As the populations in urban centers rise, so too does their influence on the world stage. At the same time, cities across the globe are recognizing their power and potential as nodes in global networks of social, economic, and cultural influence, looking to each other to collaborate and learn, sometimes even bypassing national government as traditional facilitators of such interactions.
On the International Stage
2017 turned out to be a watershed year for urban issues on the international stage. A turning point happened in Bonn at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP 23. The seeds for this point had been sown in June of that year when the White House announced that the United States would exit the Paris Agreement. In response to that announcement over 380 U.S. cities, along with states, businesses and universities organized a campaign promise to help the U.S. fulfill its international obligations under the agreement themselves.
This is a simple demonstration of how urban issues that were once peripheral to most major international gatherings are now receiving attention from national governments and leading international organizations. Take for example the impact of the humanitarian disaster caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Pula in September 2018. While city leaders, planners, innovation officers and sustainability directors have long focused on policy and city exchanges and sharing of technical expertise, the gatherings of mayors increasingly look and feel political in nature.
Incubators for Knowledge and Action
This is why city diplomacy takes on a greater importance in urban affairs. It rests on the idea and reality that cities are innovation ecosystems. From Mexico City to London, from Accra to Sydney; cities have the material resources, human capital, and the vibrant institutions to generate economic growth. Alongside this comes a growing political role; the rise in city diplomacy and influence of cities through networks and supranational bodies is a testament to the growing importance of cities. The World Bank, for example, has established a Resilient Cities Group aimed at helping cities to develop responses to crises such as climate change and share best practice. It has established a useful series of urbanization reviews to help city leaders manage complex challenges. In the process, it has established itself as an important resource for facilitating city diplomacy across established, emerging and new world cities.
Responding to Crisis with a Global Learning Network
There are two urgent areas that we need to address in the challenges that face our society: migration and climate change. All cities, big or small, are relevant to the global economy in various ways because they play an important role as centers of production, consumption and service provision for city-regional economies and beyond. The economic conditions and livelihood opportunities for the world’s city dwellers vary enormously, and for some, the lack of opportunities or a sudden shock (such as the Syrian crisis) leaves them no option but to seek a living in other larger and more distant urban centers. This phenomenon of international migration is overwhelmingly an urban phenomenon. Globally, more than 65 million people are displaced and around 60% of urban refugees live in cities (as opposed to refugee camps). In the age of city diplomacy, innovative collaborations between city leaders and organizations such as the International Rescue Committee are critical in addressing issues facing urban refugees.
Recognising the rising importance of cities in the fight against climate change, coordinated efforts such as C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40), ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), 100 Resilient Cities – Pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), and the Compact of Mayors, are at the forefront of harnessing the power of cities to advance international cooperation.
Facing the Future
The next challenge for cities and their international supporters is to increase the capacity to take on critical projects addressing major challenges, such as climate change. This will be a big move for cities, governments, the Commonwealth, the planning schools in terms of skills needed, and professional bodies across the built environment field. After all, cities are home to universities and the academic ecosystem, with more academics being asked to demonstrate how their work helps society and the local community prepare for global challenges. Universities can demonstrate value by working with local politicians, mayors and city leaders to enable them to better understand what these global challenges are (globalization, migration, climate change, digitization). It is a worthy challenge so let’s get started!