World #CitiesDay: The Expanding Roles of Cities in U.S. Diplomacy

The numbers are astounding. More than half the world’s population now lives in cities and by 2030 that number will rise to 60 percent. By 2050, nearly 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. This data can be broken down by region. For example, between 2010 and 2050 the number of residents in Africa’s urban areas will increase from 400 million to 1.26 billion. The numbers can be broken further down by issue. Take economic production, for example, where 42 of the world’s 100 largest economic entities -- including corporations and nation states -- are now cities.

There is not a global challenge today -- whether countering climate change or violent extremism or encouraging inclusive economic growth -- that does not have an impact on urban environments and thus has urban solutions.

Two weeks ago, upwards of 40,000 representatives from nation-states, cities, civil society and the private sector all gathered in Quito, Ecuador for the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, better known as Habitat III. United States priorities at the conference included expanding access to finance for municipalities; harnessing data to improve urban sustainability and resilience; and increasing food, energy, and water security, especially among vulnerable urban populations.

The United States delegation represented a broad stakeholder approach needed to work across the local and national levels, including Mayor William A. Bell of Birmingham, Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland, Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City and Mayor Tony Vazquez of Santa Monica, as well as leading foundations such as the Ford Foundation and Kresge, and representation from a diverse number of U.S government agencies.

In his poem “The City,” Langston Hughes lays out ever so briefly and elegantly a city day. The city rises. It makes a song in “stone that sings.” It lies down at the end of the day. The sentiment of this poem is one familiar to many mayors across the country, as they know the business of a city happens every day -- it is not merely about conferences and negotiated agreements at the local, federal, or international level.

Coming out of Habitat III, it is clear the State Department’s work at the urban level will increase to meet critical foreign policy challenges. Consider, briefly, our recent engagement on three urban trends: Megacities such as London remain sites of cosmopolitan diversity and engines of global economic growth. This week, Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with British youth and London Mayor Sadiq Kahn to discuss the challenges we must all face together and the solutions that are being developed not only at the national level, but at the city level as well.

Meanwhile, secondary and tertiary cities are increasingly important sites of economic production and welcome nearly 70,000 new residents every day. United States diplomats must know these cities and their leaders. This is why two weeks ago U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker hosted Colombian mayors on the margins of the 5th United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders to discuss economic development and investment opportunities, and the role of public-private partnerships in spurring economic growth.

The influx of new residents into cities is putting strain on both urban and rural communities, as well as the complex food production and consumption linkages between the two. Through the Office of Global Food Security, the State Department is breaking down the traditional rural and urban silos and is instead looking at the food system continuum from rural to urban. The Office is working to do this through multilateral bodies such as G7 and APEC, as well as through the lens of climate change in secondary cities with partners such as C40 Cities.

For offices across the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC -- from the Bureau of Counterterrorism to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Science Affairs – as well as U.S. diplomatic missions around the world --  from Cairo to Quito – work at the city level is increasingly becoming a priority. It may well be World Cities Day, but the business of such diplomacy, like the business of cities themselves, takes place every day.

About the Author: Ian Klaus serves as Senior Adviser for Global Cities at the U.S. Department of State.

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City view of Dhaka. [UN photo]
Posted by R. Ian Klaus
October 31, 2016

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