Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan at the UN-Habitat's 7th Session of the World Urban Forum Opening Ceremonies.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Medellin, Colombia

As prepared for delivery

Thank you very much. 

To our hosts: Mr. President, Governor, Mayor, Minister and the citizens of Colombia; to the distinguished leaders: Mr. President, Madam Vice President and others who have gathered here from across the world; to our organizers: Dr. Clos and all those with UN-Habitat; and, to my fellow members of the United States delegation.

Thank you for granting me the privilege of speaking at these opening ceremonies for the 7th Session of the World Urban Forum. During my visit, it's been a pleasure to see firsthand the remarkable transformation that's taken place here over the years. 

And I look forward to working with the entire global community in upcoming days to advance common interests and achieve common hopes.

Our Obligation to Address Inequality

We come together at this time and place to address one of the greatest threats to our world and its future: inequality. 

By now, we've all heard about the disturbing trends: that two-thirds of the world's urban population reside in cities where income inequality has widened in recent decades;

that even in this day and age, the opportunity gap between men and women is still far too wide; and that young people often face staggering barriers when starting out in life.  

That's why President Obama has made expanding opportunity a central goal of his agenda. And a centerpiece of this agenda is his historic effort to give Americans access to quality, affordable health care so that no person has to go bankrupt just because they get sick or injured.

I will never forget addressing this same opening session of WUF 5 in Rio de Janeiro four years ago. I was able to announce that, in the early hours of that very morning, our Congress passed President Obama's health care legislation.

At this WUF, I'm proud to report that after the first open-enrollment period ended last week, more than 7 million Americans have signed up for private health insurance, with an additional 3 million added to government insurance.

This will benefit the health and wealth of families across the US, and help bridge the inequality gap for years to come.

A New Approach to Community Development

But when one looks closer at inequality, what becomes clear is the importance of "place", and the role communities play in shaping lives. Nowhere is this more true than with our children.

The sad truth is that in the U.S., no matter how hard a child or their parents work, in too many neighborhoods the single biggest predictor of their life outcomes, even their lifespan, is where they live.

It is a moral failure that you can enter a child's address in Google Maps and predict their life expectancy because every child deserves a fair chance at achieving their given potential. It is also an economic failure because studies show that children growing up in poverty cost our nation half a trillion dollars every year in lost wages and productivity, poor health and other costs.

To tackle these challenges, we have taken a new federal approach to community development that emphasizes "place." Breaking free from the old methods that, too often, addressed the problems of poverty in isolation, we now take a holistic approach to community development. 

We recognize that successful housing requires more than bricks and mortar. Just as we have seen here in Medellin, it must be surrounded by community assets like good schools, safe streets, transit options and job opportunities.  

That's why the U.S. government is breaking down the silos that have existed between our departments for far too long, and working together in new ways to give communities the comprehensive support they need to thrive.

In addition, we also recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to community development. Just as here in Columbia, the needs and opportunities in our densest urban areas are vastly different from those in rural and Native American communities.

Accordingly, we are supporting local leaders in achieving their vision for their own communities. Working with actors from all sectors—including businesses, non-profits, universities and other partners—we are developing innovative and tailored solutions that are making a profound difference for families.

And we're doing this work at all levels: in neighborhoods as part of our Promise Zones initiative; in cities as part of our Strong Cities, Strong Communities effort; and regionally as part of our Partnership for Sustainable Communities. 

In total, working with local partners, we are turning problems into promise in communities across the United States. And to safeguard these gains, the U.S. government is also taking steps to protect communities from the emerging threat of climate change.

Further evidence that this is a growing problem was provided last week when—under the auspices of the United Nations—an international team of experts reported that the effects of climate change are melting ice caps, raising sea levels and endangering communities all over the world.

It's clear that we need to meet this growing threat with equally bold action. So last June, the President released his Climate Action Plan, the most aggressive initiative ever taken by a US President to address climate change with the goals of:

  • one, reversing the trends of climate change by cutting carbon pollution in America;
  • two, preparing communities for the impacts that extreme weather are already having on people and places; and
  • three, working with our international friends to address this global challenge with global solutions.

As part of this effort, we are working to incorporate science and resilience into all community development so that no family—regardless of their income level—is vulnerable when the next storm hits. 


In total, with all this work, under President Obama's leadership, we are fighting to ensure that opportunity is not a luxury, but a reality across the world. 

We've benefited greatly from the ideas and insight of our international partners. And please know that the entire U.S. delegation is ready and eager to build on this partnership with all of you. 

In our increasingly connected world—where our futures are shared—we all have a vested interest in helping each other address these challenges.  

Let me give you a deeply personal example: almost a century ago, my grandfather came to this country seeking opportunity. Born one of nine children in a poor Irish family, he worked on the docks of London as a teenager before traveling to West Africa and Chile. But in Cali he stayed for more than a decade and found the opportunity he sought.

It is my great honor, Mr. President, to return to Columbia and join all of the assembled leaders here in committing that, just as the city of Cali gave me, two generations removed, the chance for a life of opportunity, so too can we build prosperous and equitable cites around the globe to nurture future generations.

Thank you.


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