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  • Laura Ortega-Boronat

The Steady Rise of City Networks in the Urban Age

The solution to the 21st century’s greatest challenges, such as climate change, sustainability, mass migration, and urbanization increasingly demand globalized parameters. Yet states, the classic unit of policy-making in international relations, are failing to provide rapid response to some of the direst threats facing humanity. Today, cities – the nodal points where the people, wealth, and crises of the world converge – are stepping forward to address global challenges by creating their own international organizations

Image: geralt (Pixabay license)

After pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords in June 2017, US President Donald J. Trump proclaimed his commitment to the reassertion of national sovereignty over internationalized politics. Depicting the environmental agreement as both detrimental for American taxpayers and jobs, and one which is exploited by the world to obtain American resources and aid money, he announced to a cheering audience, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” In an unexpected turn of events, both the mayors of Pittsburg and Paris responded to the President in a New York Times op-ed. They announced the establishment of an unprecedented global climate alliance among 7,400 cities worldwide to maintain the Paris Accords and to continue to cut carbon emissions – if necessary, in defiance of their national governments. They displayed a sense of global responsibility by stating they did so out of a sense of moral commitment to protect all citizens of the world. One can hardly think of a more fitting example of what has been termed the “glocalization” of world politics – the process by which, in an increasingly interconnected world, the practice of conducting business (and politics) increasingly responds to the simultaneous consideration of both local demands and global imperatives.


Governing people around the world increasingly means governing cities. A century ago, around 20 percent of the global population lived in urban areas. By 2030, that figure will climb to over 60 percent


As political scientist Benjamin Barber notes, in the 19th and 20th centuries the parochial and reactionary outlook of local politics contrasted with the international exposure and more globalized attitudes of national governments. Nowadays, however, the roles have been largely reversed: cosmopolitan outlooks and progressive policies such as rights advocacy, immigration absorption, and environmental proposals often arise at the urban level, rather than the national one. Mayors and coalitions of local governments have become diplomatic players in transnational municipal networks (TMNs), where they address a wide variety of topics ranging from global sustainability, resilience from disasters, climate action and inequality. Israel, as a leading global technological actor, has much to offer to cities around the world business-wise. Furthermore, sub-national outreach can often help build bridges to citizens in foreign countries where national governments have failed. However, for myriad reasons, Israel is regretfully almost entirely absent from the TMN scene. Global concern, local effect The most immediate reason for the rise of cities in the international arena seems to be demographic realities: governing people around the world increasingly means governing cities. A century ago, around 20 percent of the global population lived in urban areas. Today, over half of the world’s population lives in cities, and by 2030 that figure will climb to over 60 percent.5 Moreover, urban spaces concentrate wealth as well as people: 80 percent of global economic output is generated by cities. This figure gives leading metropolises such as New York, London, Tokyo and Singapore – some of which command bigger economies than G20 states – an unprecedented degree of leverage in world affairs. Additionally, cities are not only the focal points of the global economy, but the hotspots of its direst consequences. As the increasingly populated developing world urbanizes at an accelerated pace and megacities’ slums swell, smart urban planning is becoming a national imperative. International migration is also on the rise, as are refugee crises, the impact of which is mostly absorbed by cities. Large metropolises also have relatively more liberals and progressive residents: if their state adopts nationalist populist views and steps away from international initiatives, city dwellers can push for their cities to fill that void. Such progressive metropolitan policies are increasingly entering the international sphere. For example, hundreds of metropolitan immigrant hubs in the United States have declared themselves ‘Sanctuary Cities’ by enacting laws that rebuke the attempted deportations carried out by federal authorities. In Poland, Warsaw’s newly elected liberal mayor rebukes the rightwing government by announcing the establishment of an ‘LGTBI shelter’ in the capital.


Since cities are the main victims of global warming and migration flows, they are the most motivated to be the primary drivers and key executioners of policies addressing such challenges.


Environmental damage is also a matter of great concern: urban centers are responsible for 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and likewise face the gravest risks of environmental disaster. Most of the biggest global metropolises are on coastal lands and therefore dangerously exposed to phenomena such as the rise of the ocean levels, tsunamis, and hurricanes. Since cities are the main victims of global warming and migration flows, they are the most motivated to be the primary drivers and key executioners of policies addressing such challenges. The world’s demographic and economic trends are in the city leaders’ favor. Several analysts have predicted that as the number of city initiatives increases and becomes more established in multilateral politics, pressure to enhance the political capacity of local governments in international initiatives will substantially grow. The rise and impact of transnational municipal networks TMNs have experienced a fourfold increase since the 1980s and currently number over 200 worldwide. Some of these networks, such as the Climate Leadership Group (C40), United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), and Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), coordinate with thousands of cities worldwide. At their disposal are remarkable command and control capabilities in setting targets and taskforces, as well as track-two mechanisms to lobby other international actors, such as UN bodies or national governments. These organizations often circumvent nation-states in collaborating with international organizations (IOs), non-government organizations (NGOs), philanthropy and the private sector in all matters related to urban governance. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s mantra – “nations talk, cities act” – has come to embody this new type of international relations, which emphasizes practical learning, policy transfers and technocratic problem-solving over cumbersome state negotiations. The contribution of city networks to an emerging global governance architecture promises to reshape next-generation diplomacy. However, they do not constitute a zero-sum substitution or a direct challenge to state diplomacy. The international system continues to be state-based, since both the UN and international treaties hold nation-states as the makers and shapers of international law. Nonehteless, the advisory and lobbying capacity that city networks hold today in UN bodies means the voice of local governments is increasingly reflected in those laws. For instance, UCLG plays a key role in the 2030 Agenda and Habitat III negotiations as a consultation mechanism. Notwithstanding the friction that an increasing level of city independence is bound to generate with certain national governments, city networks are in fact enhancing states’ international standing. As institutional “hybrids” which combine public and private actors, TMNs promote states’ tech, industrial, and financial sectors through global private-public partnerships, enhancing their flagship cities’ livability to attract both capital and talent, or gaining soft power exposure through smart city branding.

Flooded waterways in Jakarta, the world's fastest sinking city, which struggles with rising water levels | Photo: World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr - Photo by Farhana Asnap/World Bank (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

TMNs are global service providers that offer their members platforms such as webpages, conferences, and workshops to present their profiles, best practices and success stories in order for them to pitch global investors, experts and policymakers. For example, the UCLG’s World Congress is a useful platform to attract new partners, since many NGOs, city networks, UN organizations and companies send representatives to its annual conference. City networks provide consultancy tools and advice for local governments, such as planning and tailoring action packages, issuing expert city advisors to monitor and implement policies that have proven successful elsewhere, and collecting and managing data. A notable example is UCLG and OECD’s “World Observatory of Sub National Government Finance and Investment”, a joint-venture, open-source database systematizing information on finance regulations and investment flows in the cities and regions of more than 120 countries. Moreover, some networks exert a form of soft power via commitment brokering. This occurs when networks compile, rank, and publish performance inventories of their members, as C40 does with carbon emissions data and other sustainability indicators. City networks are highly competitive. Powerful, technologically advanced, or optimally-performing cities seek to become elite stakeholders by getting their mayors elected to decision-making positions in world councils and regional steering committees (see below). On the other hand, less-established city players can climb up the global city ladder by integrating existing policy innovations and best-practices. By improving their own condition and sometimes even winning awards and placements, they potentially increase their global exposure and draw more foreign investments. Israel: One Town, on a Lonely Hill From water management and agrotech to cleantech and urban mobility, Israel, the self-proclaimed “Startup Nation”, has much to offer to the metropolises of the world. Indeed, the strength of Israel’s sustainability ecosystem should make its cities a focal point of policy tourism for developed and developing countries alike. And the value of Israeli talent is made evident by the fact that four out of ten winners of the 2019 “C40 Women4Climate Tech Challenge” were Israelis. It is almost paradoxical, then, that despite such a developed tech and sustainability sector, Israel remains almost entirely uninvolved in TMNs. Israeli cities are missing out even though Israel should, by all standards that measure such city-to-city organizations, be one of the most networked countries within TMNs. TMNs’ focus on sustainability serves as an excellent vehicle to consolidate and advance Israeli connections and technology. It can also lead Israeli diplomacy to heighten its status in UN bodies – one it has so far been denied due to long-standing biases. It is no coincidence that the most resounding victory for an Israeli-introduced resolution in the history of the organization, with 124 votes in favor and 37 abstentions, related to the use of technology for sustainable development.

Yet Israeli cities barely feature in TMNs. Neither Tel Aviv nor Jerusalem, Israel’s largest cities, are part of the elite Covenant of Mayors, which is coordinated by C40, UCLG and ICLEI and gathers the leaders of the greatest metropolises of the world to discuss climate initiatives and set targets. In contrast, Both Amman and Dubai hold membership in this exclusive leadership group. Dubai is the seat of the C40 steering committee for South and West Asia representing 11 regional megacities, and after only four years of joining the organization it has hosted a series of high-profile global events, such as the 2016 C40 Adaptation Conference and the 2019 Mass Transit workshop. Amman has held learning meetings for the UCLG-UN joint venture on innovative migration management and data collection, the Mediterranean City-to-City Migration Project (MC2CM).


Palestinians hold six seats in the UCLG World Council, while the only Israeli seat is held by the mayor of Lehavim, a town with less than 7,000 residents


Israeli cities have not hosted any comparable regional or global leadership initiatives in prominent TMNs. In fact, the only TMN where an Israeli city is getting some exposure is C40. Tel Aviv has recently joined the C40 City Solutions Program, which aspires to develop sustainability and mitigation policies.

Israel is residual in UCLG and, like in the UN – and as Tel Aviv is within the C40 framework – is detached from the Middle Eastern bloc. Moreover, Israel is the only OECD country, apart from Ireland, which has no presence in Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), a much more inclusive network than C40, uniting thousands of cities worldwide. By comparison, Sweden – a country similar to Israel in its technological bent and demographic weight – features 12 cities.

Moreover, Israel is the only OECD country, apart from Ireland, which has no presence in Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), a much more inclusive network than C40, uniting thousands of cities worldwide. By comparison, Sweden – a country similar to Israel in its technological bent and demographic weight – features 12 cities.

City- and regional-level diplomacy seeks to bypass state-to-state engagement in traditional hostile environments by creating relationships with international actors. It is thus hardly surprising that Palestinian municipalities are actively involved in some of these networks. The Jabaliah municipality in the Gaza Strip has joined ICLEI; Ramallah currently holds the presidency of the UCLG Middle East and West Asia committee on Smart Cities and Urban Mobility; Palestinian authorities act as co-presidents of all but one of this organization’s committees; and the president of the Association of Palestinian of Local Authorities (APLA) is part of its executive bureau, together with the president of the al-Dannieh region in Lebanon and the mayors of Amman, Tehran, Ankara, and three other major Turkish cities. Additionally, Palestinians hold six seats in the UCLG World Council, one of them held by the mayor of the City of Gaza. In contrast, the only Israeli seat with access to this network is held by the mayor of Lehavim, a southern town with less than 7,000 residents. Enter the matrix With all it stands to gain, Israel should use city platforms to establish unconventional diplomatic channels with traditionally reticent players, such as certain African or Muslim and Arab countries, by bringing technical solutions to local governors facing grave housing and environmental problems. This is practical, to-the-point diplomacy without the need for sensitive state visits by high-level officials. The multilateral nature of such platforms may contribute to diffusing, or at least easing, political tensions. European cities in particular stand out as the most networked in TMNs. In an era in which the supra-national nature of the EU has weakened state sovereignty, cities and economically powerful regions hold remarkable independent leverage in Brussels. Currently more than 300 regional and city governments have permanent offices in the European capital.


Israeli cities can establish independent “city diplomats” and attachés by opening an operations office in Brussels, just as London, Hamburg, Budapest, and Barcelona have done


Just as Israel has managed to bolster cooperation with Europe at the academic and security level in recent years, metropolitan Israel should enter the European ecosystem by joining the debates occurring at the city level. Israel could not only invest in European-based TMNs such as ICLEI and UCLG, but can also try to join specific European city initiatives by seeking partnerships with the EU. Another possibility is to create independent “city diplomats” and attachés by opening an office in Brussels, just as London, Hamburg, Budapest, and Barcelona have done. Tel Aviv would be the most obvious candidate for this pilot endeavor. Finally, engagement via city networks may contribute to peace and security. During the Cold War, pioneering twin city efforts facilitated conflict resolution by connecting European cities on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Today, the Municipal Alliance for Peace in the Middle East (MAP), a network of Israeli, Palestinian and international municipalities, works to overcome barriers by building trust between Israelis and Palestinians living on both sides of the Green Line. Practical knowledge-sharing and implementation through city networks may improve the daily lives and communications between residents of Israeli and Palestinian cities, where government-level politics are deadlocked. And while urban development cannot solve territorial disputes, it can deliver meaningful interim solutions and bring about proactive international engagement. Conclusion: Missing Out The diplomatic opportunities that city networks can offer to a tech-driven and internationally-minded state like Israel are significant. While individual cities’ benchmarking efforts, such as Tel Aviv Global, are useful initiatives, they miss out on the normative potential of emergent C2C institutions. Israeli cities and partnering companies have untapped potential to scale up in the most influential TMNs, not the least since prominence within these networks, unlike more rigid UN state-based structures, is largely performance and interest-based. Moreover, since the most important city networks are also connected to several UN bodies, they can also provide an indirect means to improve Israel’s position in the organization. As a concluding remark, it is important to note that more does not necessarily mean better in city networking, and that not all city networks are born equal. The world of TMNs is in constant flux, as councils and seats at their World Congresses change, new conglomerates created and public-private coalitions set up every day. American cities invest heavily in ICLEI and the Atlantic-led C40 for scaling and exposure, but have neglected UCLG, which has been European-dominated in the past. On the other hand, Australian cities and Paris have joined Citynet seeking partnership opportunities, despite it previously being an exclusively Asian network. Careful research and deliberations before choosing the right networks are crucial to determine the best courses of action for Israeli city diplomacy. While the novelty of such networks and their limited authority leaves a high degree of uncertainty as to their true value, their main advantage lies precisely in their flexibility, which allows ambitious policymakers to dare to dream their form and content. The “Startup Nation” must take up the glocalization challenge – not only in order not to be left behind, but also because it can and should take the lead. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs must collaborate closely with local constituencies to forecast, plan and experiment with TMNs, and lobby for Israeli private and public institutions to have a prominent voice in the world’s urban policy arena. If the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals are the future of the world economy, its politics will be played out in cities.


[1] Transcript of Trump's speech:

[3] E. Swyngedouw, 1997. “Neither Global nor Local: ‘Glocalization’ and the Politics of Scale.” in: Spaces of Globalization: Reasserting the Power of the Local, edited by Kevin R. Cox. New York: Guilford, pp.137-166

[6] Ibid.

[10] See for example:

M. Acuto, "Cities are Gaining Power in Global Politics – Can the UN Keep Up?", The Conversation, 14 September 2017; P. Khanna, Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization, London: Random House, 2016.

[11] E. Rapoport, M. Acuto, & L. Grcheva, Leading Cities: A Global Review of City Leadership, London: UCL Press, 2019.

[13] List of finalists:


Laura Ortega-Boronat is an MA Government student at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. She is currently conducting research on global city networks and decentralization trends in European politics.

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