mayors Challenge clearly know this. While past North American proposals tended to lean toward boosting efficiency and customer service quality and European proposals leaned more towards tackling unemployment and green issues, this year’s Latin American finalists have more in common than a concern with alleviating inequality. They also overwhelmingly suggest citizen engagement and outreach as a core tool in reaching their goals, a process that past winners elsewhere have found to be vital.

If the challenge succeeds in creating a network of cities that standardizes both the way they develop innovative projects and assess their impact, the positive effect could be potentially huge. Indeed, as Juan Felipe López Egaña points out, the region is actually full of public workers just waiting to be given the necessary tools to make an impact.

“When Latin American practitioners have bold, concrete, and transparent opportunities, they can reach very good standards indeed,” he says. “That's why I believe what Bloomberg is doing is really important. It's not just about skills, and ways in which cities can deliver better services. It's also about pride, about the hope that we can do good things that have a sustainable impact.”

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