Urban Transformation and Inclusion Through the Power of Sports

Photo of Sports Inclusion Panel in the Cities Summit of the Americas Inter-American Dialogue

At the inaugural Cities Summit of the Americas in Denver, Colorado, on April 26, 2023, the Inter-American Dialogue and CAF-Development Bank of Latin America and the Caribbean (CAF) convened experts to discuss the legacy of mega-sporting events for creating more inclusive cities, with a special focus on the positive impact for individuals with disabilities. 

Rebecca Bill Chavez, president and CEO of the Inter-American Dialogue, opened the event by highlighting that cities are using major sporting events as a vehicle for inclusion, and that the Paralympics and Parapan American Games can be catalysts for long-term change in cities, leaving a legacy of inclusion. She highlighted that a well-planned sporting event can be the much-needed trigger for a community to take universal accessibility seriously. Such events require purposeful planning that can lead to more accessible infrastructure and streetscapes as well as increased access to public goods such as transportation and parks. Chavez also argued that these major sporting events are an opportunity to promote cultural and attitudinal changes, reducing stigma and discrimination against community members with disabilities.

Juan Pablo Salazar, inclusion coordinator for CAF, served as the expert moderator for the session. Salazar presented mega-sporting events as a chance for cities to not only develop accessible physical infrastructure, but to promote a culture of equity. He emphasized that inclusive urban planning is intersectional–what is inclusive for individuals with disabilities also benefits people with other marginalized or vulnerable identities, such as women, racial minorities, and youth. Turning to the expert panelists for commentary, Salazar sought their insights on past, present, and future mega-sporting events to share best practices and glean valuable lessons to amplify future impacts. 

Ángel Cárdenas, urban development and creative cities manager at CAF, shared achievements and insights gathered from two past mega-sporting events: the 1992 Barcelona Paralympic Games and the 2013 Buenos Aires Parapan American Games. Cárdenas emphasized that the Barcelona Games marked a pivotal moment for global Paralympic events, setting a precedent in urban planning and creating a ripple effect across the world. Barcelona’s infrastructure development approach extended beyond the venue and immediate surrounding area, effectuating a more inclusive urban landscape. He said that Buenos Aires followed suit, planning their games with the explicit aim of leaving a legacy of inclusion. Argentina’s approach involved transforming the city to accommodate the games and their participants, which benefitted not only visitors associated with the games, but also residents of Buenos Aires with disabilities and those from other historically excluded communities.

Gianna Cunazza, executive director of the November 2023 Parapan American Games in Santiago, Chile and a pioneer as the first paralympic athlete to assume a directorial role in games planning, provided insights into the planning process. Cunazza described the preparation process as not only improving the city’s physical infrastructure but also implementing social and educational programming. These efforts included trainings for schoolteachers in sports inclusion with the goal of reaching Santiago’s youth, as well as impactful and wide-reaching public awareness campaigns on disability and accessibility. In addition, the Santiago Parapan American Games planning team initiated a cultural transformation program aimed at incorporating the needs of different vulnerable communities and reshaping public perceptions and attitudes towards individuals in these communities. She also shared that her team is committed to promoting diversity by actively hiring individuals with disabilities and those from other marginalized communities. Cunazza framed the games as a means to achieve a broader objective of inclusion, and underscored the importance of a cohesive, strategic approach in partnership with the local government and community stakeholders from the outset.  

Salazar then turned to Alfredo Carbonell, who serves as manager of social development for the city of Barranquilla, Colombia. Carbonell provided a glimpse into the forthcoming Pan American and Parapan American Games scheduled for 2027, which will be hosted in Barranquilla. To outline the city’s vision, Carbonell drew from the experience of the 2018 Central American and Caribbean Games, also held in Barranquilla, which will influence and inform the preparation for the 2027 games. He underscored that the 2018 event fostered a profound sense of community in Barranquilla. Carbonell recounted how during and after the competition, members of the crowd voluntarily collected garbage and cleaned up around the stadium, a practice that would be extremely atypical at other major events. He said the games created a sense of collective pride and shared values that has persisted beyond the event itself. Carbonell said the city’s overarching goal is to promote inclusion, and by learning best practices from those who led games in the past, Barranquilla will be in a better position to achieve that objective. 

Continuing the discussion of future events, Salazar asked Erin Bromaghim, deputy mayor of Los Angeles, for insights into the plans for the Los Angeles 2028 Paralympic Games. Bromaghim outlined the city’s plan to intertwine social legacy and sustainable urban development. She said Los Angeles is focused on creating sustainable changes in the community’s mentality and attitudes not just toward people with disabilities, but also concerning the broader concept of inclusivity and the expansion of inclusive development into non-traditional arenas. She said that the city’s goal is to be accessible and welcoming to residents and visitors through all activities, not solely during major sporting events, but she explained that major sporting events are an opportune mechanism to achieve that goal. 

Bromaghim gave several concrete examples of urban development programs that Los Angeles is implementing to achieve the city’s goal of leaving an inclusive legacy, which have been made possible in part due to the upcoming games. She referenced the city’s Play Equity programs, which provide low or no cost programming for all residents, as well as access to adaptive sports equipment so that youth with varying needs can all participate in the same sports. One other example she shared is a walkability assessment in and around key city venues, focusing on sidewalks and transportation routes. She emphasized that even if a venue is accessible inside, it cannot be considered truly accessible if people with diverse mobility needs are unable to arrive without being impeded. Bromaghim shared that the City of Los Angeles funds much of their accessibility programming through external grants and encouraged other cities to pursue similar opportunities. 

Salazar used this key insight on financing to close the panel with the question: how can cities fund universal accessibility? Cárdenas encouraged subnational leaders to lean on allied multilateral organizations for support in funding negotiations with their national governments. He stressed that multilateral organizations could lend credibility to their requests and often already have ongoing communications with the national governments. Cárdenas remarked that regardless of the type of funding a city is pursuing, be it private, public, or a mix of both, highlighting the long-term impact of the games is key. Funders are looking for lasting impact, and inclusive infrastructure and social development fit that bill. It is up to cities to create a compelling narrative and devise a sustainable, long-term plan to earn and secure the resources necessary for building a more inclusive future. 

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