With a new leader, Metropolis pushes cities to learn from each other

Octavi de la Varga (center) leads the Barcelona-based staff of Metropolis, a global association of cities. (Metropolis photo)

The World Association of the Major Metropolises — better known as Metropolis — is one of the oldest and most robust networks of city leaders across the globe. And now under a new secretary general, the Barcelona-based organization is doubling down on its mission of helping the world’s cities learn from each other.

Octavi de la Varga was chosen to head the Metropolis secretariat at the association’s World Congress in Montréal last June. Five months after rising from a staff position into the top job, de la Varga is working to broaden and deepen the interactions among leaders of the organization’s 136 member cities around the world.

The cornerstone of that strategy is a set of six major projects on different topic areas. Each one is spearheaded by leaders from groups of three to five cities hoping to test new ideas and to spread the learning about what works.

The new projects are all part of a master plan adopted at the Montréal meeting. Among them are explorations of how cities can handle surplus food (New Taipei City leads that project); be more inclusive toward LGBT communities (Montevideo); develop cities more sustainably (Berlin); and understand the socio-economic impact of metropolitan airports (Barcelona). Through workshops and other methods, Metropolis hopes to extend the learning beyond the handful of cities participating in each project.

“They work, they explore, they test things, they do mappings, they do diagnosis,” de la Varga says of cities working on these projects. “They share ideas that may not just be useful for themselves, but for the entire Metropolis network.”

Metropolis, he notes, has three ways to make its global imprint: by advocating for effective metropolitan-wide attention to key issues, providing political space for debate, and enabling leaders from dramatically different cultures and contexts to exchange fresh ideas — sometimes more frankly than they can with their peers at home.

In the process, an extraordinarily broad range of issues are raised and debated across member cities, ranging from economic development to metropolitan-wide governance to how to build more affordable housing.

De la Varga sees Metropolis’ goals as aligned with the New Urban Agenda, a voluntary strategy for the future of cities agreed to by 167 countries last year at the United Nations’ Habitat III conference. Metropolis will showcase examples of how “to embrace integrated approaches to urban issues”, de la Varga says, demonstrating the ways cities can tackle numerous problems simultaneously. An issue such as mobility, for example, is connected to other concerns such as economic development, security and dealing with climate change.

Sub-sections of the organization such as Metropolis Women are also broadening the association’s focus. That network of female political and administrative leaders in local government is starting a new project on public space and gender — how the design of public space impacts women and children.

An increasingly pressing issue is the sprawling growth of metro regions where urban problems and opportunities aren’t contained to the jurisdictional boundaries of any one city. De la Varga recalls a recent Metropolis meeting in Athens, where mayors were noting that their cities represent a diminishing share of their regional populations. Some asked which constituency they need to respond to: just the people and businesses located inside their jurisdiction, or the broader metropolitan area?

De la Varga notes that this question has become a new reality worldwide, a pervasive urban governance puzzle of our time. It’s most recently become pressing in Africa, where urban populations are expanding rapidly in countries that once were overwhelmingly rural.

The Metropolis organization has five worldwide regions, each with its own secretariat — Europe (Berlin), South America (Montevideo), Africa (Dakar), Asia-Pacific (Guangzhou), and North America (Mexico City). The United States has only one city member: Atlanta.

Expanding overall membership, de la Varga notes, is one of his chief priorities. One open question is the size of cities that can be members. When Metropolis was formed in 1985, only cities with 1 million or more inhabitants could join — that was seen as a very substantial population at the time. But in today’s world, more than 500 cities meet that mark, and more than 650 will by 2030.

Metropolis’ special asset, de la Varga suggests, is opening up new ideas and stimulating reappraisals of familiar approaches. Contrasting cultures can make that kind of exchange challenging, but the dialogue itself has a way of convincing people.

De la Varga recalls chairing a meeting on city management during Habitat III with members from across the world present. At the start, a European city leader said to him, “For God’s sake, Octavi, what am I doing at this table? My way of managing things has nothing to do with the African or Asian cities here.”

But at the end of the meeting, the same person approached de la Varga with a request. “‘Oh, I want that woman from Asia (who’d just spoken) to come to my city, to speak to some of my directors’,” de la Varga remembers. “Circumstances and culture differ. But they can enrich the way we do things.”

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Neal Peirce is the founder and editor-in-chief of Citiscope. Full bio

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