The European Venue for Green Ideas
Green Transition

Fighting for Survival: The Cities Campaigning for Sustainability

By Gino van Begin

Throughout history, cities have been the protagonists of change and development. ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability is a global network bringing together over 1,500 cities, towns and regions, aspiring to create a sustainable future. Its work is driven by a conviction that cities are more crucial than ever today, as actors in the search for solutions to some of the most urgent problems we face – such as climate change. This conviction rests on the idea that the local political space remains unique in its potential to foster a sense of pragmatism, collaboration and interdependence among citizens. An interview with Gino van Begin, Secretary-General of ICLEI.

Today cities seem to have become increasingly important and autonomous actors on the global stage. Many cities seem to be pioneers, on the front line of implementing the reforms and innovation needed to achieve shifts and targets, such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. What makes cities unique as spaces for bringing about change, as distinct from other levels of governance?

I think that to understand the special space that cities occupy, we have to see them not only as a level of administration and government, but as sorts of living organisms. Much of Europe’s progress, for better or worse, happened in cities. This is no coincidence, as nation-states are a much more abstract construction. You cannot see with your own eyes the boundary that divides one country from another, except when there is an extensive apparatus of border controls. On the contrary, the area that divides an urban space from a mostly rural one is clear, and established. On some level, cities revolve around projects, they tend to develop identities that are the concretion of decades or millennia of history, discoveries, and enterprises. While for businesses and citizens it’s not clear anymore if the national space is the best backdrop for their initiatives, cities always feature prominently in their plans.

Being the opposite of political abstractions, cities are better positioned to work with one another across national boundaries, as they share problems that are remarkably similar. While an emphasis on national communities has often resulted in divisions and war, local communities understand each other much better. They recognise each other for works in progress, readily admitting obstacles, when that’s the precondition for mutually beneficial relationships.

In cities all sort of actors and stakeholders other than the local administration interact with each other to make up the ‘city’: civil society and citizens, the local business community, academia. What we’ve seen at ICLEI is that the most successful cities are the ones where the administration is able to leverage this human, social, and economic capital to achieve their goals. Mobilising local communities in the design and implementation phase has always been a crucial aspect of successful city projects. Finally, cities, like regions but unlike nations, have a tendency to set aside political differences and divergent visions in favour of mutually beneficial knowledge exchange and peer-to-peer learning.

Are cities better placed to act on climate change than the national level, and if so for what reasons? Is it because the threats and impact are more tangible and immediate (e.g. in the case of coastal cities)?

Cities are better placed to ‘concretely’ act on climate change, because, as you said, the impacts are more tangible and immediate, and the actions very concrete. However, the responsibility of delivering wide-ranging and ambitious climate policies rests on the shoulders of national governments, who really need to move full steam ahead on the implementation of the Paris Agreement goals. Cities offer positive examples and provide a meaningful contribution to the overall efforts on climate mitigation, while being also the places where most of the adaptation and resilience part needs to happen.

How do you assess the role of cities and actions at city-level since the Paris Agreement? What are your hopes and expectations for COP 23 to build on this momentum?

The Paris Agreement was a watershed moment, not only because of the agreement itself, the fact that it was reached, and the level of consensus it gathered, but also because it prompted a renewed wave of commitments and actions for climate by cities, regions, the business and investors communities.

Think about the wave of divestment from fossil fuel assets by companies as well as institutional funds, universities, local and regional governments (e.g. the Australian Capital Territory, the cities of Oslo, Berlin, Berkeley, Paris, Minneapolis, and many more). An increasing number of cities are setting for themselves 100% renewable energy and carbon neutrality targets. Aspen, Colorado, has been the first city in North America to go 100% renewable. Copenhagen, a large European capital, aims to be carbon neutral by 2050. Many cities, especially in the developing world, are working to set a course for a sustainable climate-friendly and inclusive urban development. They’re doing so by fixing their transport systems, as Bogotà, Colombia, and Curitiba, Brazil, have done, implementing ambitious bike-friendly programmes and bus rapid transport systems that connect working class and disadvantaged neighbourhoods with the centres of economic and social activity.

COP23, this November in Bonn, is the place where the so-called ‘rulebook’ of the Paris Agreement should be discussed, with the goal to approve it by COP24, providing guidelines for nations on how to implement their Nationally Determined Contributions (the voluntary pledges that each nation submitted upon joining the Paris Agreement). Our hope and call on national governments is that this process will see a robust involvement of local and regional governments. At the same time, 2018 will be the real start of a process of revision of the NDCs, which will hopefully conclude in 2020 with much more ambitious commitments, which is what we need to bridge the current gap between commitments and the reality of what is needed in terms of emissions reductions to stay under 1.5°C of rise in global temperatures.

With all this in mind, local and other subnational governments will come to COP23 essentially to do two things: 1. They will share the actions and plans they’ve put in place and got running in the past few years, to provide national governments with evidence of how the global concept of climate action translates into concrete policies on the ground; 2. They will knock on the door of national governments to offer help and ask for involvement in the further definition of nation-wide climate plans.

Why is resilience becoming such an important concept for thinking about the future development of cities? Has it become a political vision beyond being merely a strategy of adaptability?

As the impacts of climate change become more evident by the day, putting at risks lives, homes, and livelihoods, thousands of cities all over the world are developing and implementing plans that build the resilience of their communities.

However, while adapting to climate change, cities are using this opportunity to address in a more holistic way their vulnerabilities, not only to changing rain patterns and rising temperatures, but also to related and unrelated critical issues such as population growth (or ageing population, depending on the country and region), migrations (which need to be managed in a way that allows for the rapid and successful integration of new citizens), economic and financial crises.

Of the over 600 cities and other subnational entities reporting to the carbonn Climate Registry, almost 10% have already registered comprehensive climate plans addressing adaptation.

Of course, this is only at the early stages, and much more needs to be done in terms of awareness raising, as well as building the political capital and understanding of resilience, which is one of the reasons why our annual Resilient Cities Congress goes to great lengths to bring together local leaders, practitioners and representatives from the private sector and civil society to discuss the myriad small issues that local and regional governments and communities need to face in order to build their resilience.

As Europe’s supranational structures face mounting challenges to their legitimacy amid the rise of populist nationalist movements in many countries – can cities foster European solidarity with a different approach?

When an unprecedented wave of migrants and asylum seekers reached the shores of Sweden in 2015, the cities of Malmo, Gothenburg, and Stockholm started having weekly meetings and calls, they checked on each other, helped each other cope with the emergency, and – perhaps more importantly – put the people arriving after unspeakable sorrows and long journeys at the centre of their administrative action, adapting their procedures and plans in the face of the unexpected.

This spirit is the same that guides cities throughout Europe when they meet and exchange visions for sustainable and inclusive urban environments and communities. The proximity to the issues people have to deal with on a daily basis might be the reason why some cities in Europe are now seen as beacons of solidarity and openness in the continent. If this was encouraged, it would become a powerful driver for a positive vision of where Europe should be headed.

Of course this would require an equally open and even pragmatic approach from the part of national governments. Recognising what works and what doesn’t is a fundamental aspect of administrative action and political leadership.

At the same time, cities throughout Europe have been strengthening relationships of mutual support and exchange of ideas, best practices. Formal and informal networks and alliances of cities are connecting advanced and innovative experiences at the local level, planting the seeds for a new political renaissance of Europe, one that once again might have in cities its propulsive force.

Why is it important to build networks and partnerships between cities? Is there a political dimension to this work or is it primarily pragmatic – given that for all their diversity many cities around the world face similar challenges, in terms of the obstacles they are confronting, their areas of competence, etc.  

Pragmatism is certainly an important driver of such partnerships. Local and regional leaders have a duty to their constituents to find solutions and elaborate visions for their communities: it helps to learn from those who have followed a certain path or faced similar challenges in the past.

Politically speaking, though, the underlying principle is one of mutual learning and willingness to find common ground and a shared language. This is how cities as geographically and culturally distant as possible have greatly benefitted from projects such as the World Cities programme, a piece of which was run by ICLEI on behalf of the European Commission, which aimed to connect Japanese, European, and Canadian cities on shared challenges such as sustainable transport, resilience, and low-carbon development. The cities themselves chose what to work on.

Many follow-up projects were born out of the initial programme, which speaks to the endurance and inherent value of peer-to-peer learning and knowledge exchange at city level. For instance, Leipzig (Germany) and Kumamoto (Japan) developed a handbook to share lessons learned on sustainable mobility and light rail transit. Ottawa (Canada) and Hannover (Germany) have developed new solar energy and community engagement projects and keep in touch on the latest developments.

Is our concept and definition of the city as we know it today set to evolve?  And, if so, in what direction?

Change in energy systems and the advent of the Internet make it easier to imagine a less centripetal urban world that has a better relationship with its rural surroundings. This is very much in line with a vision of the sustainable city of the future, a more resilient and porous one, that doesn’t act as a vortex of energy and resources, but rather as a driving force of more decentralised rural-urban systems.

However, we have to face the reality: by 2050 two thirds of the world population will likely live in cities, with most of the urbanisation occurring in developing countries, of course. Inverting this trend and pursuing alternative and more sustainable development patterns is something that requires a great deal of political capital and the coordinated efforts of many actors at all levels of government and in civil society and the private sector.

What evidence do you see that cities have a genuinely transformative potential – be it in political, economic, or other terms? 

To find evidence for cities’ transformative potential we need to look no further than our own cities in history. Some cities in Europe and China have been standing for millennia, ever evolving, absorbing shocks, becoming centres of power and knowledge only to then lose this privileged status and having to reinvent themselves.

More contemporary examples are those of the cities that have been centres of industrial activity for decades if not centuries, but whose industrial core has in many cases shrank or shifted away following changing trends in the global economy. These cities are constantly working to build a new future for themselves, often relying on clean energy, green infrastructure, tourism, or the new economy to write a new chapter of their story.

As I was saying at the beginning of the interview, we have to think of cities as living organisms. All organisms have immune systems and the ability to regenerate in case of shocks; they react to the environment and other organisms.

Nation-states are largely a product of the 18th and 19th century. Urban centres date back to the dawn of human society. It only makes sense that we focus on this constant to imagine a more sustainable future for all. European cities have been showing the way on matters as diverse as the energy transition, the award of civil rights, the re-invention of the relationship between people and public spaces, the economy and even, in some cases, the monetary systems. They are our best labs for the future.

Fighting for Survival: The Cities Campaigning for Sustainability