Urban Transformation

How cities can take the lead on global crises

General view of Bogota, Colombia September 3, 2017. REUTERS/Henry Romero - RC1845606130

Data-led policy reduced murder rates in Bogota, Colombia. What can cities learn from each other? Image: REUTERS/Henry Romero

Julian Vercruysse
Civil Engineer, Mott MacDonald
Alice Charles
Lead, Urban Transformation, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Cities and Urbanization

In September, France’s interior minister announced that he was stepping down to take part in the mayoral election for Lyon, the country’s third biggest city. Other examples of this trend include Andy Burnham, who swapped his role as a UK MP to become the Mayor of Greater Manchester.

But should these career changes be considered as a step up rather than a step down? Issues such as climate change, migration, urban security and public health are all being spearheaded by cities’ leadership.

However, this action-driven agenda is often drowned out by the noise of national policies. Consequently, many city networks have emerged to provide a platform for cities to congregate and thus gain momentum and visibility.

The Global Parliament of Mayors (GPM) is an example of one such initiative. Its vision is to create a global governance platform where mayors from the Global North and South can meet to share best practice and vote on specific commitments on which they wish to focus – harnessing their collective power. After almost a decade of preparation, the first vote took place in October 2018 in Bristol, UK. Eighty mayors created what is now called the Bristol Declaration which focuses on three themes: migration, urban security and health.

Commitments include fostering urban safety by increasing citizen engagement and increasing collaboration with the private sector in innovative partnerships to improve health practices. Moreover, Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol and Executive Committee co-chair of the GPM, described it as a “watershed moment”, being the “first mass public commitment from mayors to implement the Global Compact for Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees.”

It is appropriate that these three themes were chosen owing to the growing evidence that collaboration between cities has been highly effective in tackling these challenges. This is often because of the aggravating effects of urbanization on these issues, creating more impetus for cities to act.

Urban security

For example, most homicides occur in urban areas. Moreover, cities which will experience the greatest growth are threatened by an increase in murder rates. Therefore, tackling the violence epidemic from a city perspective can potentially save millions of lives.

This is illustrated by Cali, Colombia, where the mayor, Dr Rodrigo Guerrero, pioneered DESEPAZ, a data-led policy which halved the murder rates from 126 per 100,000 to 56 between 1992 and 2014. Yet, his greatest achievement is inspiring other Colombian cities including Bogota and Medellin to analyse urban violence as a disease. In Medellin, the interventions – partly financed by cities in the Global North – resulted in a reduction of murder rates from 266 per 100,000 in 1991 to 30 in 2015.

This Colombian example highlights the importance of city networks to share best practice. Examples of networks that have achieved this at international level include the Strong Cities Network, which aims to share best-practice adopted by cities to fight against extremism; and the UN-Habitat’s Safer Cities Programme which has gained considerable experience in supporting more than 70 cities to tackle urban crime for more than 20 years.


Cities, owing to their higher population density, also have an aggravating effect on health. They place a stress on resources, leading to issues such as poor housing, malnutrition or greater vulnerability to epidemics. The effects of urbanization on health are so severe that the World Health Organisation (WHO) identified urbanization as a critical challenge for public health in the 21st century.

As a result, the WHO has created the Healthy Cities Network. During the 30 years of its existence, the network has strengthened the governance of more than 1,400 municipalities by providing political and technical support as well as building capacity.

Furthermore, the network has standardized the health assessment of citizens by developing the Healthy City Indicators (HCIs). This enables cities to have a universal benchmark to which they can compare themselves and thus has led to more evidence-based health policies. The network also enables smaller cities to have more access to joint projects with other cities which in turn has resulted in greater funding from institutions such as the European Union’s URBACT program.


As the World Economic Forum’s report on Migrations and its Impact on Cities identifies, migration is also highly influenced by urbanization as 92% of the immigrants in the US live in urban areas – this proportion goes up to 95% for the UK and Canada and 99% in Australia.

Cities with the highest foreign-born population (in %)
Cities with the highest foreign-born population (in %) Image: Migrations and its Impact on Cities, World Economic Forum

In 2017, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine determined that although first-generation immigrants are more costly to governments in comparison to the native-born, the “second generation are among the strongest fiscal and economic contributors in the US.” The overall, long-term economic impact of migrants has, therefore, been positive in the US. But migrants are not only drivers of cities’ economic growth: socially, migration can also have a positive impact by increasing diversity which, if properly integrated, will increase tolerance.

In the same year, the White House administration announced that it would withdraw from the UN’s Global Compact for Migration – the first internationally agreed commitment to improving cooperation on international migration. As a response, cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, as well as Paris, Milan and Amman, stepped in and signed a letter to lobby for the engagement of municipal authorities in the negotiations for the Global Compact for Migration. Their argument is that owing to the decisions taken at the national level, the success of inclusion policies for migrants are now even more dependent on a city’s resources and will.

However, referring to cities as the frontline for the inclusion of migrants only looks at one side of the challenge. Cities are also essential to reducing the brain drain faced by the so-called “departure cities”. As Yvonne Aki Sawyerr, the mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone, stated during the GPM Summit, one must also consider the impact that emigration has on departure cities. It’s often young and resourceful individuals who leave hoping for a better future. This creates a vicious circle as the exodus of talent from the economy results in fewer opportunities being created locally, increasing the incentive for talent to leave.

Therefore, there is a need to create a partnership between departure cities and arrival cities, to share the benefits and challenges of migration, for example, a coalition of the willing for cities under the Global Compact of Migration.

World Cities Day

This article was published on World Cities Day, created to promote cooperation between the UN member states on issues related to urbanization. National-level discussions on how shifting populations will affect policy are certainly important, but the initiative only lightly touches on the role of cities themselves in tackling these issues.

The examples showcased in this article highlight the increasing importance of strong city leadership in tackling these universal challenges. If we are to harness this momentum, platforms such as the GPM that capitalize on inter-city collaborations are vital: only when gathered together will cities have the presence they deserve on the world stage.

World Cities Day should, therefore, serve not only as an opportunity for national governments to share how they are managing urbanization but also as a platform to advocate the importance of involving city networks in national and international decision-making.

The authors would like to thank Peter MacPhail, Managing Director at Aspen Partnerships, for his invaluable support in writing this article.

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Related topics:
Urban TransformationGlobal CooperationGlobal Risks
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