Cities as custodians of human rights and social value

This piece is co-authored by Annabel Short and Dr. Eime Tobari.


This weekend, heads of governments will meet for the G20 summit in Rome, which precedes the COP 26 climate change conference in Glasgow. To tackle climate change at the pace and the scale needed, while also reducing the deep socio-economic inequalities that have been heightened by the COVID pandemic, heads of state from represented countries will discuss international cooperation and are expected to confirm new commitments on their contributions.


Ultimately, however, those commitments will have to be implemented at local levels. In their communique earlier this year, the “Urban 20” group of cities emphasized that:

“Mayors and Governors are leading the frontline response to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate emergency. How [G20] leaders direct COVID-19 recovery funding is the most significant challenge of any government’s commitment to these agendas.”

For cities to rise to this occasion, national governments will have to channel resources in their direction, as the U20 call emphasized. Just like national governments, local governments can be subject to corruption and to inefficiency.


Yet cities and local governments are perfectly positioned to provide strategic vision, to shape the future direction of the built environment, and to enable deep, practical collaboration at a time when this is sorely needed. They are close to their residents. They have dense, and often diverse populations. And they are placed where global flows of people, finance, and emissions meet local and context-specific realities.

Harnessing this opportunity will involve a place-based approach with long-term perspectives - taking into account the full geographical area of each city with particular attention on the most vulnerable residents, and looking beyond election cycles and “quick wins”. It will also involve adhering to human rights - which encompass civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, and apply to local as well as national governments.


Vision: Cities - large and small - and local governments can set a clear vision and guide what’s valued, in alignment with values. Vision should be owned by all stakeholders - local governments can catalyse the process of co-creation of such vision and be the custodian of the values it represents. Civil society has an important role in holding cities accountable for living up to their commitments, and for the process by which they realize them.


Cities and local governments can use multiple tools to put values into practice:

Planning and zoning: Through comprehensive and ground-up planning, cities can undo patterns of segregation, take steps to improve access to adequate and affordable housing, public transit, and services, and strengthen resilience to rising sea waters, rainfall and heat while making most of what they already have from natural, built, and social resources.

Finance: The content and process for cities’ budgets and financing mechanisms reflect their priorities: strategies can range from participatory budgeting that involves residents, to “social justice” bonds that seek to change the frame of how value in cities is measured.

Procurement: Cities are major procurers of goods and services - they can shape markets by adopting procurement criteria that align with their vision, such as diversity targets to increase market access for women and minority-owned businesses, requiring circular use of materials, and strengthening local supply chains.

Legislation: Cities’ legislative powers can strengthen accountability and scale action, for example driving action on climate by requiring reductions of emissions from buildings and other sectors, and reducing inequality by ensuring affordability and protecting tenants’ rights.

Projects: As owners of land, buildings and infrastructure – from government offices, to cultural institutions and libraries, to schools, to transit systems – cities can maximise environmental and social outcomes throughout the full project lifecycle, ensure responsible construction practices on site and through supply chains, expand access to public space, and inspire others to follow suit.


Mayors and city governments face immense challenges. Those challenges are often complex, even wicked, and require partnerships and place-specific strategies to align interest and drive innovation. With their network and local knowledge, local governments are best positioned to lead collaboration with national governments, citizens, unions and industry. Increasing global connectivity between cities means learning from one another is getting easier. Together they can tackle global issues locally to set the world on a more just and sustainable trajectory.


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More from Annabel:

More from Eime:

And more on the role of cities: