Opinion: Global challenges, local solutions — The new international role of cities

Children at a playground in Montréal. Photo by: Espace pour la vie

“Think globally, act locally.’’

This isn’t just a slogan. It’s a deep conviction shared by a growing number of elected officials, experts and citizens around the world: Cities — especially the large ones — can and must play a leading role in solving the complex problems of our time.

This new mission is driven by growing urbanization, which is happening world-wide; more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. This proportion will reach two-thirds by 2050, according to forecasts by the United Nations.

What is more, these 21st century priority issues are encouraging cities to exercise leadership while pushing other governments to recognize their vital roles. Fighting climate change, the rise of social inequalities, the management of living together and the prevention of radicalization: These are all issues that go beyond borders and are challenging policymakers today.

So, while national governments must adjudicate discussions about these complex issues among their populations, cities are often acting without waiting for permission.

Living together: Montréal and cities at the forefront

The issue of “living together” is a marvellous example of this leadership and the proactivity of the world’s cities to find innovative solutions to the public problems of our era.

In 2015, some 25 mayors from all over the world met in Montréal for the Living Together Summit. A year later, we announced the creation of the International Observatory of Mayors on Living Together, a platform for exchanges on best practices in cohesion, inclusion and urban safety that now includes 35 cities on four continents.

In 2016, in the wake of the arrival of thousands of Syrian immigrants to Québec and Canada, Montréal also innovated by establishing the Bureau d’intégration des nouveaux arrivants à Montréal (New Immigrants Integration Office of Montréal). By relying on the cooperation of many socioeconomic groups, we were able to assist families seeking housing, to create the “Info-aide réfugiés” (“Info-help for refugees”) line, and to fund several cultural activities and reception/integration organizations.

These city-managed initiatives foster the development of pluralistic societies based on sharing and inclusion. Even so, local governments must remain vigilant to maintain the values that facilitate living together. In recent years, the violent radicalization phenomenon — because it threatens the safety of individuals and the security of our social fabric — has become a real problem for society.

“From now on, local governments are indispensable players for addressing the global challenges of the 21st century.”

— Denis Coderre, mayor of Montreal and president of Metropolis

Therefore, we must also be proactive. As a result, the City of Montréal, in cooperation with local partners, also established the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalisation Leading to Violence in 2015. The first organization of its kind in North America, the center quickly demonstrated that it was responding to a need: Several months after being established, the center had received more than 600 calls and carried out roughly 150 direct interventions by psychologists and social workers with families worried about the behavior of a loved one.

‘Sanctuary cities’

In parallel, while refugee immigration and reception are raising resistance on both sides of the Atlantic, local leaders and cities are still expressing their solidarity and opening their doors.

I am reminded of Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, who called upon her fellow citizens to “fill the streets” of the second largest city in Spain for a walk entitled “We want to welcome,” in February. Some 160,000 people then demonstrated to the European leaders their desire to take in more refugees.

I think of those many sanctuary cities that enable vulnerable immigrants to live without the fear of being deported or reported to the immigration authorities. Montréal very proudly adopted this status in February, taking its cue from Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, New York, Toronto and Vancouver, among others.

These actions are right in line with the commitments adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations at the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, in 2016, as part of the New Urban Agenda. Member states then committed “to ensuring full respect for the fundamental rights of refugees, displaced persons and migrants, regardless of their migration status” and above all, “to support the cities accepting them.”

A view of the city of Montréal at sunset. Photo by: Nicolas Abou

International recognition and urban diplomacy

This specific recognition by the U.N. of the crucial role of cities in managing migration issues is significant. In 2015, the U.N. also identified cities as key players in achieving its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. In short, the contribution of cities is increasingly being recognized internationally.

At the same time, a new form of international relations — urban diplomacy — is emerging. Metropolis, the world association of major metropolises, for which I am the president, is one of its manifestations. Bringing together decision-makers of 140 major cities around the world, its objective is to uphold the interests of cities and their citizens by helping them better deal with local and global issues. Metropolis has also launched an appeal to respect the values of inclusion and openness, especially regarding the rights of migrants and the most vulnerable populations.

It is in this spirit that our 12th World Congress, which will take place in Montréal in June, will be held under the theme “Global Challenges: Major Cities in Action.” This will be an opportunity for local governments to find the best possible answers to the issues that concern their citizens, as part of a new international urban agenda.

Lastly, to respond adequately to global issues and urban challenges, an increasing number of cities are calling for a review of their governance models, greater political autonomy and the flexibility needed to carry out this new role. Mexico City, for one, adopted its first internal constitution in Feb. 2017. Meanwhile, Montréal saw its status as a “metropolis” formally recognized by the government of Québec in Dec. 2016, and was also given increased authority in immigration and economic development, among other policy areas.

Therefore, the trend is well underway. From now on, local governments are indispensable players for addressing the global challenges of the 21st century. Cities, including Montréal, have every intention to assume this new role fully and effectively.

Over six weeks, Devex — along with our partners Agence Française de Développement, BearingPoint, UN-Habitat, and XII Metropolis World Congress — will explore what it takes to build a successful smart city, how climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies are being implemented, and how actors in the global development community are working together toward common goals and engaging local communities in an inclusive way. Join us as we examine what it takes to create our smart cities of the future by tagging #SmartCities and @Devex.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Denis Coderre

    The Honourable Denis Coderre was elected mayor of the city of Montréal on Nov. 3, 2013. He is also president of the Montréal Metropolitan Community, which includes all 82 municipalities of the Montréal urban area. Previously, Mr. Coderre served as member of the Canadian Parliament for the Montréal-area constituency of Bourassa from 1997 to 2013, where he was re-elected six times. He was appointed to several federal ministerial functions and other positions within the government of Canada, including minister of citizenship and immigration, president of the Queen's Privy Council, minister responsible for the Francophonie, secretary of state for amateur sport, special advisor to the prime minister on Haiti, and federal interlocutor for Métis and non-status Indians.