Remarks of Secretary Julián Castro
Habitat III Session with Global Mayors
The United Nations, New York, NY
May 16, 2016

As prepared for delivery.

Thank you, and good morning.

Mr. Deputy Secretary-General, distinguished delegates, esteemed mayors and ministers, ladies and gentlemen: it's an honor to be with you today.

Let me begin by congratulating the Secretary-General of the Habitat III Conference, as well as the Co-Chairs of the Preparatory Committee, and the Chair of the UN Advisory Committee on Local Authorities for their excellent work to create a "New Urban Agenda."

I also want to commend the United Nations for recognizing the role local authorities can play to help our nations realize a vision equal to the challenges faced by a rapidly urbanizing world.

By including their voices in Habitat III, we're seizing an opportunity to advance progress on a number of recent landmark agreements, including the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement.

And I want to recognize my Co-Chair U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for his leadership on finding solutions - both locally and on the international stage - to some of our most pressing challenges, including climate change and violent extremism.

Cities and the mayors who lead them are key partners in addressing those threats and so many others. So I know I speak for Secretary Kerry when I say the United States is fully committed to ensuring that the agreements reached at Habitat III are translated into action for communities across the globe - a commitment I know is shared by everyone here.

We are, today, living in a Century of Cities. A time when people around the world are moving to urban centers in tremendous numbers.

A time when the top 300 global cities account for nearly half of the world's gross domestic product.

And a moment when cities have a more profound role to play than ever before in driving progress on the world's most pressing challenges.

To be sure, cities have long been incubators of human progress - in the sciences and in the arts, and indeed in every way that progress can be defined. Yet, for most of human history, through the creation of the printing press to the harnessing of electricity and the beginning of the Information Age, most people lived outside of urban centers.

As recently as 1950, five years after the founding of the United Nations, cities claimed just 30 percent of the world's population. Today, they claim more than 50 percent. Today, 500 cities around the world have at least one million residents. And by 2050, fully 70 percent of the world's population will call a city home.

So, in this Century of Cities, the work of the Habitat III Conference is vital. This Body is helping communities on every continent answer what are among the most important questions of our age: How can we best enhance economic opportunity and quality of life in our urban centers? How do we equip people to succeed in the 21st Century? And how do we help people make not just a living but a life?

Answering these questions and others by forging a compelling urban vision is at the heart of Habitat III. And for that we need you.

You are here for a reason. You are mayors - among those best positioned to chart a strong course for the future. For a great mayor, I am convinced, is like a master locksmith. Crafty. Indiscourageable. Focused on solving a problem. And, in succeeding, a mayor unlocks the potential of the community that he or she serves.

As we approach Habitat III, let me offer three thoughts on what cities must do to thrive in the 21st Century.

First, cities must invest in shared prosperity.

I mentioned earlier that cities have been among the greatest drivers of human progress throughout history. But it's also true that far too often, that progress was created for some citizens at the expense of others.

For example, the same cities to revolutionize public transit or erect new highway systems sometimes did so in ways that destroyed low-income communities and cut off many of their residents from opportunity.

Investments to fund new schools, build new parks, and create new business districts in wealthier communities too often dwarfed investments in low-income neighborhoods - that's if those investments were made at all. 

And I'm not just talking about the United States. To dismantle entrenched inequality and promote shared prosperity, cities will have to actively correct the mistakes of the past.

Brainpower is the key to creating a dynamic, agile workforce, and that opportunity has to start early in life. So cities ought to invest in high quality education, particularly early childhood education.

Cities must also make smart investments in ports, airports, roads, and waterways.

They should ensure that all households have access to world-class broadband.

And cities need to invest in affordable housing so that every child - no matter where he or she starts in life - has the chance to move up and achieve their dreams.

The second key to success is to embrace regionalism. Cities must strengthen their connection to surrounding communities - urban, suburban, and rural.

Here in the United States, the Obama Administration is helping to lead a transformation in how local communities make planning decisions. We've joined forces with mayors and county executives, as well as business leaders and non-profit groups to create unified regional plans that link downtown districts with surrounding counties.

As a result, more cities and suburbs are working together to create vibrant urban cores that can then boost the entire region's economy. 

Cities are expanding light rail and other transit so that it connects with rural communities.

Rural communities are taking the lead in bringing healthy food options to more families, especially in urban neighborhoods that have long gone without adequate grocery stores.

The challenges of tomorrow are too complex for individual communities to try to solve alone. By working together and including every community's voice in our planning decisions, we're helping to create a future where all can thrive.

Finally, cities must do their part to foster greater openness and freedom.

There is an intrinsic desire for freedom within each and every one of us. It's part of who we are.

So while we invest in housing, infrastructure, and schools, let's also ensure that every person can get fair legal representation regardless of how much money they have.

Let's continue the progress we've seen around the world in the long march for full equality for LGBT people, especially for transgender people who are often at the greatest risk of homelessness or becoming the victim of a hate crime.

Let's promote the advancement of women's rights recognizing that gender equality is an integral part of a just, secure, and democratic society.

Free, open societies are those best equipped to foster creativity and entrepreneurship. They are the communities that will prosper most in this Century of Cities.

Former Mayor of New York, Ed Koch, once said that New York City was "where the future comes to audition." That's still true of this city - and it is also true of cities around the world.

The communities you represent are often at the vanguard of smart policies and practices to improve the human condition.

You're embracing diversity and fostering greater inclusiveness.

You're bringing together the "Three Ps" of partnership - the people, the public sector, and private industry - to meet the demands of our rapidly changing world.

And you're investing in innovative solutions that'll improve how we use our land, water, and natural resources to make our planet more sustainable for future generations.

Through Habitat III, let us harness the best of our experience and knowledge as mayors on what works, and let's seize this opportunity to make the local global.

Thank you for your insight, thank you for leadership, and thank you for partnership.


Content Archived: February 9, 2018