How International Urban Cooperation supports the 2030 Agenda, the New Urban Agenda and attaining the Sustainable Development Goals


Cities are well positioned to respond to both local and global challenges. To do so, they often work together, exchanging solutions. The first formal city network was established in 1913, with cooperation since flourishing among cities, be it in the same country, on the same continent, or across the world.

The European Commission supports cities to exchange solutions and to tackle climate challenges, thereby making a direct contribution to the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Through the International Urban Cooperation (IUC) programme, cities and regions in Europe, Asia, Latin America and North America came together to learn from one another and to make progress on innovation, good urban governance, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and many other challenges outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

1. The European Union’s “urban diplomacy” in the context of international agendas

Urbanization as a new megatrend

An estimated 55.3 per cent of the world’s population lived in urban settlements in 2018. By 2030, urban areas are projected to house 60 per cent of people globally and one in every three people will live in cities with at least half a million inhabitants. Most of the world’s fastest growing cities are in Asia and Africa.

Growth in the urban population is driven by overall population increase and by the upward shift in the percentage living in urban areas. Together, these two factors are projected to add 2.5 billion to the world’s urban population by 2050, with almost 90 per cent of this growth happening in Asia and Africa.

Such urbanization creates numerous challenges, from pollution to energy security, and has the potential to significantly impact the environment. Cities represent two thirds of national energy consumption and their carbon footprint is increasing, all of which constitutes a risk if sustainable solutions are not implemented.

It is also estimated that 60 per cent of the global Gross Domestic Product is generated by a group of 600 urban centres. Cities, therefore, present an opportunity for development and play a key role as contributors to smart, green and inclusive growth. Action at local level is critical to efforts to promote sustainable development and to develop effective solutions.

Estimated percentage of global Gross Domestic Product generated by a group of 600 cities

Cities have been crucial for lifting people out of poverty and enabling them to access services, yet it is widely understood that the current urban development model is not sustainable. Some of the main challenges include: finding effective solutions to urban governance; the continuous growth of slums (despite the reduction of slum inhabitants as a proportion of the overall urban population, the number of persons living in slums is growing); providing urban services as urban density continues to decline; the vulnerability of cities to climate hazards and the contribution of cities to accelerating climate change through consumption and emissions; inequality and exclusion; and the upsurge of involuntary migration, as well as rising insecurity.

Climate and Energy in cities

One of the key emerging issues that cities must contend with is climate change. Described as one of the greatest challenges of our time, the adverse impacts of climate change can undermine the ability of all countries to achieve sustainable development.

Climate change has become a pressing issue on the international development agenda simultaneously with urbanization, offering many opportunities for climate change adaptation, mitigation and disaster risk reduction. Between 1950 and 2005, the level of urbanization increased from 29 per cent to 49 per cent, while global carbon emissions from fossil-fuel burning increased by almost 500 per cent.

While climate change is a profound global issue, it is also a local issue, meaning urban areas have a crucial role in the climate change arena. Urban areas concentrate economic activities, households, industries and infrastructure which are hotspots for energy consumption as well as key sources of greenhouse gases.

As populations, production and consumption are largely concentrated in cities, it is not surprising that most energy is consumed, and most emissions are released in cities. Indeed, with more than 50 per cent of the world’s population, cities account for between 60-80 per cent of energy consumption and generate as much as 70 per cent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, primarily through the consumption of fossil fuels for energy supply and transportation. This poses the question: what type of human settlement can be most efficient from an energy consumption perspective? It is clear that a shift needs to take place regarding consumption and production patterns.

Proportion of greenhouse gas emission generated primarily from consumption of fossil fuels for energy supply and transportation in cities

To date, the measures envisaged at the global and national levels have yet to be accompanied by concerted measures at the local level. The response of cities to the challenges of climate change has been fragmented, and significant gaps exist between the rhetoric of addressing climate change and action on the ground. The critical factor shaping urban responses to climate change is government capacity, which is hindered by factors that are institutional, technical, economic, and political in character.

In a well-functioning system of multi-level governance, municipal governments are positioned to make meaningful contributions to greenhouse gas reduction. In general, the efforts between the global, national, regional and local level should be complementary. National governments, for example, can provide an enabling framework for cities to reduce emissions and can foresee financing mechanisms and the legal framework necessary for cities to take efficient action.

Currently, emission reduction measures in cities mainly focus on the transport and building sectors. Many local authorities, however, do not have the mandate for transport which usually spans several municipalities. Working together on emission reductions in this sector can enhance the vertical integration of levels of government.

Measures at city level introducing new building codes related to thermal insulation or green roofs could be even more effective if they were enforced at national level instead of only at the local level. The same applies to local measures on waste reduction or recycling obligations. At the same time, there are measures emanating from the supra-national level (the European Commission in the case of Europe) that are only partially implemented by the national or local level. This is, for example, the case with urban air quality measures.

A political momentum for cities

Parallel to demographic transition and the growing importance of cities in the global economy, a political movement has gathered momentum throughout the past decades.

The challenges of urbanization and the role of civil society as partners in policy formation at the local, national, regional and global levels were discussed during a series of major United Nations conferences in the 1990s.

Despite prior recognition of the importance of local action and sustainable urban development, cities and the local level were largely excluded from the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 (the only urban challenge mentioned was slums, which translated into one target). Fifteen years later, the SDGs of 2015 explicitly recognized the importance of sustainable urban development and sustainable cities, dedicating one goal to urban development: SDG 11 “Make Cities and Human Settlements Inclusive, Safe, Resilient and Sustainable”.

The Third UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), which took place in Quito (Ecuador) in 2016, saw UN Member States recognize the pivotal role of cities for sustainable development. The main outcome of the conference was agreement by UN Member States on the New Urban Agenda, which will serve as a guideline for urban development for the period to 2036.

The role of cities was also recognized in the Paris Agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2015.

Timeline of major global agenda
Cities have, at times, held considerable power and independence. Ancient times saw the existence of city-states, small sovereign states consisting of a city and its dependent territories. Historical city-states included Sumerian cities such as Uruk and Ur, and ancient Egyptian city-states such as Thebes and Memphis.
Some of the most famous city-states in history were those of ancient Greece, such as Athens, and the merchant city-states of Renaissance Italy.
While definitions vary, contemporary city-states could be said to include Monaco, Singapore and Vatican City.
The rise of the nation-state contributed to the decline of the city-state.
Throughout the 20th century, through demographic transition and globalization, cities once more grew in importance and are increasingly engaging in global agendas.
Habitat III Conference, Quito, Ecuador

The European Union’s urban development cooperation

Within the European Union, urban development has long been recognized as an important theme. This is reflected through the policy attention given to the theme, such as the regular meetings of European Union Member States and the European Commission at ministerial and technical level in the “Urban Development Group” forum, and political declarations such as the Leipzig Charter. Urban development has also received major funding, primarily through the Structural and Investment Funds.

1.1 European Union commitment to multi-level governance

Multi-level governance

Since the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, the concept of multi-level governance has emerged in Europe. It is based on the understanding that the European Union, its Member States and their sub-national levels share competences. It relates strongly to the concepts of subsidiarity and proportionality which are also enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty, as well as in the Treaty on European Union.

While there is no official definition of the concept, the Committee of the Regions “considers multilevel governance to mean coordinated action by the European Union, the Member States and local and regional authorities, based on partnership and aimed at drawing up and implementing European Union policies. It leads to responsibility being shared between the different tiers of government concerned […].”

Illustration of multi-level governance © Adopted from European studies hub, Portsmouth University.

UN-Habitat sees effective multilevel governance as the overarching prerequisite for urban governance, which should be characterized by well-defined spheres of government (national, regional and local). It calls for a balanced distribution of resources and responsibilities between the different spheres of government, enabled by legal and financial instruments that take into account the key principle of subsidiarity.

The Committee of the Regions represents sub-national governments in the decision-making process of the European Union, one of the only examples world-wide in which decisions are taken by consensus involving national governments, a supra-national body (the European Parliament), and the local level. This is viewed as an example that true multi-level governance is possible to implement.

Some form of multi-level governance can be found in many countries around the world as the neighbourhood, local, provincial and national levels work together. Regardless of the country, to govern effectively different levels of government need to be involved. The exceptional features of the European Union architecture are to add a supra-national level and to formalize the decision-making process through multi-level governance.

In 2016, the European Union launched the Urban Agenda for the EU which brings together the European Commission, national governments, and the local level to improve regulation, funding and knowledge for cities. It is also a means to implement the New Urban Agenda at European level.

1.2. “Urban diplomacy”: Role of the sub-national level in international cooperation and multilateralism

City-to-city cooperation has existed for over a hundred years and has encompassed a wide range of topics and objectives over time. Such cooperation mainly aimed to achieve direct or indirect benefits related to the promotion of peace, prosperity, and sustainable development. The number of city networks has surged since the 1990s, with over 200 formal city networks today.

An instrument for peace

While technical and political cooperation of neighbouring cities has probably existed for centuries, the first thematic cities network was founded in 1913. The formal twinning of cities emerged in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. It was conceived with the political objective to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation. By organizing cultural and social activities, sometimes supported by economic exchanges, twinned municipalities would keep the memory of their historical relationship alive, foster citizens’ understanding and develop a dense network of personal connections that would reduce the risk of future conflict.

The twinning approach is meant to establish a voluntary long-term bilateral political relationship between two partners. It does not require the intervention of a third party and does generally not define – or if so, only in a vague manner – the areas in which the partners would cooperate.

An opportunity for innovation and business development

Developing business relationships among cities is a simple way to contribute to economic prosperity. Cooperation on business development is an approach that is based on a shared understanding of each partner’s economic strengths, weaknesses and how each partner can complement the other.

In the spirit of the European concept of “Smart Specialization”, regions and cities should prioritise complementarity between economic activities and find better ways to combine their strengths to create new industrial capabilities in areas with high growth potential. By focusing economic development efforts and investments on each region’s or city’s relative strengths, and by building on complementarities rather than competition, the strategy can be expected to generate a higher level of prosperity for both partners.

Building capacities for sustainable urban development

Besides the long-term promotion of peace and the development of business opportunities, city-to-city cooperation was also identified as a means to increase the capacity of local authorities to address challenges associated with sustainable urban development.

Within the United Nations system, technical exchanges in the urban sector have been promoted through several global programmes. These programmes have offered important entry points to decentralized cooperation partners.

In Europe, the activation of technical exchanges and policy dialogue among cities has been promoted by URBACT since 2002.

Cities and climate action

Cities, towns and other urban areas have a crucial role to play in mitigating climate change, as they consume three quarters of the energy produced in the European Union and are responsible for a similar share of CO2 emissions. Local authorities are also able to change citizens' behaviour and address climate and energy questions in a comprehensive manner, notably by conciliating public and private interests and by integrating sustainable energy issues into overall local development goals. Furthermore, it is recognized that city action can help to advance national policy on climate action.

In 2008, the European Commission launched the Covenant of Mayors to support local authorities’ efforts in implementing sustainable energy policies. In 2014, the European Commission launched the Mayors Adapt initiative. Based on the same principles as the Covenant of Mayors, this sister initiative focused on adaptation to climate change. Mayors Adapt invited local governments to demonstrate leadership in adaptation and supported them in the development and implementation of local adaptation strategies. In 2015, the initiatives were merged. Signatory cities now pledge to actively support the implementation of the European Union’s 40 per cent greenhouse gas-reduction target by 2030 and agree to adopt an integrated approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation and to ensure access to secure, sustainable and affordable energy for all.

In 2016, the Covenant of Mayors joined forces with the Compact of Mayors, which was driven by the United Nations and Bloomberg Philanthropies. The resulting “Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy” is the largest movement of local governments committed to going beyond their own national climate and energy objectives. The Global Covenant of Mayors tackles three key issues: climate change mitigation; adaptation to the adverse effects of climate change; and universal access to secure, clean and affordable energy.

The Global Covenant of Mayors has been able to rally a large number of local and regional governments around a common vision and has helped to motivate cities to make changes to preserve the climate. However, the general remit of cities is limited and can depend substantially on the level of cooperation with national governments. Depending on the country, cities have limited sovereignty and resources and the question of subsidiarity – the ability to take decisions at the most appropriate level of government – determines the most adequate governance framework in each country.

2. Reporting on the urban dimension of the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

The years 2015-2016 were a strategic milestone for global governance, poverty eradication and sustainable development. A series of landmark international summits and conferences were held over the course of the year (the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the COP 21 Paris Agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) which have collectively re-cast the way the international community, including the European Union, will work to achieve sustainable development and poverty eradication for many years.

On 25 September 2015, the 193 countries of the UN General Assembly adopted the 2030 Development Agenda, entitled "Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development". The Agenda centres around the five dimensions of “People”, “Planet”, “Prosperity”, “Peace” and “Partnership” and outlines 17 Sustainable Development Goals. SDG 11 is a goal dedicated to “[making] cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. It contains 10 constituent targets, focusing on Housing (11.1), Transport (11.2), Planning (11.3), Heritage (11.4), Disasters (11.5), Environmental Impact (11.6), Public Spaces (11.7), National and Regional Development Planning (11.A), Resilience (11.B), and Buildings (11.C). These targets have intrinsic linkages to other SDGs.

SDG 11 has 10 Targets and 15 Indicators

Reporting on the SDGs

As part of its follow-up and review mechanisms, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development encourages UN Member States to “conduct regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and sub-national levels, which are country-led and country-driven”. These national reviews are expected to serve as a basis for the regular reviews by the High-level Political Forum (HLPF), meeting under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Council. The reviews by the HLPF are to be voluntary, state-led, undertaken by both developed and developing countries, and shall provide a platform for partnerships, including through the participation of major groups and other relevant stakeholders.

The Voluntary National Reviews aim to facilitate the sharing of experiences by governments, including successes, challenges and lessons learnt in implementing the 2030 Agenda. They also seek to strengthen policies and mobilize support and partnerships for the SDGs. Every year, roughly 50 countries present their efforts to advance the 2030 Agenda.

Number of voluntary national reviews per region as reported during the 2018 High Level Political Forum.

Reporting on the urban dimension of the SDGs

It is widely recognized that cities from both developed and developing countries require monitoring systems with clear indicators, baseline data, targets and goals to support long-term planning for sustainable development. Cities require a monitoring system that can track progress and identify setbacks using new approaches and techniques to aid the formulation of more informed policies.

The monitoring and reporting for SDG 11 creates major challenges that other SDGs do not necessarily confront. Monitoring and reporting at the city level requires the definition of new concepts, in addition to developing functional definitions of what constitutes distinct units of city, urban or rural areas for global monitoring. With more than seven targets under SDG 11 requiring the collection of data at the local level prior to producing national level aggregates, new partnerships and structural and institutional data production and processing systems are needed.

National statistical systems need to coordinate with local authorities and service providers to collect information at city level. Without a standardized method of measurement and clear techniques of aggregation, countries face serious problems in creating a consistent sample of cities that is representative of their territory, geography and history, as well as difficulties in reporting on national (urban) progress in a systematic manner.

The interlinkages of urban dimensions among the SDGs, especially SDG 11, are extensive. More than half of the SDG targets have an urban component, linked to about 60 per cent of the SDG indicators. Issues such as climate change, housing and slums, financing, sustainable production and consumption, inequalities, infrastructure and basic services, gender equality, gender-based violence, food security and nutrition, and migration are inextricably linked to cities.

Interlinkages between SDG 11 and other SDGs. © SDG 11 Synthesis Report 2018: Tracking progress towards Inclusive, Safe, Resilient and Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements, Nairobi, Kenya

Voluntary Local Reviews

Although national governments may consult sub-national governments and other local stakeholders when developing their Voluntary National Review reports, the process focuses on national-level efforts. An increasing number of local governments aspire to share lessons learnt from the local processes, incorporating sub-national perspectives into the SDGs follow-up and review process.

The Voluntary Local Review process can serve as a way for local governments to engage citizens in the SDG review process, which contributes to strengthening accountability and making governance more inclusive. There are also internal benefits, as elaborating a Voluntary Local Review can reveal hidden connections between municipal departments and can help identify urgent action to be taken at the local level.

So far, around a dozen cities have published such a local report. The region of Oaxaca (Mexico) has published a preliminary version of a Voluntary Subnational Review to reflect efforts at the regional level in attaining the SDGs.

“New York City is uniquely positioned to help achieve the SDGs by amplifying, sharing, and learning from policies and best practices from cities and states. In presenting this report on our local efforts through the common language of the SDGs, we aim to encourage cities and other stakeholders to join us in a conversation not only about measuring progress towards the 2030 Agenda, but most importantly the policies and other strategies to get there.” New York City, the first city to publish a Voluntary Local Review, did so to reconcile the local development strategy “OneNYC” and the SDGs. The local government identified five priority goals: SDG 6 “Water and Sanitation”, SDG 7 “Affordable and Clean Energy”, SDG 11 “Sustainable Cities”, SDG 12 “Responsible Consumption and Production” and SDG 15 “Life on Land”.
Priority goals identified during the development of OneNYC 2050 development strategy document.

The Voluntary Local Review outlines how elements of the local strategy correspond to the different SDGs and their respective indicators and gives an account of progress achieved in each field.

New York City's VLR, New York City's implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

Voluntary Local Reviews can be a good way for cities to take stock of local progress in implementing the SDGs. However, there are political and methodological challenges around the process. The main question is how the local reviews are integrated in or linked to the national reviews, and what impact can be achieved by assessing cities in an isolated way. Indeed, cities are not isolated entities, but rather have strong interlinkages across different levels of government.

At the same time, while the national reports should take into account implementation and challenges at the local level, many cities feel that the local perspective is not sufficiently integrated in the national reports - the joint survey of the European Committee of the Regions and the OECD revealed that 70 per cent of the subnational authorities in the European Union feel they have not been sufficiently included in the Voluntary National Reviews. Ideally, the local reports should enhance the Voluntary National Reviews and help national governments to adequately report on the SDG implementation.

The UN global sample of cities

In addition to national and local reviews, the United Nations aspires to render a representative picture of urban settlements and their evolution. To this end, UN-Habitat released the “UN global sample of cities” in advance of Habitat III. It was tested and applied in the Urban Expansion Program, a collaboration between UN-Habitat, New York University (NYU), and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. The global sample of cities is a stratified sample of 200 cities by region, by city-population and by city-size that represent the urbanized world. The UN global sample of cities tracks and interprets trends related to urban life such as air and water quality, housing affordability, access to enjoyable public space, physical proximity to employment, and time to travel from home to work. It aims to examine impacts of global and regional urbanization on the quality of human life.

The United Nation global sample of 200 cities © Atlas of Urban Expansion, 2016

Data from 200 cities is used to examine similarities and differences in cities’ evolution, with the broader aim of identifying ways to harness the power of cities to improve the lives of urban dwellers.

The New Urban Agenda

The New Urban Agenda

Habitat III, held in Quito in October 2016, was among the first United Nations conferences to take place following the adoption of the 2030 Agenda.

It saw the further adoption of a global New Urban Agenda, intended to guide sustainable urban development for the period to 2036. The New Urban Agenda gives an important boost to the implementation of the urban dimensions of the 2030 Agenda, as the SDGs (particularly SDG 11) contain indicators against which the New Urban Agenda can be measured. The New Urban Agenda shows a clear picture of what cities should aim for and what they need to get there and is quite specific in enumerating desired urban outcomes.

The European Commission’s three voluntary commitments to the New Urban Agenda

The European Commission presented a common position for EU Member States during Habitat III and made three voluntary commitments to the Habitat III implementation process. The European Commission Voluntary Commitments are:

• Delivering the New Urban Agenda through the Urban Agenda for the EU

The New Urban Agenda and the Urban Agenda for the EU share the same vision for balanced, sustainable and integrated urban development.

• Developing a global, harmonised definition of cities

A common definition of cities should be used across the globe in order to compare data, to benchmark and to achieve better monitoring. In partnership with the OECD, the World Bank, FAO and UN-Habitat, the European Commission has developed such a definition, based on population size and density and the degree of urbanisation in the EU.

• Fostering cooperation between cities in the field of sustainable urban development

Drawing on the methodology developed by the IUC programme, cities in different parts of the world will be encouraged to link up with one or more partner cities to develop and implement local action plans and projects based on common priorities – access to water, transport systems, health and housing.

Reporting on the New Urban Agenda

The reporting mechanisms of the New Urban Agenda link to those of other global commitments and development agendas that address related urban challenges. Tracking progress and assessing the impact of the implementation of the Agenda on all scales requires an integrated approach combining both quantitative and qualitative data, including spatial varieties of both.

The UN Member States have not agreed on a set of indicators for the New Urban Agenda. Thus, the implementation measurement for the New Urban Agenda will be based on the indicators for SDG 11. Depending on priorities, ad hoc indicators can also be established. Member States are encouraged to develop their own set of indicators related to their priorities.

The implementation of the New Urban Agenda helps facilitate the achievement of other development agendas, presenting an enabling foundation through specific policies, plans, approaches and actions in the urban context.

Implementation of the New Urban Agenda

The New Urban Agenda requires that reporting on the progress of its implementation be country-led, outlining an inclusive process that integrates the actions of a wide range of stakeholders, complementing the work of national governments, including the collation of data and information and their use in policy formulation.

United Nations General Assembly annual reports © United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs
Quadrennial report of the Secretary General to the Economic and Social Council © United Nations General Assembly Economic and Social Council

Knowledge-sharing mechanisms and inclusive reporting platforms are essential for engaging partners and collecting data in a cross-sectoral manner. The online Quito Implementation Platform, established after the Habitat III Conference, will be fully operational in 2020 as a dynamic system for gathering knowledge, best practices and data. Finally, independent platforms and stakeholder networks, such as the Global Platform for the Right to the City, and the General Assembly of Partners, promote bottom-up monitoring and reporting on the Agenda and the SDGs.

Regional action plans can provide guidance for national and local frameworks and help mainstream the 2030 Agenda into decision-making. This is the case with the Urban Agenda for the EU, the regional action plan for implementation of the New Urban Agenda in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Arab strategy for housing and sustainable urban development, the ESCAP Regional Partners Forum and the harmonized regional framework for the implementation and monitoring of the New Urban Agenda in Africa.

Reporting and monitoring of the Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement establishes an Enhanced Transparency Framework (ETF) designed to build trust and confidence that all countries are taking steps to meet their national climate targets as defined in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The ETF under the Paris Agreement builds on the current reporting and verification system under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. For developed countries, this is the greenhouse gas inventories and the International Assessment and Review process; for developing countries, this is the International Consultation and Analysis process. All countries must submit biennial reports.

Overview of the Enhanced Transparency Framework © The transparency rulebook adopted at Katowice

An analysis reveals that close to 70 per cent of the submitted NDCs to implement the Paris Agreement show clear urban references.

Heads of delegations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference which established the Paris Agreement.

3. The IUC programme and its contribution to the 2030 Agenda, the New Urban Agenda, and other international frameworks

The IUC programme

Funded by the European Union and running from 2016 to 2020, the IUC programme aims to improve the basis for cities to implement sustainable urban development, to increase and promote subnational engagement on climate change and sustainable energy, and to improve the basis for regions to implement innovation strategies.

The IUC programme has three components:

a. City-to-city cooperation on sustainable urban development

In addition to cities from EU Member States, cities from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, India, Japan, Mexico, Peru and the United States were eligible to join the programme. European Union cities were paired with cities from outside of Europe for a period of at least 18 months. In this time, each pairing was tasked with developing a local action plan that outlined a pilot project to jointly work on.

b. Sub-national action under the Global Covenant of Mayors initiative

Cities and other sub-national bodies were encouraged to join the Global Covenant of Mayors. Under this initiative, local governments voluntarily commit to reduce emissions and pursue ambitious energy targets. Regional covenants in Asia (India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam) and the Americas (Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the United States) are supported through the IUC programme.

c. Inter-regional cooperation on innovation for local and regional development

The third component pairs regions from Latin America and the Caribbean with European regions to further innovation and competitiveness. The programme aims to stimulate the development of regional strategies based on the European experience of Smart Specialization, to involve the private sector through innovative SMEs, and to promote international value chains. Twenty regions were selected in cooperation with national authorities in six countries – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru – and matched with regional European Union counterparts.

A fourth IUC component has become operational in 2020, focusing on supporting the development and operationalisation of the Partnership for Smart and Sustainable Urbanisation for India and the EU. The Partnership will promote knowledge sharing and exchange of experience on urban policy issues, in line with the New Urban Agenda.

The IUC programme’s contribution to international agendas

Component 1 (City-to-City Cooperation) and Component 3 (Regional Innovation) of the IUC programme partially aim to create opportunities for European Union businesses in partner countries, thereby externalising the Europe 2020 Strategy, the European Union's agenda for growth and jobs for the current decade. The Strategy “emphasises smart, sustainable and inclusive growth as a way to overcome the structural weaknesses in Europe's economy, improve its competitiveness and productivity and underpin a sustainable social market economy.”

The primary focus of the IUC programme, however, is a contribution to international agendas: the programme aims to advance the Urban Agenda for the EU, the New Urban Agenda and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Urban Agenda for the EU is in turn a key delivery mechanism for the New Urban Agenda. The programme also covers climate change and sustainable energy, therefore contributing to the Paris Agreement.

City pairings and the Urban Agenda for the EU

As outlined above, cities are well-positioned to contribute to achieving the SDGs, guided by the New Urban Agenda, and to make progress towards climate and energy targets under the Paris Agreement.

Through the IUC programme, 81 city pairings worked on a variety of themes and contributed to the SDGs. The work of each pairing often covered more than one SDG and touched on several topics.

As the table below indicates, the topics of the IUC programme correspond largely to the themes covered by the Urban Agenda for the EU.

Throughout the programme, the city pairings fine-tuned the themes to better correspond to their local realities and priorities.

The table below gives an overview of the themes chosen by the city pairings, based on an analysis of submitted local action plans.

Thematic choices of city pairings

City pairings and the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development

Through their engagement in the IUC programme, cities contribute directly to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. Not surprisingly, most cities referred to SDG 11 (urban development) and SDG 8 (economic growth and employment) as their areas of cooperation. Many cities also worked jointly on SDG 9 (infrastructure, industrial development and innovation) and SDG 12 (consumption and production). SDG 6 (water and sanitation) was the focus of several city pairings. This was particularly true for pairings with cities from India. SDG 1 (no poverty), SDG 2 (zero hunger), and SDG 14 (life below water) were not targeted by any city pairing.

SDGs indicated by city pairings. Most cities worked on more than one Goal. © Data from the IUC Secretariat methodology taskforce, November 2019

The Global Covenant of Mayors and its contribution to the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement

The second component of the IUC programme focuses on regional implementation and support to the Global Covenant of Mayors in Asia and the Americas. Through these activities, the IUC programme has a strong focus on climate change mitigation and access to energy and therefore contributes to the achievement of the Paris Agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

How regional innovation contributes to the 2030 Agenda

The third component of the IUC programme encourages regions to collaborate to promote innovation, competitiveness and new opportunities for their citizens. Smart Specialization Strategies have been used by the regional pairings as a policy vehicle to discover innovation potential. This component contributes directly to SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure) and SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth).

Examples of cities and regions contributing to SDGs

The IUC programme brought about diverse city and regional action. Themes as disparate as gender equality, flood management, freight infrastructure and climate change mitigation were addressed by cities and regions.

Mannheim and Chongqing – a direct freight rail connection

The German city of Mannheim (300,000 inhabitants) and the Chinese city of Chongqing (30 million inhabitants) agreed to work together on SDG 8 “Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all” and SDG 9 “Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation”.

Through their collaboration in the IUC programme, the cities decided to establish a direct freight rail connection that responds to the demand of the private sector. Such a connection strengthens Mannheim’s profile as a logistics hub for freight transport in Europe.

The Chongqing-Mannheim shuttle was opened in October 2018. A freight train departs roughly every week and takes about 18 days to cover the 11,200 km distance between the two cities, going via Malaszewicze (Poland), Brest (Belorussia), Dostyk (Kazakhstan) and Alashankou (China).

The collaboration was possible thanks to a series of reciprocal visits and the support of the Chinese national government through the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).

The Chongqing-Mannheim shuttle was opened in October 2018. A freight train departs roughly every week and takes about 18 days to cover the 11,200 km distance between the two cities

Both cities agreed on the following joint actions:

1. Establishing a direct railway connection between Mannheim and Chongqing to reduce time and costs for freight transport between the two cities (contributing to the Belt and Road Initiative, which is supported by the European Union and China).

2. The establishment of a Chongqing representative office in Mannheim and a Mannheim representative office in Chongqing.

3. The organisation of urban development conferences in Chongqing and Mannheim to bring together policymakers and businesses for in-depth discussion on topics such as the impact of advanced manufacturing for cities and urban planning, industry 4.0, mobility, etc.

The forward-looking city cooperation received wide-spread media attention and international recognition through an event at the 9th World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) in 2018.

For Mannheim and Chongqing, the IUC programme was pivotal in enabling efficient collaboration between the cities. The swift progress and results were possible thanks to the high-level support of both the European Commission and the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) of the People’s Republic of China, thereby involving the local, national and supra-national levels.

Parma and Fredericton - Increase female participation in local government leadership

The cities of Parma (Italy) and Fredericton (Canada) worked together on gender equality in local government leadership.

The pairing decided to create a methodology to assess and identify obstacles to the development of women’s careers in public administrations. This was done with the help of the University of Parma.

The methodology being developed will examine the impact of legislative intervention on barriers to female participation in local government leadership positions. It is foreseen that this methodology will not only be transferable to other cities but will be applicable to other marginalized segments of the population.

The first step in defining the methodology has been to collect feedback from both cities on the experiences of women working in the public administrations. The second stage will involve the collection of data sets on agreed criteria that will allow for comparability between the two city contexts. The final stage will see an assessment to determine barriers to the professional progression of women, with an analysis of the similarities and differences between the two cities.

Through the IUC programme, the pairing is contributing to SDG 5 “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. Parma and Fredericton were the only pairing that focused on gender equality.

Barcelona and New York City - Work on innovative housing solutions

Barcelona (Spain) and New York City (USA) jointly explored measures to make housing in their cities more affordable for the local population.

Each city realised that the cost of housing had reached untenable levels and was keen to exchange information on existing measures and potential strategies to address this, both from a political and technical perspective. The two cities witnessed a growth in the homeless population as a result of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, primarily due to a rise in foreclosures and evictions. These issues encouraged the cities to exchange experiences around tenant protections and ways to serve extremely low-income households.

As part of their work, Barcelona and New York City explored the use of public-community partnerships, as well as incorporating the use of new technologies in housing construction and management.

Barcelona (Spain) and New York City (USA) jointly explored measures to make housing in their cities more affordable for the local population.

The cities jointly launched the Affordable Housing Challenge in November 2018, with a winning proposal identified in May 2019. The proposal focused on the use of vacant or under-utilized urban spaces to promote new housing. It is now being turned into two pilot projects, one in each city.

New York City has received $1.65 million in grant support from a U.S.-based non-profit organization, Enterprise Community Partners, to foster a city network of Community Land Trusts (CLT), a system whereby a non-profit, community-based organisation owns land and maintains control or oversight of homes located on that land.

Barcelona is looking at the legal implications of implementing the CLT model in the city and how it could complement its existing Cooperative Housing programme, also based on the separation between the ownership of the land (currently held by the city) and the ownership of the building (currently held in lease by housing cooperatives).

Barcelona and New York have found that each city has different levels of autonomy in tackling housing - for example, New York City can issue bonds and use other financing tools to facilitate affordable housing that Barcelona cannot (at least as of now). New York City also has instruments for regulating rental prices for certain types of affordable housing stock, whereas only the national government has the authority to regulate rental prices in Spain. Despite these differences, both cities are implementing similar strategies, such as the introduction of mandatory inclusionary housing, with a certain percentage of units to be designated as affordable in all new developments.

Through their collaboration, the city pairing contributes to SDG 11, particularly target 11.1 By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums. Furthermore, the cities contribute to SDG 10 “Reduce inequality within and among countries” and to its target 10.2 By 2030, empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.

Examples from the Global Covenant of Mayors

Under the IUC programme, cities have become new signatories to the Global Covenant of Mayors in each region. Four helpdesks and websites have been set up for the provision of technical assistance to cities in the regions covered by the programme.

Covenant cities share a long-term vision of low-carbon, resilient urban areas that provide universal access to clean and affordable energy. Cities’ participation in thematic working groups, trainings, and knowledge management activities through the network and an on-line platform allow information to be shared and experience to be exchanged.

The IUC programme supports cities to join the Global Covenant of Mayors, helping them to unite on energy and climate change. The regional secretariats support dialogue with cities, constitute a reference point on issues related to energy and climate change, and provide technical support (through a helpdesk).

Iskandar Malaysia Region - Aspires towards low-carbon development

The Iskandar Region of Malaysia is located in the State of Johor and made up of five local authorities, with a total of around 2 million inhabitants.

Iskandar Malaysia faces several climate challenges, such as the emission of greenhouse gases from industry and commerce, as well as flash floods, water supply issues and pollution. The frequency and intensity of the floods are expected to increase.

To advance on these challenges, the Region joined the Global Covenant of Mayors in November 2017.

In 2012, the Regional Development Authority issued the Low Carbon Society Blueprint 2025. The Blueprint has served as a guide for policymakers, businesses, NGOs and others on going green.

It is complemented by Low Carbon Society Action Plans specifically crafted for each of the Region’s local authorities.

An important element of the strategy is public awareness. Over 400 schools were reached by the Iskandar Malaysia Eco Life Challenge which looked at energy consumption by households.

The region’s ambition is to achieve a 58 per cent carbon reduction of greenhouse gas emission intensity in 2025 compared to 2010.

Iskandar’s engagement has already yielded results, such as a 13 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions intensity during the period of 2010-2017.

To further action on climate challenges, the Region realized it needed to secure government support, buy-in from local stakeholders, cooperation with the wider global community, and high-quality data.

The Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA) spearheads climate planning. Plans can only translate to concrete results if they have political support from the State of Johor and from the region’s five local authorities. This required the IRDA to meet regularly with the State. Through this process, the IRDA gained governmental recognition and their Blueprint was embedded in State of Johor policies across sectors. The State has also established a Johor Low Carbon Council as a platform and decision-making body to discuss, plan and monitor the Low Carbon Society programme at the state level.

The IRDA worked closely with local-level agencies and private sector organisations in the implementation of Action Plans.

Given the comprehensive nature of the programme, its development, implementation and monitoring have all necessitated securing outside financial support. Iskandar turned to the international community to tackle this challenge. The Region secured funding for a five-year project through the Science and Technology Research Partnership for Sustainable Development, funded by two Japanese agencies, which financed research used to develop the Blueprint and Action Plans.

To fill data gaps, IRDA is setting up a new, central body responsible for climate data gathering, management, monitoring and analysis, known as Iskandar Malaysia Urban Observatory.

The IRDA understood that the goals and planning laid out in the Low Carbon Society Blueprint must be paired with climate monitoring and reporting to ensure effectiveness. Climate planning has thereby led the Region to now release regular, comprehensive greenhouse gas inventories, which will be supported by the Global Covenant of Mayor’s reporting framework.

Examples from innovation for local and regional development

In total, 20 regional pairings from Latin American (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru) and European territories have taken part in the IUC programme.

European Union regions with an interest in the IUC programme were assessed based on three criteria:

  1. Ability to support the development or implementation of a Smart Specialization Strategy
  2. Ability to leverage joint new projects
  3. Ability to develop new business opportunities

In parallel, the Joint Research Centre collaborated with UN DESA to develop a methodology on Smart Specialization. This approach aims to achieve the SDGs at the local level through innovation and with the involvement of the local communities.

Cantabria and Chihuahua - Collaborate on smart tourism, biomedicine and agriculture

The Spanish region of Cantabria and the Mexican region of Chihuahua started working together through the IUC programme in November 2017. The regions had a good basis for collaboration as they share not only the same language, but similar levels of devolution, as regions in Spain and Mexico both have the mandate to implement public policies.

The Spanish region of Cantabria and the Mexican region of Chihuahua focused their collaboration on a diverse array of topics, including biomedicine, agriculture, and smart tourism.

The pairing focused their collaboration on a diverse array of topics, including biomedicine, agriculture, and smart tourism. Tourism is a major topic for both regions and the pairing has elaborated a plan for digital tourism, drawing on Cantabria’s experience with smart tourism. The regions are looking for funding from the Inter-American Development Bank, as well as from national level and European Union sources, to help implement their prospective measures.

Chihuahua showed great interest in learning from Cantabria’s experience of developing an innovation strategy, with the long-term aim of developing a similar innovation strategy for their region. Cantabria agreed to share the methodology they used to help Chihuahua create a local version.

Cantabrian colleagues were impressed by the depth and breadth of initiatives rolled out by Chihuahua related to working with entrepreneurs and the range of public policies the region has implemented despite limited resources.

Through their collaboration, both regions contribute to SDG 9 “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation”.

4. Lessons learnt and considerations for the next phase

Based on its decade-long experience of working with cities, national governments and international organizations, UN-Habitat proposes several forward-looking approaches to best build on the current phase and to maximize the impact of a future iteration of the IUC programme.

The main recommendations are:

  • The programme can be further strengthened by building on the European Union and United Nation’s long experience of integrating different levels of government and working with thematic hubs
  • Articulate different IUC components in an integrated manner and include a drive for innovation and Smart Specialization at the city level
  • Link with the New Urban Agenda Platform to give more visibility and an additional opportunity to share lessons learnt

a) Enhanced focus on multi-level governance

The European Union has embraced multi-level governance in the past decades. Directly impacting cities, the Urban Agenda for the EU brings together the local, national and European Union level and helps make the principle of subsidiarity work.

The focus on potential benefits for multi-level governance is well illustrated by the city pairings presented previously. For instance, the city paring of Mannheim and Chongqing, who established a direct freight rail connection, benefitted from high-level support by both the European Commission and the Chinese National Development Commission. In China, the national government appoints cities that can participate in programmes such as the IUC and has therefore considerable influence on what can be achieved by city pairings. In Europe, railway regulations are subject to both the European and national level, which defines the framework in which a local government must operate.

The city pairing of Parma and Fredericton worked on increasing female representation at the municipal administration. While this is a local undertaking, it makes reference to national frameworks on gender equality such as the Italian Constitution or the Canadian Human Rights Act. At the European level, frameworks such as the strategic engagement for gender equality 2016-2019 inform efforts on gender equality; this framework aims to increase female labour market participation and the economic independence of women and men.

The cities of Barcelona and New York investigated ways to make housing more affordable for low-income residents. While local solutions need to be devised and implemented, there is a limit to what can be done without taking into consideration the national level. In Spain, for example, regulating rental prices is a competence of the central government and cities currently do not have the right to issue housing bonds. At the same time, housing is one of the work streams of the Urban Agenda for the EU with the goal to better enable cities to provide housing to a wide range of the population. For these reasons, the impact of local government could be enhanced through integrated multi-level governance.

Cantabria and Chihuahua jointly worked on strengthening tourism and innovation. The regions are currently seeking funding from the national and supra-national level (the European Union and the Inter-American Development Bank). Tourism as a theme is a good illustration of the need for different levels to work together: for example, tourist visas are granted by the national government; airports where many tourists arrive can be overseen by national, regional or local authorities; tourism contributes to the local economy, can have an impact on the local housing market and generates global emissions; and funding for investments into sustainable tourism can come from the local, regional, national or supra-national level.

For urban cooperation programmes, having a narrow focus on cities runs the risk of limiting the impact and overarching sustainability. In countries with a high degree of centralization, it is difficult to work with the local level without the approval and constructive involvement of the national authorities. In other settings it can be counterproductive in the long run to ignore the national level, given the limited remit of cities as discussed above.

URBACT has developed a series of processes and tools, also named the “URBACT method”. This allows an environment that favours learning through practice. © The URBACT Method, Urbact.eu

b) Organising city pairs and groups as thematic hubs

The IUC Secretariat invited cities to apply to the programme and then centrally matched each European city with a city from a third country. These pairings have worked well where cities identified common interests and, in some instances, could build on a previous partnership.

Anecdotal feedback indicates that bilateral cooperation between city pairs was at times limited by a lack of lasting engagement and in some cases hampered by language barriers. Some city pairings considered the duration of the programme to be too short. The two-city setup limited the number of themes as well as the number of local and external partners a city could engage with and made it more difficult to involve external experts that could further the learning process through additional input.

For the second phase of the programme as of 2021, UN-Habitat and several cities suggest changing the pairing modality and graduating to a more complex organization of the cities in thematic hubs, based on the experience gained under the first edition of the IUC programme, the URBACT methodology, and UN-Habitat programmes.

c) Articulate different IUC components in an integrated manner and include drive for innovation for city cooperation

The IUC programme entails complementary work streams that stem from differing origins. From the perspective of the cities, it can be beneficial to articulate the components in an integrated manner. The components could also cross-fertilize each other and thereby enhance the programme’s overall impact. For instance, both the IUC component on city-to-city cooperation and the IUC component on the Global Covenant of Mayors comprise important elements of mutual learning and exchange.

As cities may lack an understanding of the articulation of the current programme components, these could be presented as different yet integrated options under the same umbrella.

Each component of the programme was supported by a methodological task force which provided a solid backbone for exchanges, mutual learning and the drafting of action plans. For the second phase of the IUC programme, synergies could be found between the methodologies and guidance documents issued for cities and regions.

The methodology of innovation by Smart Specialization is an important approach in the IUC programme. It has been successfully applied at the regional level in both Europe and Latin America and has been fostered by regional exchanges between continents. Based on its success, it deserves broader introduction to the collaboration of subnational actors.

Similar to the approach for regions and countries, during a second phase of the IUC programme it would be worth exploring how systems of cities can identify their competitive advantages through systematic and constructive comparisons. This can be achieved by mapping the local, national and international context in search of examples to learn from and perform effective collaborations with.

This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of UN-Habitat and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.
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