The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Reforming the world's city networks, part 1: a time to cull

Andrew Stevens and Jonas Schorr survey the landscape of city networks and local government associations and call for some serious bureaucratic Darwinism to cull the overduplication of organisations.

Cities: London

Topics: National governance, Regional governance, City networks, The global urban agenda, Global cities

Substance over style: eschewing the hyperbolic publicity campaigns of other networks, the CITYNET network of Asia-Pacific cities meets in Shanghai. Here Somsook Boonyabancha of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights discusses horizontal collaboration between grassroots groups in the region. Photo: Kerwin Datu
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If we are living in the urban century, then the governance landscape at the global level does very little to reflect this fact. A cursory glance at recent national government and global institutional reports reveals nothing short of a truism: cities become more important as more people live in them. But how successfully do cities lobby for more power in a world dominated by nation states and 'inter-national' diplomacy and rhetoric?

Nowhere is the nation-state paradox more felt than in the global inter-municipal framework of institutions, which have existed largely unreformed for several years. Not a week passes without the creation of another urban institute or website on sustainable cities. Yet, in spite of the 'sexiness' of the urban agenda and the rise of Asian and Latin American cities in particular, most global city networks are often perceived as backwater committees of glad-handing mayors and their deputies working the sister-city circuit.

This is particularly true in Europe, when you consider the existence of independent associations such as the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, Eurocities and the Assembly of European Regions, and formal bodies such as the European Union's Committee of the Regions and the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, each with their own secretariats, committee structures and workplans.

Yet, in spite of the 'sexiness' of the urban agenda, most global city networks are often perceived as backwater committees of glad-handing mayors and their deputies working the sister-city circuit.

In many respects, the existence of such organisations could be seen as a Ponzi scheme where the shared illusion is relevance outside of one's own city government. It becomes unsurprisingly easy for national governments and the private sector to dismiss such organisations from policy discussions due to their overduplication and weak focus.

There is the odd merger here and there, for instance the formation of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) in 2004 from an array of sister-city type bodies. And mayors, architects, planners and urbanists may now bask in the media glow of Economist write-ups that were once reserved for national politicians and bureaucrats. But the actual business of linking cities and furthering the urban agenda globally tends to fall back on unloved and creaking institutions which do not command anywhere near the same level of recognition or respect.

It would be assumed that in the urban century, bodies such as UCLG and Metropolis would have a higher profile than is actually the case. Some hard-headed reconfiguration of the existing bodies needs to take place lest anyone create any new ones to fill the gap. Amid the constraints of austerity spending and rising public expectations on government restraint and efficiency, a severe round of bureaucratic Darwinism is called for here. Not least when Asian examples such as the Asian Network of Major Cities 21 and CITYNET have been far more successful in arranging policy transfer between cities, including organising routine staff placements, in comparison to their European equivalents.

It's worthwhile to disentangle the roles of city leaders and experts in the global arena. While the family of inter-urban organisations operating at the global level tends to revolve around the presence of city leaders rather than planners, an encouraging trend is beginning to emerge in the work of bodies such as C40 and ICLEI. In both cases, the challenges of a low carbon society are confronted and facilitated in networks linking leaders to experts and professional practitioners. Even so, in countries such as the US, both bodies have since found themselves on the radar of Tea Party cranks, desperate for another conspiracy dragon to slay after attacking the United Nations and the Federal Government.

It goes without saying that the anti-poverty focus of UN-HABITAT, the bureaucracy-ridden city agency of the United Nations, affords it a relatively easy ride and less skepticism as to what value it generates for global debates. Yet since its boldly envisioned World Urban Campaign was launched in 2009, intended to become a 'network of city networks', it has consisted of little more than a handful of half-hearted digital placeholders and deserted public engagement platforms. Already, bottom-up civil-society led initiatives that focus on knowledge exchange between cities such as TED's new online platform The City 2.0 or Slum Dwellers International, the global network of the urban poor, prove far more agile and effective in generating media awareness and grassroots support.

Some hard-headed reconfiguration of the existing bodies needs to take place lest anyone create any new ones to fill the gap.

If the urban century is being ill-served by current global institutions then there is no shortage of identified solutions emerging from leftfield. Next week we will review these and discuss how we might begin to streamline all of these initiatives to further the urban agenda.


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