Bringing cities to the global table

A U.S. perspective on critical next steps in the climate negotiations and other international discussions.

With final negotiations on a new climate accord due to take place in Paris at the end of this year, many are increasingly wondering what role cities will have in the debate. (Arnaud Boissou/METL-MEDDE)

An array of global negotiations on climate change and our global future is about to occur. But so far these talks are including scant voice for cities, even though these areas now represent, for the first time in history, a majority of mankind.

The near-term conference list is both daunting and critical to where the world’s debates are headed. These include the United Nations COP 21 (Conference of the Parties) meeting in Paris at the end of the year, where many hope a new climate accord will be struck. These also include the process to define the new Post-2015 Development Agenda, a key portion of which will be finalized in September, as well as the Habitat III cities conference in October 2016. In addition, of course, there are the many meetings and discussions worldwide that will take place in parallel to these summits.

In each of these events, cities ought to be at the table, fully involved. They contribute powerfully to the economic development of nations. They also produce a huge majority of the world’s carbon emissions, though many of their number are also engaged in path-breaking amelioration efforts.

There’s little time to delay on climate issues. In my country, the United States, cities such as Miami and Norfolk are already imperilled by higher sea levels. A broad range of metropolises including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago is likewise exposed to the danger of climate-triggered disasters ranging from flooding to heat. Great cities across the globe face similar concerns.

One positive: The debate is picking up. France’s embassy in Washington has spearheaded conversations between French and U. S. cities on best practices and targets for COP 21. Lyon, France, will be the site of a major climate-focused meeting of sub-national actors during the first two days of July.

Yet there is also real concern about the failure of recent preparatory sessions in Nairobi to create a way for direct city engagement in Habitat III, a conference that’s held just once every 20 years. If Habitat III is largely about cities, what’s the justification for nation states sitting at the table while city representatives just mill around in the hallways?

The hope will be that the U. N. bureaucracies and international thought leaders will see the serious disconnect in such concerns — and be working to connect the dots between these and other conferences. Certainly, if one can believe the Habitat III website, there is already an explicit expression of linking what is being called sustainable urbanization to both COP 21 and the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

But, is it reciprocal? Thus far, I fear, not so much.

A cities uber-committee

Who can help create this connective tissue? Are there change agents or “Johnny Appleseeds” who can make this happen — particularly here in the United States, a country that continues to have an outsized role in both international negotiations and foreign aid flows? Who can continually raise the flag of holistic planning and implementation, regardless of source?

I would suggest a few. Foremost, I think former mayor Michael Bloomberg is a key figure, as he is now the U. N. Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, a title that in itself flies this flag continuously. Bloomberg’s forceful personality can well be transformative.

“There is already an explicit expression of linking what is being called sustainable urbanization to both COP 21 and the Post-2015 Development Agenda. But, is it reciprocal? Thus far, I fear, not so much.”

In addition, he commands significant resources through Bloomberg Philanthropies. The former mayor also continues to exert a powerful influence through his other initiatives, such as his presidency of the board of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of large and engaged cities from around the world. Bloomberg is also co-chairman of the Risky Business Project, a joint venture with Hank Paulson, former secretary of the U. S. Treasury and chairman of the Paulson Institute, and Tom Steyer, the retired founder of Farallon Capital Management and an environmental leader.

For that same uber-committee could come such leaders as Henry Cisneros, the former secretary of the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and mayor of San Antonio (also an Academy Fellow); Gregory Page, the chair of Cargill; Robert Rubin, the co-chair of the Council on Foreign Relations and another former U. S. Treasury secretary; Donna Shalala, the former secretary of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services and soon to become head of the Clinton Foundation; and former U. S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz.

Just imagine the weight such figures could bring to bear on this issue. Their role could be significant both in prompting the U. S. government to push more aggressively for a clear role for cities in the critical upcoming debates and also in influencing friends and associates in countries across the globe.

And there are many others who could play a similar role. Leaders of the the U. S. Conference of Mayors (with its Climate Protection Center and Agreement Initiative), the Nature Conservancy and the National League of Cities come to mind.

Likewise, leaders of the Ford, Rockefeller and MacArthur foundations could move to focus on a robust role for cities in global forums. (Note: Citiscope receives funding from several of these groups.) Stephen Heintz, CEO of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, along with the Kresge, Barr, Summit and V. Kann Rasmussen foundations, is helping to fund the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, a new collaboration of international cities committed to achieving aggressive long-term carbon-reduction goals.

Leading pro-city allies could also play a significant role, such as Bruce Katz, the head of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, and Ben Hecht at Living Cities.

There is a spectrum of additional players that could be included in a more robust model. Indeed, many of these are already involved, including the American Bankers Association, the National Housing Conference Alliance, the National Association of Realtors, the American Planning Association, the Atlantic Council, the National Association of Home Builders, the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Institute of Architects, the American Bar Association, the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, the American Public Transportation Association and Smart Growth America. There are many other similar umbrella or public-interest organizations that could get involved, not only in the United States but overseas.

Across the Atlantic, I am certain that the government of France will continue its efforts to focus on the key role of cities, both within the European Union and independently, even after it passes on its COP role following this year’s negotiations. In addition, leaders from Berlin, London, Copenhagen, Melbourne, Oslo, Stockholm, Sydney, Vancouver and Yokohama are already sharing best practices through the new Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, staffed by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network in partnership with both the Innovation Network for Communities and C40.

Change happens slowly, as we know from the history of all movements. But hopefully the effort will accelerate to create a clear voice for world cities in developments that impact on them so powerfully. City, metropolitan, regional and sub-national leaders and advocates need to keep knocking on national doors until they are let in as full partners in the critical process of sustainable urbanization.

Note: For additional reporting on this issue, see Citiscope editor-in-chief Neal Peirce’s “A key moment for world cities but are nation states listening?

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Kent Watkins

Editor’s note: Kent Watkins of Washington, D. C., a self-described “urbanist entrepreneur”, is attuned to a remarkable set of issues and interests as a result of his work on varied projects with over 400 cities in the United States and abroad. He is founder and chairman of the National Academy of Housing and Sustainable Communities, which worked closely with the French embassy in D. C. as a co-sponsor of the recent bi-national urban climate conference. Watkins has been active in the COP climate negotiations, World Urban Forums and Habitat process by lecturing at universities and as a U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and U. S. State Department delegate to the World Bank and other international bodies. He is currently compiling a roadmap of U. S. urban climate action plans.