Urban Diplomacy

Michele Acuto on how urban issues have become global issues and cities have become the new global players.

By: /
23 November, 2012
By: Michele Acuto
Stephen Barter Research Fellow for the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities

Diplomacy, by cities?

The facts are clear to the vast majority. More than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas and, by 2050, this might grow to as much as two-thirds of humanity. Cities are now also said to be responsible for as much as 75 per cent of greenhouse-gas emissions. Urban centers indisputably constitute the hinges of the global economy, global information flows, and worldwide mobility of goods and people. These factors have become well-established knowledge in the wider public as much as in academia: With little doubt, we can now comfortably argue that cities and urban issues are extensively overlapping with some of the key areas of concern for international affairs.

International fora are increasingly calling for renewed environmental or economic diplomacy that is better tailored to an “urban century,” as the present time has often been described. Yet, there could be more to this intersection of international and urban that we need to explore: Cities have for too long been presented as mere places where contemporary revolutions, from climate change to social polarization and the rise of global mobility, have been playing out. However, the “city” is not a hollow encasement for worldwide trends. Rather, cities have also historically represented political systems and proactive international actors.

If there are growing concerns about a diplomacy for cities, but cities also need to be understood as possible international actors, could we then think of a diplomacy by cities? We need to re-conceptualize cities as not only the hinges of the global urbanization movement, but as participants in world politics whose initiatives are creating unprecedented opportunities for global governance. In particular, we need to consider how city leaders are linking their municipal mandates to global agendas of diplomats and international organizations.

Mayors as diplomats

Confronted with the shortcomings of international political processes, many scholars and diplomats have turned to the non-governmental sphere in search of more practical actions on global challenges. It is not uncommon today to find calls for global civil society engagement, public-private partnerships, and citizen diplomacy in almost all contexts of international relations. Yet, this search for agency in the NGO sector is missing some very crucial participants in world politics. Much of the catalytic influence needed to address crosscutting problems such as climate change and social polarization is to be found deep within state actors, entities whose influence academics and diplomatic practitioners often underestimate.

Evidence can be found in the efforts of individuals like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has, in the past few years, publicly criticized international processes for producing “an awful lot of hot air” in opposition to the real, everyday actions of city leaders. The former mayor of Toronto, David Miller, also articulated this message at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in December 2009: “While climate change demands global action, we have shown that we are not waiting for others to act.” As Miller’s successor to the helm of the Climate Leadership Group, which gathers together leaders from some of the most prominent cities worldwide to offer urban solutions to global warming, Bloomberg recently reiterated this in an interview with the BBC, declaring that “it is up to mayors” to solve environmental problems.

Urban statesman: Michael Bloomberg at the Rio+C40 Megacity Mayors Taking Action on Climate Change event, June 19, 2012 (Reuters).

This self-appointment to the centre stage of global climate politics (if not world politics more generally) builds on a momentum for “urban solutions” that has grown steadily over the past few decades. Since at least the mid-1970s, the United Nations has sought to tackle steadily arising urban issues – not only related to the environment, but also to poverty, development, and security – by setting up a dedicated agency, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT). This program has grown in size and breadth of activities ever since, for example, in 2000, UN-HABITAT established a UN Advisory Committee of Local Authorities to provide a direct channel between the UN and the representatives of city governments worldwide. It has also been charged by the UN General Assembly with the task of implementing the Millennium Development Goals agenda (and, in particular, Target 11 on slum dwellers) in urban areas. Similarly, the World Bank has promoted a role for cities in international politics: Beginning with the 1991 Municipal Development Program, the bank substantially enlarged its urban-development desk, issuing a strategy document titled “Cities in Transition” in 2000 and replacing this with an updated and extended policy alignment in 2009.

Mayors have not just been appointed as policy implementers: In the past two decades, city leaders have joined together in partnerships with other international actors. An example of this is growing urban participation in implementing Europe’s climate agenda, such as the European Sustainable Cities and Towns Campaign, launched in 1994 by the European Commission, the City of Aalborg, and ICLEI, with an initial commitment of 80 municipalities to initiate Local Agenda 21 processes at the urban level. The European Commission has increasingly targeted the “urban” as a realm for implementing regional targets, as demonstrated by the recent issuing of a guide to the “Urban Dimension in EU Policies.” First produced in 2007, this guide has since been revised to include a substantial set of city-targeted programs and initiatives.

The EU has been a leading international actor in terms of recognizing the potential of cities as agents of global governance, fostering a variety of initiatives through the Committee of the Regions, which acts as the EU’s assembly of regional and local representatives.  Bilateral relations with the growing giants of 21st-century international relations increasingly reflect this recognition. While the EU has held meetings with China and India regularly over the past decade, these meetings now extend to a variety of subnational authorities. Such meetings could play an essential role in stabilizing and strengthening political relations between Europe and the Far East, and in developing joint efforts that will directly impact the lives of millions of urban dwellers. The EU-China Mayors’ Forum, held on Sept. 19-20, 2012, was the first event of a “EU-China Urbanisation Partnership” and was launched at the 7th China-EU Summit. The partnership is designed to address urbanization challenges in China through co-operative EU-China efforts at national, regional, and local levels. As the forum’s presentation put it: “Given the array of challenges they face in adapting to the ‘urban century’, China and Europe have a strong interest in working together to build better cities.”

The meeting included EU and Chinese mayors and a variety of delegations composed of city planners, local businesses, and NGOs, who could share their experiences in sustainable, integrated, and efficient urban solutions. While this meeting, intended to be held on an annual basis, remains a purely consultative, peer-to-peer project, it has the potential to promote paradiplomatic exchanges between local governments and urban stakeholders, such as the Chinese Association of Mayors and the European Covenant of Mayors. The first meeting tackled a number of common challenges that modern cities face, such as increasing urbanite mobility, traffic, and waste management problems. The meeting also considered avenues for co-operation between China and Europe in meeting the demands of China’s urban billion. It is too early to judge the effectiveness of the initiative;, the forum has convened only a handful of city leaders from smaller cities in Europe and second-tier cities in China. The participation of major cities like Shanghai or Berlin might be necessary for this paradiplomatic effort to impact the wider populations of the EU and China. And yet the urbanization of EU-China relations, however tentative, is promising. City leadership may prove critical to the creation of innovative transnational responses to global challenges.

Mayors create their own networks, they don’t just accept invitations to join existing global governance networks. The best example of this is arguably the World Association of Major Metropolises (or Metropolis). Formed in 1985 and composed of 129 members from across the world, this Barcelona-based association operates as an international forum for exploring common concerns of major cities and metropolitan regions.

Mayoral networks are also concerned with future as well as present day issues in international relations. An example of this type of forward thinking is the Istanbul Water Consensus – an initiative by Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş and ICLEI that now gathers more than 1,000 cities across more than 56 countries. Building on the “Local Government Declaration on Water” of March 21, 2006 (promoted by Mexico City), which expressed local leaders’ awareness concerning water and sanitation and called on national governments for more effective sustainability partnerships, the consensus not only advocates urban solutions with central governments, but actually undertakes comprehensive assessments and inventories of water policies to facilitate policy exchange. Examples such as the Water Consensus or the Mexico City Pact indicate the increase in mayor-sponsored regimes, particularly ones that in addition to their regulatory purposes aim to pool resources in order to expand the group’s policy-making capacity.

The Canadian outlook

City diplomacy is driving the emergence of an influential urban international agenda led by mayors of major metropolises such as New York, Seoul, and Sao Paulo. What role can and are Canadian cities playing in this process?

As noted above, Toronto’s former mayor, David Miller, has been particularly proactive in pushing for Ontario to show international leadership in the global environmental arena. Miller headed the Climate Leadership Group during his second term until 2011, when he stepped down from City Hall to become advisor to the World Bank on urban issues.

Toronto is not the only Canadian city with a global outlook on urban initiatives, nor is climate change the only issue of concern. Since 2005, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) has been campaigning for greater gender equality in the public sector through its Standing Committee on Increasing Women’s Participation in Municipal Government. FCM has undertaken a number of initiatives – the recent “Getting to 30% Project” aims at increasing the number of women in municipal government by roughly 100 every year for the next 15 years – to encourage women to run for municipal office, and to promote greater sensibility on gender issues in politics.

This broad-spectrum approach is a promising alternative to traditional understandings of economic and environmental urban issues at the international level. Indeed, Canada was one of the first states to look seriously into the urbanization of human security, now a central discourse to UN-HABITAT and its recently launched Global Network on Safer Cities, and the humanitarian community at large. A 2008 report by the Canadian Consortium on Human Security (funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s Glyn Berry Program for Peace and Security) was critical.  An emphasis on human security has the potential to break new theoretical and practical ground on the topic of cities’ contributions to global security.

Environmental issues, however, are top priority for Canadian cities, and alongside FCM, it is still up to major metropolises to lead a countrywide internationalization of Canadian city diplomacy. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has taken centre stage on this front by promoting his city as a key participant in global efforts. Building on the momentum generated by the 2010 Winter Olympics, Robertson has been particularly proactive, seeking to establish Vancouver internationally as a “Green Capital” through the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, and “to make Vancouver an environmental leader in everything from energy efficiency and waste reduction to clean air and local food.” Several initiatives connected to the plan, such as the “Food Charter” and “Zero Waste Challenge,” have sparked interest in international governance fora.

Robertson has also been taking a leadership stance domestically, chairing FCM’s Big City Mayors’ Caucus and focusing on public infrastructure, housing, and transit. Robertson is well on his way to serving as a representative of a generation of “internationalized” mayors like New York’s Mike Bloomberg or Sydney’s Clover Moore, who consider cities to be at the heart of global governance on issues of sustainability.

Consider the following statement, published by Robertson ahead of the February 2012 Vancouver Cities Summit:

Failure is not an option, because it’s in our cities that many of our biggest opportunities and most potent challenges are playing out. Cities are the source of 70 to 80 per cent of greenhouse gas pollution today; doubling that would be disastrous. We must dramatically reduce our carbon footprint.

Communities and local economies that can withstand our current levels of energy consumption and waste will find them far more damaging as cities scale up rapidly. Cities that deplete their resources and degrade their environments in a race to build the tallest or fastest or biggest will find their victories short-lived as global demand shifts toward efficiency and sustainability.

It is this shift that offers real hope that we can still get it right. Because rapid urbanization holds tremendous promise alongside that risk. Done right, it creates jobs, conserves resources and improves quality of life. We can build the cities we need to build for future generations, and create economic opportunity in today’s climate of uncertainty.

This is the usual way in which mayors frame their role in addressing global challenges. The discourse portrays the city as a focal point for future generations and as a positive force in present day global society. Mayors now go to great lengths to avoid more Dickensian portrayals of cities.  The city is not simply a breeding ground for societal problems – it is a unique milieu that “holds tremendous promise” for addressing climate change, human security, and economic instability. City leaders aim to portray the centrality of the city in positive terms so that they can engage a global audience with an optimistic agenda – “failure is not an option,” is how Mayor Robertson has put it.

A diplomatic revolution for the urban age?

From the most localized spheres of metropolitan and domestic affairs to globalized issues such as climate change or water security, city leaders have been expanding their policy reach to all levels of global governance.

Given their success in staking a place in debates on international affairs, can we compare the impact of mayors such as Bloomberg to that of state diplomats? Such a comparison is problematic in a number of ways. First, there is the problem of representation. In some cases, city leaders are elected by constituencies that include more than national citizens, representing urban residents more generally. This is not the norm, but representation is also complicated by the fact that that, owing to the political nature of their positions, most active mayors in international affairs would not be considered legitimate international representative of their metropolises by all of their constituents.

Second, there are the limitations of West-centricity. Many of the key municipal networks shaping global governance today, like Metropolis or the Climate Leadership Group, are dominated by European and North American global cities. But the imbalance in representation is changing. Asian and Latin American metropolises, as well as some Middle-Eastern and African cities, are rapidly stepping up to central political positions in these networks.

Lastly, and perhaps most fundamentally, there are the limits of funding. Many of the city networks and mayoral initiatives noted above tend to rely quite heavily on implementation partners and donors such as the EU, the World Bank, or the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, raising concerns as to their independence and individual capabilities. Such concerns, however, are a fact of life in the NGO world, and need not prevent mayor-based networks from operating effectively.  

These limitations aside, it is worth considering how the role of mayors in the 21st century is changing, and how the participation of city leaders in policymaking at the international level is endowing them with influence formerly reserved for diplomatic officials at the state level. The trend toward urbanization seems unlikely to lose speed in the near future, and so mayors will likely continue to increase their policymaking clout. Analytical frameworks for studying international relations and global governance must adapt to a new reality: one where non-state actors, including cities and their leaders, are exerting increasing influence over the means and goals of international diplomacy.

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