New York City’s Role as an International Leader Advancing Equity
The Importance of the Global City
In 1991 the Swedish sociologist and Columbia professor Saskia Sassen wrote the seminal work The Global City, arguing that large metropolises like New York, Tokyo, and London are redefining the modern world and propelling the global economy. While still true thirty years later, the global financial crisis of 2008–2011 and COVID-19 exacerbated inequality in global cities.
In New York, as in other global cities, the economic recovery has been uneven. Low-income New Yorkers, especially those of color, continue to grapple with the effects of environmental racism and food deserts, issues that affected our communities before the pandemic. Mayor Eric Adams, who assumed office less than a month ago, has an opportunity to address these issues and ensure New York is a leader in international affairs while simultaneously advancing gender and racial justice. The preponderance of diverse economic industries, strong social networks, and grassroots activism provide the foundation for New York and other global cities to thrive. And crucially, against the context of an increase in nationalism in major countries such as China, France, Russia, and indeed, the United States, the importance of municipal-level leadership in addressing transnational challenges has become more critical than at any point in recent history.
Leading at the Local Level to Spur Global Change
Global cities are leveraging their knowledge exchange, economic might, and multiculturalism to lead on transnational issues. New York’s contributions to city diplomacy make it uniquely positioned to lead on climate change as well as food policy.
The most pressing global public policy issues, such as climate change and food security, are not confined to a select number of cities. A number of global cities are pursuing covenants, resolutions, and Memoranda of Understanding to address issues like climate change, public safety, and economic growth. These agreements are implemented through local government policies and at times supported by global philanthropic organizations such as Bloomberg Philanthropies who provide funding to achieve policy goals. Voluntary local reviews are essential to compelling municipal governments to act on their commitments. New York City was a pioneer in reporting its local progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals through the 2019 Voluntary Local Review Declaration. Today, 330 local governments are voluntarily reporting their progress achieving sustainable development goals. Building on this requires deeper linkages between international networks and community based groups as well as mayors’ enhancing prior commitments. In the context of a recovery from COVID-19, global cities should prioritize international cooperation that tackles inequality.
Cities are on the front lines of cutting edge public policy and the source of knowledge exchange related to transnational issues. Mayor Bloomberg was influential in helping launch the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a model for addressing climate change at the local level. Mayors in this multifaceted network have signed a number of high-impact declarations to mitigate and adapt to climate change, but the network remains driven by municipal leaders who are sometimes removed from the most acute effects of climate change. In New York, C40 and Mayor Adams should partner with New York’s Community Boards so that the boards can provide a bottom-up approach to tackling climate change. This will also help the local advisory boards form linkages with global networks. After two devastating hurricanes in less than 10 years, New Yorkers know that extreme weather events will continue to occur, and low-income and middle-class New Yorkers are often most affected. According to a recent New York City environmental health report, Black New Yorkers are twice as likely to die from heat stress as their white neighbors. In developing global municipal declarations to address climate change, the city of New York should take the lead in drafting declarations to incorporate language that specifically addresses racial inequality.
Mayor Adams has written about his path to a plant-based lifestyle and helped the city institute meatless Mondays in New York’s public schools. He is forward leaning on the issue and New York is ahead of the curve compared to most cities in the United States. As a result, New York can take its leadership on this issue to the international level. While C40 has a high level declaration on promoting healthy food in cities, the network has not prioritized the issue. Healthy food policy advocates are better served supporting the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFF). The MUFF hosts an annual forum for mayors of signatory cities to convene and exchange best practices on developing sustainable food systems. In order to further advance the issue internationally, mayors should enhance their commitments with voluntary annual local reviews to demonstrate municipal-level progress on supporting sustainable food systems. This accountability mechanism can spur innovative policies through knowledge-sharing. Enhanced commitments for sustainable food systems should include language supporting urban farming specifically in immigrant communities so that global cities are facilitating healthy food systems in our most underserved neighborhoods.
Advancing international cooperation between cities allows for a sustained cross-cultural dialogue on important issues when national-level dialogue sputters. Still, we must also acknowledge that each country and global city has its own unique culture and context. Solutions in Shanghai may not apply in New York. Global cities should seek to lead internationally on the policy priorities of their municipal governments, such as climate change, food policy, or even public safety. Following the global effects of COVID-19, many cities would be well-suited to negotiate international agreements that directly advance equity for low-income citizens. This will help ensure they are promoting socially just urban governance and will support the continued vitality of global cities.
Integrating Global Philanthropic Organizations with Global Cities
Global philanthropy provides a unique insight into transnational challenges while devoting resources to promote equity in marginalized communities. Philanthropic organizations are often removed from the geopolitical considerations that exist in national governments. Global philanthropic organizations also have the resources to tackle the most urgent issues facing our cities. While there’s a growing recognition of the importance of city diplomacy, it’s not without its challenges. A recent global survey of 47 cities found that 78 percent of city officials saw inadequate funding as a barrier to city diplomacy. This is where global philanthropy can fill the gap.
The Ford Foundation’s cities and states; civic engagement and government; and gender, racial, and ethnic justice grant-making programs provide funding to community organizations advancing social justice. This programming strengthens democracy, supporting organizations in New York as well as other large cities across the United States and abroad. With this funding, local community groups are able to pilot innovative policies and practices advancing equity in a manner that fuels global change. Local Progress, a grantee of the Foundation, is one network of policy leaders that protects and promotes affordable housing. In New York, the group advances protections against evictions through offering free services, including legal counsel, to many Black and brown New Yorkers.
The Open Society Foundation (OSF) complements the work of municipal governments in 120 different countries. The OSF network funds organizations such as the International Domestic Workers Federation, which organizes to protect and advance domestic and household workers’ rights worldwide, work that is often gendered and that disproportionately involves women. The direct financial support to these community groups supports people’s livelihoods and, in working with constituents in New York and abroad, helps strengthen international cooperation through a solidarity movement.
The Mayor’s Office of International Affairs can leverage lessons learned from community based organizations, and the philanthropic groups that fund them, to share best practices globally. These community based organizations often implement innovative policies and act more nimbly than government agencies.
Municipal governments can use their convening and soft power to encourage global philanthropy to direct resources towards community based organizations working on municipal issues, such as climate change, which exist across countries.
Academia as a Institution to Promote Cultural Exchanges Abroad
New York City should leverage academic institutions to partner with other global cities, promote local cultural exchange, and develop a new generation of public policy leaders. There are approximately 75 four-year colleges, universities, art schools, and theological seminaries in New York City, a dozen of which are City Universities of New York (CUNY). Because many CUNY students are first-generation Americans, they are adept at promoting cross-cultural understanding as they have had to reconcile their heritage cultures with American culture for much of their lives. Prominent private universities such as Columbia University and New York University offer a plethora of study abroad programs, but fewer opportunities exist for students studying at CUNYs.
My experience studying in Brazil with CUNY Hunter ultimately led me to receive a scholarship to Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs so that I could become a U.S. diplomat. I have since served across Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and at the United Nations. CUNY can partner with New York’s private sector and donor class to provide scholarships to public policy students so they learn about public policies other cities implement to address their urban challenges. This would promote cultural exchanges, advance equity, and set the foundation for a cohort of young New Yorkers to serve as public policy leaders. In return for CUNY public policy scholarships for students to study abroad, each student should commit to a year of public service in New York City upon graduation so that they can put their global knowledge to use locally.
New York as the Preeminent Global City Leading on Racial and Gender Justice
Mayor Adams can leverage his administration’s good will and the historic nature of his mayoralty to advance public policies promoting racial and gender justice globally. New York can draft an international MOU compelling municipal governments to agree to the recruitment, retention, and promotion of diverse public servants including women and people of color. The framework should encourage racial and gender data collection where culturally and legally feasible, and resolve to provide targeted professional development programming and mentorship for civil servants of color and women to support their promotion to the senior ranks of their respective departments. To ensure accountability, the MOU should include language compelling municipal governments to report back on progress made biannually. Culturally like-minded cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Bogota, London, and Johannesburg would be drawn to such an agreement and welcome the opportunity to develop a closer relationship with New York City.
New York’s dynamic economy and multiculturalism make it one of the world’s most international cities. City government can seize the opportunity to address inequality while promoting international municipal-level cooperation on critical transnational issues. Addressing inequality locally, and coordinating efforts with other global cities, can lead to a reduction of inequality across nations. Leveraging global philanthropic organizations based in New York as well as its academic institutions will ensure that the city takes full advantage of its dynamic resources to become the most equitable global city in the world.
Christian Loubeau is a U.S. diplomat on leave from the State Department, and is currently with the Ford Foundation. He graduated from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in 2013.