Disclosure: I still feel strongly that it’s important for those of us who work in philanthropy to be as open and transparent as possible about our work. I have published summaries of most of the grants I have been involved in so far (the Latin American OGP civil society meeting, the PMO Leaders Conference, and Personal Democracy Forum’s WeGov platform). There are two other grants that I have yet to publish: 1) $900,000 to IMCO for general operating support over three years and 2) $45,000 to Ciudad Movil DF, a three-day mobile app hackathon with the Mexico City government.

In addition to publishing the summaries of grants and investments, I am going to try to write more frequently about the activities and events of our partners. Yesterday the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO) hosted an event to introduce their third annual report on urban competitiveness. For full disclosure, not only is IMCO a grantee, but I am also on their board of directors (though have yet to actively participate), so I am surely biased toward agreeing with their analysis. Also, it should go without saying, that what follows is my own personal interpretation of yesterday’s event.

Cities, our greatest invention

Valentín Diez Morodo, the Vice President of Grupo Modelo and the chairman of IMCO’s board of directors, opened his comments quoting economist Edward Glaeser: “cities are mankind’s greatest invention,” but why do some cities flourish while others fail? There is no single formula, Diez Morodo notes, but all major cities have the potential to attract talent and help that talent flourish. (Richard Florida’s latest book, “Who’s Your City,” examines this exact question; why are some cities able to attract, retain, and nourish talent more than others?)

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New York, Chicago and London are examples of cities that can re-invent themselves time and time again through the transitions of major industries. On the other hand, Detroit is an example of a city that was too dependent on a single industry and couldn’t reinvent itself to adapt to changes in technology and society. In Mexico, Guadalajara and Monterrey are developing in the right direction, attracting talent and nurturing it. Ciudad Juarez, on the other hand, is a city that has suffered both insecurity and terrible urban development policies.

When the municipality was first created as an institution with the 1917 Constitution, Mexico was a majority rural country. Today four of every five Mexicans live in cities, but municipalities haven’t evolved with the demographic, political, social, and technological changes of the country over the past 100 years. Hence the importance of IMCO’s report: it offers us a clear path forward to modernize the Mexican city as an institution so that it can retain the talent of its residents and provide them with a better livelihood.

When Mexico City had two kinds of pumas

IMCO’s executive director, Juan Pardinas, takes to the podium to read from a 1950s elementary school geography book. The passage describes an ecosystem rich in lush flora and exotic fauna. Colorful birds are incessantly singing in the trees and pumas lurk in the jungly borders of the many rivers and canyons.

To everyone’s surprise, the passage describes greater Mexico City in the 1950’s. These days, Pardinas notes, the only pumas in Mexico City are the soccer players at UNAM. It’s not that the Mexican municipality was poorly designed, but it was designed for another era that has little in common with our lives and needs today.

For example, one legacy of the Mexican Revolution is that today there is no re-election in Mexico, even at the municipal level. As a result, Pardinas notes, being a municipal police officer in Mexico isn’t a trained profession, it’s something that people do when they are between jobs. Once the municipal government changes, often the majority of the municipal police force changes as well. This problem of frequent turnover and the lack of professional training at for municipal public officials is one of the major themes of the report.

The best practices of Mexico’s best cities: still not enough

Juan Pardinas then introduces the author of the report, Gabriela Alarcón, noting that she authored the majority of the report while pregnant, and just returned from maternity leave weeks ago.

Guanajuato, Mexico

Alarcón’s presentation covers all of the main sections of the report. You can download her slide deck (in Spanish) here. The study looked at 77 of Mexico’s largest cities using 60 different indicators that measure issues like public administration, density, financial policies, public transport, mobility, security, waste management, and water management. Those 77 cities include 364 different municipalities, 63% of Mexico’s population, and 80% of the country’s GNP. You can explore the results of the study, and compare results across specific cities at a special website IMCO developed. You can even personalize the results depending on the issues that matter the most to you. For example, if I say that environmental indicators matter the most to me, then Piedras Negras, Coahuila jumps from #18 to #1 on the index.

Alarcón summarizes some of the major challenges facing urban areas today:

  • The lack of coordination between municipalities that make up larger metropolitan areas. She uses the Guadalajara metropolitan area as an example. Greater Guadalajara is made up of eight different municipalities, all of which have different public policies and administrative processes. This isn’t a problem limited to Guadalajara; 55% of the national population lives in a city that is made up of two or more municipalities. Only one in five cities have established mechanisms to coordinate between municipalities.
  • In general, municipal public servants are poorly educated, under-trained, and suffer from high rotation. Only 37% of municipal public officials have bachelor’s degrees. As we have all experienced, it takes at least a year to become competent at one’s job. To take an extreme example, in the last three years the city of Cuernavaca has had seven treasurers, on average a new treasurer every 18 weeks.
  • The third major challenge is that cities are expanding in area while becoming less, not more, dense. From 1980 to 2009 greater Mexico City’s population increased 38% but its area of developed land increased 251%. To take an even more extreme example, from 1980 – 2009 the developed area of Ciudad Juarez grew at seven times the rate of its population. And it’s only getting worse — from 2005 – 2010 the developed area grew 11 times the rate of the population. This horizontal expansion leads to greater insecurity (greater the distance that police must patrol), more traffic (the average commute in Mexico City is now a staggering 80 minutes, time that could be spent working or relaxing), and air pollution is raising health costs.

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Many of the structural failures of cities in Mexico are rooted in the lack of re-election, which inhibits the growth of professional public administration. Still, even without the implementation of municipal re-election, which requires a constitutional amendment and is not viable with the incoming federal administration, IMCO still has several concrete policy recommendations:

  • Municipal administrations should make transparent and consistent all aspects of their urban planning: building permits, zoning regulation, and urban development planning. In cities of multiple municipalities, those policies should be made standard across municipalities.
  • States and municipalities should increase property tax and do more to enforce collection so that they are resourced to fund more effective training programs and urban development that benefits the majority of residents.
  • Urban planning and housing agencies (including INFONAVIT, SHF, and CONAVI) should be incentivized to promote urban development that promotes density and public transit rather than horizontal expansion and traffic.
  • Federal financial transfers to municipalities should include criteria that incentivize smart urban development.
  • Charge fees for congestion, parking, and the real costs of driving. Remove oil subsidies and use the money on better urban development.
  • Introduce the role of “urban administrator” to coordinate urban policies across multiple municipalities. The post should be separate from electoral cycles.
  • Establish civil career development programs. Limit the rotation of public servants. Implement urban administration indicators — both for process and outcomes. Some civil society organizations like Jalisco Como Vamos are already doing this, but it should be incorporated by municipal administrations.

Alarcón concludes by noting that the index found best practices in particular cities. León is a national leader in transport, Monterrey in water management, Aguascalientes in waste management, Querétaro in public security, and Mexico City in property tax collection. But even if you combine all these best practices of the best cities in Mexico, you still wouldn’t have a city that competes with the most competitive cities worldwide.

How smart is your city?

Jesús de la Rosa of IBM de México then gave a presentation which was part analysis and part sales presentation. IBM has placed a big bet on developing software and technological infrastructure for cities. Much of de la Rosa’s presentation reviewed IBM’s flagship Smarter Cities work in Rio de Janeiro. He reminds the audience that in the next four decades urban areas will absorb all the world’s population growth — 2.5 billion people. In part this is because cities are more efficient and sustainable, but cities are also microcosms of the challenges and opportunities that face the entire planet:

Challenges:

  • increasing population
  • failing infrastructure
  • limited resources

Opportunities:

  • economic growth
  • better quality of life
  • sustainable development

In order to mitigate the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities, innovative leaders of the city must:

  • Use information to make better decisions
  • Anticipate problems before they happen
  • Coordinate resources to operate more efficiently

Conclusion: plenty to improve, plenty working on improvement

The bad news: Mexico’s cities, which have been responsible for much of Mexico’s middle class growth over the past 50 years, are reaching their breaking point. It’s just not sustainable for anyone to spend 3 hours a day in their car when they should be sleeping or working. The increasingly contaminated air, the loss of parks and natural habitats, the rising inequality and segregation between rich and poor. All the many advantages that cities afford their residents are beginning to reverse.

The good news is that a worldwide movement is cognizant of the problems and is advocating for smarter, more sustainable, and more just urban development. Our parents’ generation architected cities based on suburbs and cars. Now all the rage is bicycles, walkable urban neighborhoods, and public transport. It’s enough to give me hope.

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