Cities have spent decades working to achieve greater recognition at international level: recognition that would permit them to take positions on political agendas and address some of the substantial global challenges that condition their reality. Everything suggests that they are managing to achieve this and that they have consolidated stable channels of dialogue with most international authorities – whether regional like the European Union or global within the United Nations framework. Nevertheless, doubts remain about their capacity to exert anything more than symbolic influence, and transcend the rhetorical to produce substantive policy changes on these agendas.
The recognition of cities in the international arena comes largely from the growing centrality of urban issues – the planet is urbanising and some of humanity’s greatest challenges are resolved in cities – and the expanding, although geographically variable, empowerment of their governments. With city governments having competences and responsibilities in fields closely linked to citizens’ most basic needs, they have attained significant political centrality.
Indeed, today it is commonly recognized that many of the items on the global agenda cannot be effectively implemented without the collaboration of cities. Crucially, this change in perception did not happen spontaneously but it is the result of years of political advocacy by city networks, which have not tired from emphasising the centrality of cities for a successful shift towards sustainable development. The efforts of city networks paved the way for the localization of the 2030 Agenda, the existence of a global urban agenda, and the financing for sustainable development agenda finally making reference to cities.
However, beyond the visibility of the urban dimension and the recognition of the role played by cities, national governments continue to set the guidelines, contents and direction of global agendas. Cities have gained a place at the table – as observers. They are listened to. They may be involved by introducing nuances, amendments or by highlighting absences. But they work on frames of reference defined by national governments who, ultimately, are those that have the vote and set the limits.
In an era in which many cities are becoming spaces of resistance against certain global dynamics and turning to international authorities to resolve conflicts with their national governments, moving beyond rhetoric and shaping the political agenda becomes key. This is clearly demonstrated by the “sanctuary cities” in the United States, who completely oppose and disobey the Trump administration on migration issues; and by “refugee cities” in Europe that have declared themselves open to receiving migrants and refugees arriving from across the Mediterranean. In both cases, their governments have opened up channels of dialogue with the United Nations and the European Union to seek solutions not found at national level. But in both cases their action meets strong resistance.
In this context it becomes important to analyse the way cities’ contribution to global agendas can move beyond the symbolic, acquire depth and establish patterns that result in effective solutions.
Reforming the international governance system could contribute to defining the role of cities as central actors in a new global order. The reality and contexts cities have to manage clearly transcend national dynamics. It is therefore essential to build effective channels for them to participate in constructing international political agendas that affect their competences and responsibilities. The European Union understood this at the end of the last century and consolidated the principle of subsidiarity and created the Committee of the Regions (and cities) to be an organ of mandatory – although not binding – consultation on issues that affect them. The consolidation and institutionalisation of the World Assembly of Local and Regional Governments may present an opportunity.
But as long as this reform does not advance – and traditional diplomacy will not make it easy – it is worth continuing to strengthen the spaces for discussion with the United Nations system. As a meeting point for the main players in international municipalism, the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Government is a fundamental tool. It contributes to articulating a shared political agenda with which to influence the spaces of dialogue that are opening up – such as the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) held in New York every year – and highlighting cities’ achievements in managing global challenges.
Nevertheless, they cannot take on the change of a paradigm that has been immutable for centuries. Breaking the national government monopoly and shaping the international political agenda requires alliances to be forged with other actors operating a global level; alliances that build on shared purposes, construct arguments and contribute solutions; alliances with grassroots and civil society organisations, with the private sector and knowledge institutions. Only through these shared strategies can local priorities be scaled and positioned in the large global consensuses.
All of this will of course be meaningless if cities do not place politics at the centre of their international activity. Articulating advocacy strategies, perfecting spaces for discussion and forging alliances with other actors will count for nothing if the political priorities are not clear and do not respond effectively to the real needs of cities and citizens. The leadership of mayors is crucial to this. They should accept that managing local problems in the international arena is no longer optional, it is part of their responsibility. The mayors of sanctuary and refuge cities, those that disobey and align themselves with the Paris Agreements on climate change, and the signatories of the municipalist declaration on adequate housing presented at HLPF 2018 have all seen it this way.