As cities up their game on climate action, they look to tap the expertise of new allies: university-based urban leadership centres whose goals include training future urban leaders.
“I believe that a movement of academics, students and city governments can make some pretty profound and needed change,” says David Miller, former chairman of C40, a global network of mayors tackling the climate crisis. “It’s a very exciting moment.” The former Toronto mayor now leads C40’s Centre for Urban Climate Policy and Economy.
The imperative to act is not lost on the world’s urban leaders. Cities worldwide consume 78% of the world’s energy and produce more than 60% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations, but are also potential change-makers in the global campaign for a sustainable future.
Positioned to assist cities in their emerging role are campus-based urban researchers and students.
About 45 universities worldwide have these specialized centres, estimates Karen Chapple, appointed last year as the inaugural director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto. “There is something about the urban institute as a living laboratory which is quite unique, so in that way we have a shared ethos across all 45 [centres],” she says.
Three institutes – the LSE Cities centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, and U of T’s School of Cities – illustrate the trend for academics to work with cities to solve complex issues like climate, migration and social inequity.
“Cities today are on the front line of profound man-made disasters,” says LSE Cities director Ricky Burdett. “Mayors have to respond in a very quick way ... their exposure to dramatic change has never been as tangible as it is now.”
LSE Cities, one of the oldest institutes, began its activities in 1999 and became a research centre in 2010, combining interdisciplinary research, teaching and outreach. For example, its Master of Science in City Design and Social Science enrols students from various academic disciplines who work on specific projects in London from the perspective of sustainability, architecture and design.
Cities today are on the front line of profound man-made disasters. Mayors have to respond in a very quick way ... their exposure to dramatic change has never been as tangible as it is now.
–LSE Cities director Ricky Burdett
In 2016, LSE Cities added an Executive Master of Science in Cities, with in-person and virtual learning over 18 months, for mid-career urban professionals (including C40 mayors) who are committed to leading large-scale efforts to address climate action through an evidence-based approach. Economic inequality and the climate crisis are top concerns, says program co-director Savvas Verdis. “Cities are very good at crystalizing these challenges that are global in nature into very local problems,” he says. “Mayors are, unfortunately, being asked to do a lot of the fire-fighting.”
Among its diverse activities, LSE Cities offers an academic course for city leaders to craft child-friendly policies. In addition, Burdett and other faculty members directly advise cities, including a recent consultation with Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa on its rapid urbanization challenges.
Collaboration defines many of the global programs. In 2021, Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, announced a US$150-million commitment to expand the Bloomberg Harvard [University] City Leadership Initiative, a training program for mayors established in 2016. The donation also supports a university-wide cities centre for leadership and governance and endowed faculty appointments The Bloomberg Harvard program provides an all-expenses-paid executive education experience for 40 mayors annually from around the world.
“All global problems have a local impact, and we cannot afford to wait for national or international bodies to come up with the solutions,” says Jorrit de Jong, director of the Bloomberg Center for Cities and faculty co-chair of the Bloomberg Harvard program. “The problems are so urgent that you are held accountable by local residents; there are levers that local leaders can use that they are not always aware of.”
Mike Savage, mayor of Halifax Regional Municipality, was one of three Canadian mayors in the 2018 class. “A lot of that stuff that we learned informed the way we have governed since we have gotten back to our cities,” he says. One lesson he learned was how to develop a public narrative as a tool to engage stakeholders on city priorities, such as Halifax’s pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
I hope current leaders will feel better equipped to tackle problems that seem insurmountable.
–Jorrit de Jong, director of the Bloomberg Center for Cities
In the year-long experience, with several days of in-class learning followed by virtual seminars, mayors must identify a local problem to solve. For Savage, it was how to bring big infrastructure projects to fruition with public support. He and two senior city officials had access to Harvard faculty, who advised on policy implementation, and the assistance of a Bloomberg Harvard–sponsored graduate student on a three-month summer fellowship with the city.
With such support, says de Jong, “I hope current leaders will feel better equipped to tackle problems that seem insurmountable.”
The Bloomberg Harvard program also looks to recruit future civic leaders, with a new two-year, paid fellowship for recent graduates to work with mayors on their priorities. “We hope to create a talent pipeline of students who had not thought about going into city government,” says de Jong.
Like its counterparts, U of T’s School of Cities emphasizes knowledge dissemination and urban problem-solving. But it differs from others in having no dedicated faculty. Instead, the School of Cities funds researchers from multiple disciplines. For its first grant, it mobilized 45 academics from 20 departments to explore climate justice issues. “We were designed to crosscut many different departments,” says Chapple. Linking academia and the community is key. She says researchers are expected to “make sure your research project is useful to people on the ground working on climate and justice issues,” with community stakeholders involved in the design of research.
No less important is nurturing new talent. Clarence Qian, with graduate degrees in architecture (Waterloo) and business (Toronto), spent his year as a 2021 Urban Leadership Fellow examining the potential of mass timber construction to contribute to sustainable, affordable residential housing. This year, while completing his business studies, he signed up for the School of Cities’ graduate multidisciplinary urban project, which brings together students from various academic disciplines to work on an urban problem.
Qian and his team members examined how to add laneway homes, duplexes and triplexes to the traditional mix of residential housing options.
“In my MBA, we talk about numbers every day,” he says. “For urban issues, it is never just one aspect; for my [multidisciplinary] project, I met others from different perspectives.”
Qian, now director of development at Distrikt real estate developers, sees his future in cities. “My passion is trying to make the city of Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area a better place for people to live.”
That’s promising for urban advocates like C40’s Miller.
“It is my hope that universities that are making such an effort to link directly with city governments can spark that [youth] interest into a real fire of passion for solutions to our society’s challenges,” he says.