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Cities hold the future in their own hands

21 May 2018 Author: Samer Bagaeen

When the White House announced that the United States would exit the Paris Agreement in June 2017, over 380 U.S. cities along with states, businesses and universities reacted to this with a campaign promising to help the U.S. fulfil its international obligations under the agreement themselves.

Urban issues taking centrestage

This response from cities demonstrates how urban issues that were once peripheral to most major international gatherings are now receiving attention from national governments and leading international organisations.

These urban issues are also becoming more and more political in nature. Although city leaders, planners, innovation officers and sustainability directors have long focused on policy and city exchanges and the sharing of technical expertise, the gatherings of mayors increasingly look and feel more and more political.

The rise of city diplomacy

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, London and Paris, to Accra, Amman, Mumbai and Sydney, cities have the material resources, human capital, and the vibrant institutions to generate economic growth.

Alongside this comes a growing political role. This rise in city diplomacy and influence of cities through networks and supranational bodies is testament to the growing importance of cities. The World Bank, for example, has set up a Resilient Cities Group aimed at helping cities to develop responses to crises such as climate change, manage difficult challenges and share best practice. It has established a useful series of urbanization reviews to help city leaders. In the process it has made itself an important resource for facilitating city diplomacy across established, emerging and new world cities.

Cities look to each other for help and collaboration

As populations in urban centres 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.

There are two areas increasingly linked to this: migration and climate change.

Migration

‘Ordinary cities’ (meaning not mega regions) are increasingly relevant to the global economy, playing an important role as centres of production, consumption and service provision for city-regional economies and beyond. But economic conditions and livelihood opportunities vary enormously and for some people, 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 centres.

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 organisations such as the International Rescue Committee are critical to addressing issues facing urban refugees. Planners can and must push for more action on this front.

Climate change

The second area relates to cities and climate change including the pressure to deliver on global commitments like the Paris Agreement, Sustainable Development Goals, New Urban Agenda, and Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. RTPI accredited planning schools are now asked to report on how their curricula help students understand the SDGs and that is commendable.

More important is the engagement with organisations that measure delivery against them. Coordinated efforts by groups like such as C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, 100 Resilient Cities (pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation), United Cities and Local Governments, and the Compact of Mayors, are at the fore of harnessing the power of cities to advance international cooperation.

Three themes at the IPCC Cities and Climate Change Science Conference, held in Canada earlier in the year, highlight the importance of cities in this fight:

  • Urban emissions, impacts, and vulnerabilities: Cities are some of the largest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, and as such, experience some of the worst effects of climate change.
  • Transition to low carbon and climate resilient cities: With the advent of advanced technological and scientific solutions to climate change, the potential for cutting-edge sustainable development strategies has grown, including disruptive technology, urban infrastructure and design, and institutional innovation.
  • Enabling transformative climate action in cities: City climate action takes place in the context of diverse social, environmental, economic, and developmental realities. Every city is unique and no one solution fits all.  

The next challenge for cities and their international backers is to enable cities to take on critical projects that address major challenges that they face. This will be a big next step for cities, governments, the Commonwealth, the planning schools in terms of skills needed, and professional bodies across the built environment field.

Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.

Samer Bagaeen

Samer Bagaeen

Samer Bagaeen MRTPI is Professor of Planning at the University of Kent and Associate Director for City Relationships with 100 Resilient Cities – pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation.