Why the world needs a Metropolitan Compact

A new vision for the future of sustainability.
The world is now home to more than 1,000 metropolitan areas of 500,000 inhabitants or more — altogether, more than 500 million people and counting. (Vlastas/Shutterstock)

A generation ago, the United Nations launched the Global Compact, an effort to connect sustainability with private-sector entrepreneurism. Today, it is the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, involving more than 12,000 signatories from over 160 countries.

The creation of the Global Compact was a landmark event in that it signalled the international community’s recognition of the need for a broad-based, multi-stakeholder approach to sustainability. Using that idea, we are now calling for new global recognition of one of the most powerful trends shaping worldwide systems today: metropolitanization. We call this new vision the Metropolitan Compact.

While cities have increasingly moved to the top of the international agenda in recent years, it is critical today that we move beyond a generic understanding of “urbanization”. Rather, all parties involved in the push toward sustainable cities need to grasp the changing priorities brought about by how exactly the world is urbanizing. Far more rapidly than expected, the “century of the city” has turned into the “metropolitan century” — and this combined urban, digital, societal and economic phenomenon is changing the very rules of urbanization.

According to research to be published by the Inter-American Development Bank and UN-Habitat later this year, the world is now home to more than 1,000 metropolitan areas of 500,000 inhabitants or more — altogether, more than 500 million people and counting. Metropolitan issues thus have become a universal feature of development and a matter of interest for all. Yet we still have no overarching way of talking about or planning around the complexities, contradictions and opportunities of metro areas.

[See: Six regions in England to vote for ‘metro mayors’]

Metropolitan regions are cities without boundaries — complex, borderless agglomerations where key issues include hubs, nodes, clusters, networks, agility, mobility and more. Since the end of the 1990s and the creation of the Greater London Authority, major cities across the globe have launched new programmes to become “greater”, too, as illustrated by the Greater Paris international consultation in 2008 or the Greater Moscow international competition in 2011.

Metropolitan trends are redesigning cityscapes across the globe. Nairobi has become Greater Nairobi. Cities in Colombia are building their future as integrated metropolitan areas, such as Bucaramanga, the capital of Santander state. In Indonesia, a comprehensive national metropolitan framework has been shaping the country’s development since the late 2000s. In Australia, Melbourne and Sydney are working to shape their own metropolitan vision and strategies.

In creative Netherlands, different metropolitan schemes compete in the former Randstad, such as the real-estate-driven Holland Metropole or Amsterdam’s “centred metro” strategy. In Morocco, Casablanca has become Greater Casablanca and looks at its future as a growing urban system that stretches far beyond the ancient medina and the city core.

[See: In a fractured metro area, New York’s Regional Plan Association finds common ground]

Meanwhile, “megaregions” are emerging as clusters of metropolitan areas, with notable examples in the United States, China and Japan. Research done by the Mori Foundation and released in 2015 by the Grand Paris Alliance showcased Tokyo as the world’s largest urban entity by 2030, with an estimated 38 million inhabitants. That will be closely followed by the Delhi urban system, with 36 million.

Metropolitan revolution

Can we turn these metropolitan trends into a new golden age by providing corresponding solutions? Currently, such efforts remain weak compared to the magnitude of the phenomenon.

Pioneering initiatives such as the World Bank’s Global Lab on Metropolitan Strategic Planning, launched in 2013, are now nearly extinct. At MIT, a Metro Lab was launched in 2015, offering valuable two-week courses each year, yet these remain far from an established discipline.

[See: In the Montréal area, 82 municipalities begin to think and act as one]

Amsterdam has created a dedicated institute for metropolitan solutions known as AMS, but it openly focuses on elite cooperation among a select number of wealthy and tech-heavy places. In Berlin, a Metropolitan Solutions convention and expo launched a few years ago, but this high-quality meeting place has yet to become a catalyst for new ideas.

Metropolises are springing up seemingly everywhere today, but the eponymous network born in the 1980s continues to struggle to find direction after a decade-long decline — although Metropolis’s next congress, taking place this week in Montréal, does show some signs of new vitality. Other metropolitan networks such as RAMA, the Network of Metropolitan Areas of the Americas, have simply failed before they even got off the ground.

[See: Four challenges to metropolitan governance]

Far from the imagery offered in branding by today’s global cities, the reality is that metro systems are still in their infancy. They are dynamic but often brutally unfair, promising but uncertain. They question conventions around planning, design, landscaping, engineering, mobility and architecture, even while environmental and climate concerns rage and the gap between low- and high-tech communities — or inequality generally — grows rapidly.

The vision for a global Metropolitan Compact starts with a call for action based on strengthened connections between government, civil society, industry, academia and media. These five sectors constitute the basis of the compact’s multi-stakeholder approach. It builds on the recognition of a new generation of civil society platforms and advocacy efforts such as the General Assembly of Partners that came out of last year’s Habitat III process, or the World Urban Campaign.

A view of Europe from the International Space Station, November 2016. This photo shows Paris, London, as well as metro areas in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. (Thomas Pesquet/European Space Agency)

The Metropolitan Compact calls for metropolitan authorities and civil society stakeholders to take the lead and cooperate toward the concrete implementation of global sustainability agreements, starting with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the New Urban Agenda, two touchstone global development agreements adopted in the past two years. The compact also acknowledges the role of national levels of governments in elaborating long-term strategic plans and solving development issues in metropolitan areas, as they cannot be separated from a nation’s strategic agendas.

[See: Habitat III and metropolitan governance: Time to act]

The compact is meant to be a driver for such a discussion, and to connect the dots among the numerous and often competing initiatives and programmes dealing with “urban” matters. Rising inequalities and rising poverty levels are not a consequence of metropolitan trends but are inherently part of them.

Concerns involving urban health, food, security and cybersecurity, as well as the looming challenges of environment and economy won’t be solved by relying solely on the start-up economy, as it tends to over-value city cores and plays against balanced urban systems. See the case of San Francisco: While Silicon Valley companies are branding their solutions to change the planet, their employees and connected start-ups are struggling to live, work and play downtown, fuelling a real estate bubble and creating unaffordable access to the city.

Instead, the Metropolitan Compact is about valuing the daily champions of metropolitan integration. That includes suburban, rural and natural areas as zones of social innovation that can attract and fix talents, jobs, families. It connects corporate social responsibility and social-impact investments with change-agent networks to nurture collaborative infrastructure investments around mobility, energy, urban services, IT and more.

Implementing the compact

There are already notable models to draw upon. In Casablanca, the E-Douar (or E-Village) project is flourishing in the fringes of the metropolitan area. It is led by engineers, architects, city leaders and villagers seeking to create public facilities and housing combined with low-cost natural construction material, broadband Internet, co-working and co-living spaces, and reusable energy and water. Out of one pilot project, several dozen E-Douar units are now under construction.

“Far from the imagery offered in branding by today’s global cities, the reality is that metro systems are still in their infancy. They are dynamic but often brutally unfair, promising but uncertain.”

The Metropolitan Compact also calls for creating and expanding metropolitan skills and for developing a metropolitan discipline in universities, research centres, think tanks to rejuvenate urban policies and strategies. Two notable examples of the broad-based approach needed come from Russia: in the work carried out by the Moscow Urban Forum or, 3,000 km east, in the academic city of Tomsk, where universities cooperate with the municipal and regional governments, private companies as well as with local communities to implement innovative urban programmes. Likewise, a key sustainability project in Paris Marne-la-Vallée is co-led by research institutions and companies, meant to train the next generation of French city designers.

[See: How Baltimore is using the Sustainable Development Goals to make a more just city]

The U. S. city of Baltimore has pioneered an innovative, multi-stakeholder initiative that illustrates the principles reflected in the Metropolitan Compact. In 2015, as part of a programme called the USA Sustainable Cities Initiative, it was selected as one of three U. S. cities to pilot implementation of the SDGs, in particular to develop citywide targets and strategies to achieve the SDGs. The Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance and the University of Baltimore took the lead to build the infrastructure needed for multi-sector stakeholders to provide substantive, locally grounded input into the initiative to establish quantitative targets for sustainable development in the city.

In the Greater Paris area context, the Grand Paris Alliance for Metropolitan Development, together with business, academic, charity and community-led organizations, is calling for a comprehensive strategy to cover the 10 million-plus inhabitants in this metropolitan area, which combines wealthy global economic engines along with some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Europe.

In the dense and multilayered institutional context of that global metropolis, the Metropolitan Compact would be a multi-party consensus-building vehicle: an instrument to connect a world-class system of corporate social responsibility with local real estate and infrastructure development projects.

[See: The ‘Grand Paris’ era begins]

The compact is a catalyst to meet an increasingly metropolitan world. It aims to connect broad global frameworks and localized metropolitan coalitions. It offers a better way to channel the energy of communities into the global agenda and to transform global opportunities as drivers for inclusive development.

Next steps

So where do we start? We suggest taking advantage of the period leading up to the next World Urban Forum, which is set to take place in Kuala Lumpur in February. For instance, the Metropolitan Compact should be part of the discussion of the next Urban Thinkers Campuses — in Dubai for the next World Habitat Day, say, and in Strasbourg on the topic of smart metropolises.

From our side, we will seek to convene the constituent groups of the General Assembly of Partners, starting with the professionals grouping, to nurture and broadly test the concept. We also will deepen the discussion within our organizations and their partners from the business sector and local governments in Baltimore, Casablanca, Paris and beyond. And we will promote the Metropolitan Compact at the next summit of the U. N. Global Compact, in September.

With little more than 5,000 days to meet the 17 SDGs by the 2030 deadline, challenging the status quo and the business-as-usual mindset is not enough. The SDGs will not be won or lost soly in cities — but in the metropolises that encompass them.

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Nicolas J.A. Buchoud

Nicolas J. A. Buchoud is the president of the Grand Paris Alliance for Metropolitan Development, a not-for-profit think tank established in Paris in 2011. He is also the newly elected president of the General Assembly of Partners (GAP) Professionals constituent group.

A former Senior advisor for urban affairs and climate change to the President of Paris Ile de France Region and deputy chief of staff of a city mayor in the Paris region, he has also worked as the director of a French national urban regeneration project in a Paris low-income suburban area and as an expert with the French State banking institution Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations.

He is a partner at Renaissance Urbaine, a Paris-based strategic advisory company, an expert at the Siberian Institute for Future, and the director of the Center for Urban Research and Regional Development at the federal Tomsk State University.

Aawatif Hayar

Aawatif Hayar is the chair of Casablanca Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers’ Core Smart Cities project. She was selected in 2015 by the African Innovation Foundation as one of the top 10 innovative African women. A professor at University Hassan II in Casablanca, she is also the co-founder of E-Madina, Casablanca and Greater Casablanca’s smart-city cluster. She is currently leading R&D projects in smart cities with the City of Casablanca, CNRST, Lydec, GIZ and HBS Foundation. She went back to her home town to engage in its development after a career in France as a researcher in electronics and broadband signal technologies.

Ivan Sascha Sheehan

Ivan Sascha Sheehan is associate professor and programme director at the School of Public and International Affairs, University of Baltimore, Maryland.

A recipient of the 2015 President’s Faculty Award for outstanding contributions related to teaching, research and service in support of the university’s mission, Sheehan has twice been elected president of the College of Public Affairs Faculty Senate. In 2016, Sheehan was a recipient of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents Award for excellence in mentoring. 

He has played a leading role in shaping and managing the Baltimore SDG Executive Team and in monitoring the Baltimore SDG report.

Lan-Phuong Phan

Lan-Phuong Phan is the co-founder of Renaissance Urbaine strategic advisory.

A former student of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, she holds a PhD in German history and philosophy in the age of the Enlightenments, and a PhD in comparative innovative pedagogical theories in 19th century France and Germany. She has been an interpreter in Vietnamese, French and German for the Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh. A specialist of cross-cultural issues, she has devoted a large art of her career to teach in low-income public schools in the Paris region, developing innovative tools for kids and students with special education needs. She is a recipient of the Pierre Grappin Prize, granted for outstanding action in promoting French-German scientific cooperation in the field of human science.