The fifth annual Richard J. Daley Urban Forum, “Global Economic Recovery: Cities Lead the Way," emphasized the vital role of cities in the global economic recovery.  

Hosted by the City of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago, the conference agenda included a plenary issues panel on Economic Recovery and Urban Reinvestment, followed by a “Global Town Hall” meeting in which mayors from 31 cities around the world discussed strategies to foster economic growth.

In delivering the forum’s keynote address, Vice President Joseph Biden acknowledged that mayors have the most important job in government, as they make the most consequential decisions affecting the daily lives of their residents.  Cities will play a critical role in moving our nation from its recession to recovery to prosperity that will be built upon the lasting skills of productive workforce, he said.

Throughout the forum, three recurring themes emerged as key factors in cultivating a city’s vitality.

Time to “think outside the box"

Taking the glass-half-full approach, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley welcomed conference attendees with the remark that “challenges present opportunities", and avowed that “no problem is too great to solve."   During the panel discussion, he said that if revenues continue to decline, cities will have no choice but to start thinking outside the box to develop innovative strategies to stimulate the economy. 

Mayor Daley’s sentiments were echoed by several mayors who participated in the Global Town Hall meeting.

Hanna Birna Kristjansdottir, Mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland, said that when the city recently faced one of its worst economic crises, it had to start doing things in a different way.  Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, called upon the involvement and cooperation of its citizens to come up with a special action plan that ultimately allowed the city to balance its budget without raising taxes, cutting basic services, or layoffs of city employees. 

Residents submitted over 1,000 suggestions for cost-cutting measures, and worked hand-in-hand with government to achieve this success.

Lahore, Pakistan’s Mayor Mian Amer Mahmood told the forum that when the city’s budget was cut by 25 percent, there were certain areas – including education and solid waste management – in which service cuts were an option.  When the government could no longer afford to provide solid waste management services, it sought to privatize the job, but no local company was prepared to take over a project of this magnitude.   

So, instead, Lahore “privatized” its solid waste services to government employees, who were taken off salary, paid for their own gas, fleet maintenance, etc., but were compensated for the solid waste that they collected.  The result: improved service at a reduced cost to the city.

Investment in Education=Investment in City’s Future

In the education sphere, Lahore invited the private sector to invest in education by adopting schools.  Of the 1,400 schools in the city, 400 have already been adopted by companies, groups, and even, in some cases, individuals. The program has been very successful, with improved standards and markedly improved performance.

Other cities are also focusing attention on education as key ingredient in ensuring a community’s vitality.

In Medellin, Colombia, improving the education system was a primary strategy in the city’s fight against poverty, according to Mayor Alonso Salazar Jaramillo.  A city with over two million residents, Medellin adopted a government project with a renewed focus on education, starting as early as first grade.  The city has been working hard to fight corruption so that it can use all resources possible to repair the education system, and grant residents of the city’s poorest neighborhoods access to libraries, parks, and other amenities. 

Mayor Judith Pinedo Florez said that in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, the city made a concerted effort to bring university centers into neighborhoods, encouraging more students to attend classes by removing transportation obstacles.

 "The more opportunities you provide to young people, the better equipped they will be to give back to the community,” said Vassilis Kikilias, the Vice Mayor of Athens, who told the audience that while it’s important to set longer-term goals, some issues need short-term solutions.  Athens created an innovative program that called upon the joint efforts of restaurants, hotels, and businesses to provide shelter, food and clothing to the city’s homeless population.

Infrastructure:  Build it and they will come – or stay, as the case may be

Hussain Nasser Lootah, Director General of Dubai, stressed the importance of infrastructure in upgrading its tourism industry, which is fueling the city’s economic growth.  By creating an infrastructure system that includes an airport that can accommodate 50 million passengers annually, several five- and seven-star hotels, numerous shopping malls, and the tallest building in the world, Dubai has successfully attracted visitors from around the world. 

In addition, Dubai’s manmade seaport has significantly expanded its opportunities to compete in the global export and re-export business, with impressive results.

In Bangkok, Thailand, the city has made significant investments in its mass transit system in order to reduce the use of private cars, said Governor M.R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra.

Padraig Conneely, Mayor of Galway, Ireland also emphasized the role of infrastructure.  Galway, a city that has experienced rapid growth over the past several years, is well known for its many festivals and cultural attractions, which draw visitors from around the world.  A strong infrastructure system supports the country’s tourism industry.

Improving infrastructure in Bogota, Colombia provided a two-pronged benefit.  Unemployment was one of the biggest challenges facing Bogota in recent years, according to Mayor Samuel Moreno Rojas.  By making a $1.5 billion commitment to infrastructure to build and improve highways, streets, transportation systems over the next two years, Bogota also created a plethora of job opportunities.

"Cities Lead the Way”

The nation’s top 100 metropolitan areas drive the national economy, according to Bruce Katz, Vice President and Director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, who moderated the panel on Economic Recovery and Urban Reinvestment.    

Katz pointed out that two-thirds of the U.S. population lives in these top metro areas, which drive three-quarters of the GDP, and are home to 85 percent of the country’s immigrants.

By drawing upon the examples of successful strategies implemented by cities around the world and here at home, metro areas can “write the playbook” that will lead the way to our country’s economic recovery.