Networking cities, policy learning and just sustainabilities

As national and international governments struggle with political inertia, particularly when it comes to addressing climate change and implementing sustainable development policies, cities have emerged as places of action and innovation and have formed trans-local municipal networks to share knowledge, their best practices and their expertise. The approach of tackling environmental issues locally is not a new one. In 1987, the Brundtland Report argued that since future cities will hold the majority of the world’s population they should be key to pursuing sustainable development (Betsill and Bulkeley 2006). Agenda 21, the voluntary sustainable development action plan agreed to during the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, encouraged municipalities to craft their own Local Agendas 21, and promoted the increased coordination between cities and towns around the world (Betsill and Bulkeley 2006).

Cities as sites of policy implementation and innovation

The agreement reached at COP21 – the 2015 Paris Climate Conference – warned that in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, global emissions must peak by 2020. To achieve this goal, swift and comprehensive action is needed at every level of government (C40 2016). Given such a short timeframe, cities have become models of policy implementation and innovation. Cities in one international network, C40 Cities, which is made up of over 80 megacities committed to climate action had already taken over 10,000 local climate adaptation and sustainable development initiatives to reduce carbon emissions by 2015 (C40 2016). Late that same year the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), a set of seventeen global goals with 169 specific targets to be met by 2030. Recognizing the critical role that cities play as implementers of climate action and sustainable development, the United Nations specifically created SDG 11, an urban goal to, “[m]ake cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” in part through urban planning that is participatory, integrated, and sustainable (United Nations 2015). In addition, the United Nations recognized local authorities (local and subnational governments) as one of nine major stakeholder groups through which participation in the SDG process would take place.

Cities as climate leaders

But why have cities emerged as climate leaders? The reasons can be synthesized into four primary drivers: vulnerability, adaptability, connectivity and responsibility. In 2014, 54 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. This number is expected to increase to 66 percent by 2050 (United Nations 2014). Fully three quarters of the world’s largest cities are coastal and others are located near major rivers, making them particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, flooding and climate shocks. And cities are major consumers of energy. Urban areas currently produce 70 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and are expected to produce around 2 billion tons of waste per year by 2030 (Acuto 2016). However, cities also have much more direct influence over their emissions, land use policy, energy use and sources, building codes and transportation development plans (among many other areas) than do nations, allowing municipal governments to more effectively implement climate and development policy (Toly 2008).

Cities having a strong mayor or governing council are much more likely to implement local climate initiatives as having strong local leadership and a larger strategic vision is key to comprehensive local action (Rosenthal et al. 2015). Early C40 Chairs have included the former mayors of New York (Michael Bloomberg) and London (Ken Livingstone); both of whom oversaw multiple environmental initiatives, such as PlaNYC and Congestion Charging during their mayoral tenures. There are two main predictors of membership in a city network: a city’s climate vulnerability (particularly coastal cities or cities in and around river deltas) and its “global-cityness”, which is a measure of city globalization and connectivity measured through international cultural, economic and political ties (Lee 2013). Intriguingly, municipal climate action is not highly correlated to national or state characteristics (Rosenthal et al. 2015), meaning cities can be climate leaders even if the country or state in which they are located is not.

Cities have also become concentrations of economic wealth, financial power and innovation, serving as headquarters that connect national and regional economies to the global economy and global markets (Lee 2013). According to Sassen, these cities, “where a multiplicity of globalization processes assume concrete, localized forms” are considered global cities (Sassen 2005). The emergence of these global, interconnected cities is contrary to the normative understanding of international politics as the arena of nation-states, and has been key to the creation of new trans-local spaces for climate action and sustainable development (Toly 2008). City networks are one manifestation of these trans-local spaces for communication, and form part of a new norm in international relations – that of global governance at the local level. Is this the precursor of Barber’s (2013) vision of a Global Parliament of Mayors or World Assembly of Cities?

City networks

What is a city network? The existence of trans-local municipal networks dates back at least to the Hanseatic League in Europe during the 13th century (Lee and van de Meene 2012). But since the 1980s there has been a proliferation of international city networks, particularly around climate change adaptation and mitigation. There are now over 200 city networks, 36 percent of which focus primarily on networking for climate change and sustainability initiatives (in contrast to just 9 percent that were environmentally-focused in the 1990s), with the rest focusing on governance, economics, or in other areas such as energy or culture (Acuto 2016). In contrast to international agreements made between nations which cities are then obliged or required to implement locally (vertical, or “top-down” coordination), city networks allow for member cities to collaborate in a horizontal way through inter-city relationships based on mutual interest (Mejía-Dugand et al. 2016). This type of horizontal coordination (also referred to as “middle-out”) is primarily for knowledge exchange and inter-city learning, but also fosters the creation of collective goals (such as the Compact of Mayors network), and the transplantation of innovative, sustainable policy and planning approaches.

The structure of city networks can vary. Some have centralized governance structures and others, like C40 Cities, are led by member cities who rotate leadership positions. Networks can be regional (such as the New England Municipal Sustainability Network or Eurocities), national (the US Conference of Mayors), or international (C40, ICLEI, 100 Resilient Cities). Since the end of the Cold War, new city networks have tended to be international in scope (Acuto 2016). City networks often have private or nonprofit partnerships, and these partnerships provide subject matter expertise, data sharing capabilities, and/or funding. The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives/Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) partners with Siemens and Mckinsey; C40 partners with the international engineering firm Arup, 100 Resilient Cities with the Rockefeller Foundation, the World Green Building Council with the Ford Foundation and others. City networks can either have open membership or invitation-only membership, which is usually given to cities that have demonstrated commitment to the network’s issue areas, as is the case with the C40 network.

Networks, inter-city sharing and policy learning

City networks operate primarily to foster collaboration among network members and the sharing of knowledge, best practices and expertise. And while there is a growing literature on ‘Sharing Cities’ (McLaren and Agyeman 2015) as examples of intra-city sharing, city networks can be thought of as examples of inter-city sharing. So how does this sharing and learning happen? Policy learning between cities in networks can be described in three distinct stages: information seeking, adoption and policy change (Lee and van de Meene 2012). Information seeking occurs when city officials employ their social networks or connections to access information from each other in both a formal and informal way, and this can take place within city networks through avenues such as conferences, meetings, expert and business partner consultations and through network publications. Adoption is when city actors adopt and perhaps modify what has been learned, and is primarily an internal process. The final stage, policy change, encompasses the adjusting of local policy goals and techniques given information learned during the first learning phase.

Factors that enhance inter-city learning are having a similar language, climate risk (for example sea level rise) and geography, sharing the same perception of climate risk and degree of local responsibility, and knowing of the other city’s success with climate or sustainable development initiatives (Lee and van de Meene 2012). Lee and van de Meene’s study of C40 cities found that learning between cities tended to take place in geographical clusters such as in North America and Europe, and that Asian, African and South American cities were more sporadically connected to each other and the northern clusters. Furthermore, global cities like New York and London were seen as models for policy and planning innovation by other cities and had the most incoming learning ties. On the other hand, Rio de Janeiro and Barcelona were found to have formed the most outgoing learning ties with other cities. But learning in a city network is not unidirectional. New York’s’ PlaNYC is modeled after Rio de Janeiro’s action plan and is itself a model for Rome (Lee and van de Meene 2012).

Where do equity and social justice fit in?

The framing of what “sustainable development” means is crucial to determining its outcomes. Despite the increasing rhetoric of equity and social justice in the policy and planning literature and in local action plans and city sustainability metrics, much sustainable development practice is still heavily geared towards environmental and ecological outcomes (see Green is not sustainable!). On the other hand, development that simultaneously addresses four policy principles or criteria, namely well-being and quality of life, meeting the needs of present and future generations, enabling justice and equity in terms of recognition, process, procedure, and outcome, and living within ecosystem limits can be considered “just sustainabilities” (Agyeman and Evans 2003, Agyeman 2013). In a recent study of 400 local sustainable development initiatives in 200 cities around the globe, Castán Broto and Westman found that most initiatives fell somewhere in between these two understandings of sustainable development, advancing one or more principles of just sustainabilities in either an explicit – or more often implicit – way (Castán Broto and Westman 2016).

Among the initiatives studied by Castán Broto and Westman, they found that different “just sustainabilities” criteria were more explicitly addressed in different parts of the world. For instance, initiatives that directly addressed well-being were clustered in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa; Latin America and the Caribbean region had the largest numbers of local initiatives that directly addressed equity and justice (Castán Broto and Westman 2016). Through trans-municipal networks, it is possible that cities with an “equity deficit” (Agyeman 2005), that is those which do not explicitly address equity and justice concerns in their local plans or actions currently could learn from municipalities in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean. Here, many cities have expanded their framing of sustainable development to explicitly incorporate more principles of just sustainabilities, especially in relation to wellbeing, equity and justice, thereby moving more localities towards a holistic interpretation of what sustainable development means in practice.

Network benefits and limitations

The benefits of network membership are many, including exposure to multiple different models and examples of policy innovation and planning initiatives, expertise sharing, and access to partners and funding. City networks also offer the opportunity for municipalities to widen their local understanding of what sustainable development means, moving beyond a purely environmental and ecologically-focused approach to one that simultaneously addresses issues of wellbeing, equity and justice.

However, city networks are not without their limitations. They can create policy “lock-ins” and end up creating further separation between cities that are part of networks (and have access to their benefits) and those that do not. Though these partnerships provide resources, they have also been criticized for perpetuating “lock-ins”, or adaptation and development solutions that promote path dependency on a particular (‘green’) approach or technology (Acuto and Rayner 2016). In addition, initiatives that rely on private partners can form additional lock-ins that ensure the use and necessity of private resources and finances for years to come. Whether this becomes the case with the vogue for Smart Cities is still moot. Such a reliance on private or nonprofit entities might preclude radical climate or sustainable development practices as cities must operate within the realities of a global neo-liberal economy where needed resources are privatized. Additionally, there is the problem of exclusivity. Some city networks offer membership by invitation, which is usually based on a predisposition of municipal leaders toward climate action, potentially leaving behind cities that have a lot to learn from network membership, but due to political, financial or other constraints, do not yet have much to show. There is already a tendency for innovative climate initiatives to cluster in certain global cities while other city network members remain rather unengaged, potentially lacking the incentives and resources needed to implement actions (Gordon 2013).

The growth and proliferation of city networks for inter-city sharing around climate action and sustainable development offer numerous tangible benefits to member cities. As these networks continue to emerge and flourish on the global international political stage, they will need to address the same concerns traditional intergovernmental groups and governments must face, in particular improving inclusion and efficacy. One way to do this would be to embrace a broader conception of sustainable development as Castán Broto and Westman (2016 p 14) note: “Just sustainabilities cannot betray the transformative intent that inspires it. Bringing the four principles simultaneously forces practitioners to move towards such transformation, away from comfort zones and received environmental policy wisdom.”

Christina Schlegel and Julian Agyeman

Christina Schlegel is an MA candidate in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University.


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