Published on Sustainable Cities

A League of their Own: Cities Working Together for a Better World

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In 1845 Alexander Cartwright, a Brooklyn shipping clerk, drew up a formal set of rules and established the Knickerbockers Baseball Club. Before that baseball, or rounders, had players in different cities running in different directions, using different size balls on different size fields. Cities like Philadelphia and Boston all had their own rules, but in the end New York City’s rules prevailed and a common game was launched.

Cities now need a new league to foster cooperation and clearly pursue a set of common objectives. Cities count, and the world is increasingly counting on them. The world’s 600 largest cities make up more than 60% of the world’s economy. Even more striking, the world’s 50 largest cities, by population, are home to more than 500 million people, have an annual GDP more than $9.6 trillion (larger than China), and generate more than 2.6 billion tonnes of CO2 per year (more than the world’s 100 smallest countries combined, and if a country, these cities would be the third largest emitter).

In the wake of global calamities, countries have come together to put in place measures to prevent re-occurrence – so why not cities? Like The League of Nations (post World War 1); the United Nations and IMF/World Bank (post World War 2) and more recently the G20’s attempts to address global financial architecture, how about a League of Cities? As the world rapidly urbanizes, a League of Cities (LoC) can play a unique and important role in focusing on the politics of cooperation and a common future, rather than the politics of power.

C40, a large-city club addressing climate change, is an excellent start; so too ICLEI, Local Governments for Sustainability, the Global City Indicator Facility, Cities Alliance, and United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and its big-city club, Metropolis. In addition almost every country has its own municipal association.

Arguably yet another city club would be a distraction for an already overloaded municipal agenda. But an association made up of cities that deals with the future of cities is timely and could be designed to maximize impacts while having modest demands on member cities.

National governments face a huge challenge in dealing with ‘big picture’ global issues like currencies, immigration, environmental threats, and access to resources. In many countries there is still a bias toward rural residents, almost all of whom have a greater per capita political voice than their urban compatriots. Cities are quickly realizing that they cannot delegate all of their issues to ‘senior levels’ of government. The time is ripe for cities to create a league of their own.

The LoC could be an amalgam of existing city clubs. It would likely not replace any city organization, or national – international dialogues. And as anyone who’s worked with multi-stakeholder associations knows, the devil’s in the details. Which cities should participate, what’s the agenda, who pays? All critical questions; one possible response:

The League of Cities can be made up of the world’s 50 largest cities by population and economy (about 75 cities in 2010 considering overlap). Membership could vary based on economic and population growth (this effectively blends ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ country perspectives, keeps the League relevant over the next two decades as cities welcome an additional 2 billion residents, and provides a clear way to determine membership). As a minimum task for the League, an annual rotating member-city hosted conference would bring together participating mayors and chief city administrators to discuss the upcoming year’s activities to: (i) develop common metrics and standards; (ii) encourage equity between and within cities; (iii) enhance globalization, i.e., freer flow of ideas, capital and people; and (iv) promote efforts that reduce common threats, especially environmental and social. Mayors and administrators could be tasked with representing their entire metropolitan area, not just their specific city, as well as smaller cities nationally and internationally.

Current city clubs, as well as organizations working with cities like the World Bank, UN, WBCSD, WEF, and OECD could add a day or two to the annual conference for their specific needs. The event, just on its own, can potentially draw much needed attention to urban issues and the common future of cities. Large efficiencies and improved cooperation is possible. National governments and their agencies should welcome this enhanced focus on the needs and opportunities of cities since their economies are based on the success of their cities.

Even after Alexander Cartwright largely defined the rules of baseball, it took more than half a decade before today’s ‘major league baseball’ was established and the Boston Americans defeated the Pittsburg Pirates in the first “World Series” of 1903. Cities no longer have the luxury of time: the urgency for cities to work together globally has never been greater. One of the most important ways for all of us to win a more sustainable future is for cities to develop a world league of their own.


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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