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City Partnerships Tackle Global Problems

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9 September 2016

The Dutch city of Utrecht wanted to plant a new forest as a contribution to the global environment. Trouble was, it didn’t have the space.

So it did the next best thing. Utrecht helped plant a forest in its (then) sister city, León, in Nicaragua. Between 2009 and 2015, 120 farmers planted 500,000 trees on about 500 hectares of land, receiving financial and technical support from the Netherlands. As well as the environmental benefits of the forest – such as preventing soil erosion – it has become a source of income. As well as the trees, cacao plants were planted, and 250 bee hives were set up as a faster source of income for the farmers; the trees will only begin to provide hardwood for sale in around 30 years.

“It’s the same air we breathe. It’s one world, and we want to live with good air quality and a good environment,” said Desiree van de Ven, Coordinator for international affairs in the Municipality of Utrecht. “The Dutch are very good at planning; the people in Nicaragua are very good at executing and doing things. And we have a mutual interest.”

City-to-city cooperation is booming, and also going through changes. The town-twinning movement gathered speed in Europe after World War II, partly motivated by the desire to bring together cities from countries that had been at war. Twin towns concentrated at first on cultural and educational exchanges.

Later the movement widened to include global links, and the focus has expanded. Environmental problems are proving an increasingly fruitful area for cooperation, as cities worldwide are confronted by global warming. They are finding that – whatever the differences in geography and economic structure – solutions developed in one place can be applied elsewhere.



Sister cities such as Hamburg in Germany and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania have been partnering in solid waste management. Their cooperation began with technical support, and then led to an organic waste composting plant in Dar es Salaam, which reduces groundwater contamination and produces fertilizer. Though Hamburg funded the project at first, the cities now co-finance it, strengthening the ownership by Dar es Salaam’s city council.

Bonn in Germany and Bolivian capital La Paz became sister cities in 1997, with early collaboration focussed on activities such as cultural and youth exchange. Gradually the emphasis changed. “The city of Bonn decided at a very early stage to have municipal partnerships dealing with municipal topics that are relevant for municipalities,” said Verena Schwarte, International Affairs and Protocol Department, City of Bonn.

The cities look very different: Bonn is in the German lowlands, just 64 metres above sea level; La Paz, in the Andes, is the world’s highest capital city, with an elevation of 3,650 metres. But they have some problems in common. Bonn gets flooded by the Rhine and other smaller rivers. La Paz suffers from floods and landslides after rainstorms. In both cases, one of the ultimate causes is global warming.

Bonn, like other German cities, has developed a plan to combat climate change, and now gets half its electric power supplied by its municipal energy provider from renewable sources. So it has helped La Paz to develop plans for waste management and sustainable energy. This has led to pilot projects that put solar energy in public schools and the municipal government’s offices. On 30 May, the cities signed a new three-year project to improve eco-efficiency and resilience in the face of climate change.

“We have different conditions, but the problems are the same,” said Mariana Daza von Boeck, Secretariat of Environment for La Paz. “The temperature is rising, and maybe the consequences will be different in other cities. But the solutions globally are the same: reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Exchanges between the two local governments also result in new ideas. When the mayor of La Paz visited Germany to sign the eco-efficiency agreement, Bonn’s transport committee quizzed him about a cable car system used for public transport in La Paz – an idea that Bonn has been considering.

Bonn officials have also been impressed by a drive to boost government participation by La Paz citizens. For example, a certain amount of the city budget is allocated to different districts, where residents then decide how to spend it. “That is avant-garde for a German municipality,” said Schwarte. “Our council members were really impressed. Bonn has online platforms for suggestions from citizens and a council committee for citizens' requests, but nothing that goes as far as La Paz.”

There’s potential for wider forms of exchange that go beyond the traditional one-on-one arrangements of sister cities. Platforma, the European Commission’s platform for local development, has developed a system to match global towns and regions that have a problem with other places or experts that might have a solution. Utrecht is keen to share its knowledge with cities beyond León that have similar values, said van de Ven. “The city of Utrecht puts effort into healthy urban living,” she said. “We want to cooperate with like-minded cities.”

In the meantime, Utrecht is getting a forest of its very own. “Though we didn’t have the space to create a forest in Utrecht, people said: ‘If you plant a forest in León, we want one in Utrecht too’,” she said. “It will be just two acres, and people from León will come and help us to create it and to maintain it. So we learn from each other.”


Public Group on Urban Development

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This collaborative piece was drafted by Sebastian Moffett, with input from Sophie Lainé from DEVCO and support from the Coordination Team

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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