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Cities as Security Agents

May 24, 2010

Michele Acuto in Diplomatic Courier:

As the Shanghai Expo opens, the world is reminded—through a showcase of visions and pavilions—of the role of the urban in everyday 21st century life. The theme of the fair, “Better City, Better Life” stands as a memento to the mounting salience of cities in defining the contemporary human environment and, conversely, the challenges it faces from sustainability to climate change and, indeed, security. Yet, it would be easy, as many of the Expo participants certainly do, to dismiss the ‘urban’ as a mere place where such solutions have to be found and implemented.

A closer look at the international role of the city could tell diplomacy practitioners and scholars a very different story. Cities have demonstrated the capacity to develop cooperation forms that, in structure and competences, certainly match state-based institutions. For example, numerous metropolises such as London, Barcelona, Washington or Seoul gathered in 2004 in the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) organization that fosters inter-city collaboration, and multilateral assistance on matters of human security with a focus on gender and environment. Members of the UCLG are today not only global cities, but also medium-sized metropolises such as Porto Alegre, Fes, and Tianjin, while UN agencies and other international bodies hold observer and collaborative statuses within the UCLG’s framework.

Notably, this governance mechanism has resulted in a key conference in July 2008 that has directly promoted “city diplomacy” as a security mechanism. This approach has predominantly focused on the role of cities in peacebuilding, conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction, with the urban taking up many traditional ‘governmental’ roles. [More]

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