World Cities Day 2023

Today (October 31) is World Cities Day – an annual day led by the United Nations that recognises the critical role of cities within the global economy. This year, the specific theme is about how we can finance a sustainable urban future for all. 

We know the global economic outlook remains fragile amid a convergence of crises that are threatening to further reverse progress delivering the Sustainable Development Goals. It is essential we understand how important it is that we unlock transformative investment in our cities and urban areas, including here in the UK.

As a leader of one of our major cities, my heart sinks whenever towns and cities are pitted against each other, as seen by recent statements from the Prime Minister. It becomes a zero-sum game, when in fact the value and importance of both are essential for the long-term strength and resilience of our country.

In September, Core Cities UK and the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) published the final recommendations of the UK Urban Futures Commission, work that ran across the year and was co-chaired by myself and the RSA Chief Executive, Andy Haldane.

In our report, we argue that cities are the best answer to the environmental, social and economic challenges that we face. Our analysis shows that with the right investment in our major cities we can generate an extra £100 billion each year, lift over a million people out of poverty and increase healthy life expectancy by up to eight years. As part of this, investing in the right things can allow cities to prepare for the future.

A recent National Infrastructure Commission report found that the Bristol region would need a truly effective mass transit system to help grow the size and productivity and help rebalance the country’s economic geography as well. With only half of Bristol’s population can currently reach the centre of the city by public transport within 30 minutes – which it said was worse than for many European cities of a comparable size.

But critically, this does not just benefit the cities. This is about towns and cities working together as complimentary places within a wider system. Recent evidence from the Centre for Cities proves that where towns are more heavily interconnected with their nearby cities then incomes in that town are on average higher. 

As the British Council has written, “Cities… are meeting points for goods, people and ideas. They are attractors and connectors in an increasingly networked world”. Bristol looks to cities around the world to understand what systems they’re part of, and to see how we can learn from each other. Increasingly we are collaborating so the voices of city leaders are heard in global frameworks and on issues where city leaders are often on the front line – the climate emergency and migration for example.

Cities are where we win or lose the fight to tackle the climate emergency. It’s the characteristics of cities that allow them to be places of mass behaviour change – their reach, their size, their density and their capacity for reinvention. Through our cities, we can actually plan to do more, for more people, with less. We can increase the efficiency of more human lives more quickly than through any other form of human organization. cities can act directly and work collaboratively, transcending national borders and politics, combining thinking and practice to focus on residents needs.

In Bristol we have been central in working relationships between cities nationally and internationally. We have supported the growth of 3Ci (the Cities Climate Investment Commission), who work with UK city and place-based leaders and the private finance sector to accelerate net zero investment including through developing a national pipeline of net zero and green projects and testing investment models in net zero neighbourhood demonstrators. Initial research identified over £200 billion of net zero investment potential across its founding members, the 12 largest cities in the UK alone including Bristol. We have also actively participated in COP meetings over the years, more recently being one of the most present UK voices due to the lack of engagement by national government. Without the presence of cities and the working relationships they promote, COP will not succeed.

Bristol was recently invited to join the UK delegation in the G7 Urban7 (U7) process, focusing on climate and chaired in 2023 by Japan. The Japanese Presidency understands that the world will not develop effective policies or activities to face the climate emergency, without cities’ inputs. Our city sat alongside governments from all G7 countries, sharing information on climate action and discussing collaboration. The report will be launched at COP28, where, for the first time, there will be a Local Climate Action Summit, a formal Summit designed to bring subnational leaders into the COP program and process. It is hosted by the COP28 Presidency and Bloomberg Philanthropies, and I received an invitation because of Bristol’s work on climate leadership and on city voices being heard in global negotiations.

For the last two years, I also represented Bristol and wider local government as Chair of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) City Regions Board.  As I’ve now finished in my role as Chair, I look back at the varied and good work that has been carried out, but I’m also very aware of the scale of the challenge cities face, and the ambition and resource required to deliver the solution.

As Mayor, I will continue to advocate for cities, calling on the Government and on international institutions to work with us to secure the investment, resources and powers needed to make them better places for all people.