island during golden hour

No city is an island

Originally posted in Atlantic Cities’ blog (August 2014)

Cooperation has become, in EU jargon, an unavoidable word. At the same time, together with the progression made by cohesion policy, the urban dimension has turned the hottest point in the European agenda. So even if the crisis makes individual strategies more tempting, the time has come to give a thorough reflection about the means and opportunities for fruitful collaboration among cities.

Which is the current shape of cooperation between cities? How can we identify it? Answering these questions, several possibilities arise:

  • Twinning or bilateral agreements. Sister cities are two local authorities that decide to work together as they feel they are linked by diverse reasons, such as historic ties, similar challenges or parallel goals.
  • Partnerships. In a larger number, some cities can decide to join efforts towards a shared target, either searching for complementary funding (i.e. European projects) or co-financing common developments.
  • Networks. While the partnerships are thought for the short and mid-terms, cities can also decide to institutionalise cooperation on a longer stand. The initiative can be top-down from national or supranational levels (i.e. the Covenant of Mayors or the Civitas national associations) or bottom-up, from the cities themselves (i.e. the Conference of Atlantic Arc Cities, the Union of Baltic Cities)

Political, economic and even cultural reasons can drive the cooperation actions. However, a more strategic approach is essential so as to get the most of a collaborative strategy at an international level. Thus, three factors must be taken into account:

  • Setting clear objectives, that fit into the SMART requirements
  • Planning ahead so as to search for an efficient distribution of resources
  • Ensuring continuous feedback, both to international partners and locally to all city departments, the business sector, the civil society and, above all, citizens.

So, what is in for cities when cooperating? For this question, there are as many answers as objectives can be pursued. In general terms, cooperation is an engine for these results:

  • Mutual learning: Cities that cooperate receive inputs that are not available otherwise
  • Scale economies and synergies: Achieving a critical mass towards the completion of objectives by pooling resources
  • Visibility: In a global scale, relations are fundamental to enter the “who’s who” of cities
  • Validation: New or controversial policies can be better understood if invested of the cooperation label and benefits

Cooperation is entailed with complexity. But it is all about riding the learning curve.

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